Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become and Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures

  • Published

Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become and Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures edited by Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima. Baker Books, 2007, 255 pp.

Why do successful leaders allow themselves to fall into avoidable moral and ethical failings? Biola University’s Dr. Gary McIntosh and Bethel Seminary’s Dr. Samuel Rima address this question in Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership. Writing from the perspective of academic leaders in Christian ministry, the authors utilize psychology and theology to explore leadership failures and the development of negative behaviors in otherwise effective leaders. Along the way they incorporate a wide array of examples surrounding psychological development and historic leadership failures among Biblical characters, US Presidents, entrepreneurs, religious leaders, and other well-documented persons. This leadership self-help book seeks to prepare current and emerging leaders to realize self-awareness of their own “dark side” so they may better understand their motivations, recognize weaknesses associated with their personalities, and avoid potential pitfalls as they lead their organizations.


Prospective readers of Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership should understand it is overtly religious and aimed primarily at an audience of leaders in Christian ministry. However, the authors’ well-researched arguments are underpinned with psychology, the book is peppered with numerous secular examples and references, and readers are directed to multiple secular assessment tools, particularly in Appendix A. Military and government leaders, regardless of belief system, may draw parallels with some of the examples from ministry; being held to such a high standard that even a perceived moral failure could result in removal from their position, navigating competing interest among personnel, straining for resources to meet goals, and always having to “be on” as the public face of an organization, among other similarities.


McIntosh and Rima begin their argument with an assumption that all leaders suffer from some level of personal dysfunction, but many are unaware of their dysfunction or its roots. They assert certain forms of dysfunction can result in a drive to achieve, but those dysfunction-associated characteristics that propel an individual to leadership come with a shadow, or “dark side,” that can lead to devastating failure if left unchecked. Therefore, if leaders identify and learn from their dysfunctions, they may address, prevent, or mitigate the negative tendencies associated with them. Finally, the authors assert the Bible is informative concerning the dark side of personalities and is useful to those leaders who seek to better understand themselves.


Opening with examples from their own leadership experiences, the authors devote the first chapters of their book to several examples of leaders whose experiences with their dark sides were evidenced by episodes ranging from emotional burnout to bizarre criminal behavior. Lest the reader feel invincible to the flaws that felled the likes of National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Lisa Nowak, ImClone System’s Dr. Sam Waksal, or televangelist Jim Bakker, they are reminded that all leaders possess the raw materials necessary for such failings in some measure: self-deception, unrestrained pride, selfishness, and wrong motives.


Leaning heavily on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, McIntosh and Rima further a convincing argument concerning the potential for leaders to fail in unexpected ways. They proffer a four stage pattern of dark-side development that begins with the existence of unmet needs which are exacerbated during the formative years by traumatic experiences that threaten fulfillment of those needs. As adolescents, some individuals internalize an irrational responsibility for their own unmet needs, creating an “existential debt” to self the individual can never repay, often manifested as the subconscious need for ever greater achievement, career success and approval. The final stage of this process is the development of the dark side through the combined effects of unmet needs, traumatic experiences, and existential debts that have not been effectively addressed or resolved.


The authors illustrate this dark side in five leader types, and use examples of Biblical figures to frame discussions of compulsive, narcissistic, paranoid, codependent and passive-aggressive leaders. Each type is examined in detail with descriptions of associated behaviors and attitudes, and the reader is offered a self-assessment questionnaire with each to increase understanding of their own tendencies toward negative behaviors. The self-assessment tools accompanying the descriptions of these types, along with those found in Appendix E, are a point of concern. While they are constructed using a Likert scale and have similarities with widely accepted research tools, there is no associated reference to any academic validation of their effectiveness. If they have been validated and peer-reviewed, that information should be included in future revisions. If not, a disclaimer should accompany each.  The final chapters describe a five-step process by which readers are encouraged to redeem their dark side. With each step the reader is offered a list of “applying insight” questions to assist their understanding of the corresponding step. Much emphasis is given to self-examination of one’s personality, personal history, and expectations.


The strength of Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership is its focus on sincere self-examination. While many works on leadership note the importance of knowing one’s leadership style and motivations, this book calls the reader to explore the experiences and subconscious drivers[RR1]  that have brought them to a position of responsibility and affect their exercise of leadership. Leaders are adjured to embrace a level of humility necessary for honest self-examination and the identification of negative tendencies. By exploring the lives of flawed leaders who are still considered to be great successes alongside those considered to be abysmal failures, McIntosh and Rima drive home the point that the manner in which an individual addresses their dark side tendencies may determine their leadership legacy. Future revisions of the book could be improved with more diverse examples of leadership, including more examples of women leaders and leaders from ethnic or racial minorities. Although the book is somewhat dated, it would be a beneficial read for those who seek a unique and introspective consideration of leadership, and might enhance the spiritual wellness of those whose belief system aligns with the authors’.


Lt Col James H. Popphan, USAF

The Pentagon

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."