[September 6, 2021] A lot can be said about the many traits we find in the best of leaders; loyalty, moral courage, accountability, etc. Conversely, much is written about destructive leader traits, those that damage those inside their organization and act as impediments to excellence.1
But among those destructive traits, which one is the most damaging? Which trait acts as an acidic factor that, if not corrected, will lead to the downfall of the organization?
While many have their ideas on this topic through their own unfortunate experiences, typically, that experience was with an overbearing boss or leader who maintained a toxic work environment. Little scientific research has been done because we rightly focus on what we need to be good leaders. Yet, there is no reason we cannot have science and experience combined to give us the most destructive leader trait.
Not unexpectedly, many senior leaders discuss this topic because they are on the lookout for leaders who may express undesirable traits. For example, narcissistic leaders can be challenging to identify if one does not know the revealing signs. Recently one study identified this most destructive leader trait as “hostility.”2 The authors postulate that leader hostility was closely associated with low job satisfaction and anxiety in workers.
Using senior leader experiences, most would tell us that “arrogance” is the most destructive trait because it leads to a person’s very perverse and unpredictable behavior. Arrogance – having excessive pride in oneself and contempt for others – is closely tied to hostility. Those who are arrogant are very much intolerant of anything short of perfection (and only they define perfection). Arrogant leaders believe only they can be right and others are wrong.
However, I believe the most destructive trait of a leader is simply a lack of caring about others. I don’t mean “caring” in the sense of some nebulous, “I sing for the world, Coke Cola song,” but genuine caring where one does tangible things to help others. Caring motivates the leader to do well, and that empathy translates into loyalty and reinforces long-term, effective teamwork.
I’m always interested in what others think are the most destructive traits of leaders. Let me hear from you.