The Evil Leader


The Dark Triad is a continued focus of psychological study – a range of behaviours that cause suffering, destruction or damage to others for personal benefit. We have looked at recent work from Del Paulhus and a team from the University of British Columbia into malevolent traits and consider what behaviours you might see in an Evil Leader.



Niccolo Machiavelli has become synonymous with unscrupulous leadership behaviour. His most famous work ‘The Prince’ describes a number of dishonest, devious and aggressive behaviours that he justifies as normal and effective political tactics. Machiavellianism is behaviour that involves using intelligent strategy and cunning in order to gain advantage. Machiavellian leaders will cheat, use deception and cross lines of acceptable behaviour to seek advantage and gain dominance over others. They may do this covertly and subtly, even keeping up a pretence of a values-based leadership approach. They might be charming and friendly, even appearing supportive. Persuasion and manipulation will be part of their modus operandi. Their key skill lies in following behaviour than benefits them to the disadvantage of others without anyone noticing. Outbursts of anger or aggression may be used to assert control over a group who do not feel empowered to challenge. Machiavellianism can be a successful strategy, hence its continuation in human behaviour. However, even if an individual leader does get away with this type of behaviour, they are likely to be creating a damaging culture which will, eventually have repercussions.



Some leaders might just appear to be genuinely unpleasant. They may be impulsive – prolific risk-takers with an absence of generosity. They might be prone to boredom, fail to learn from negative consequences and likely to throw temper tantrums and treat others badly including teasing and bullying. They will feel no remorse for their actions, however impacting on others. On the Emotions Profile Index, created by Robert Plutchik and Henry Kellerman, they may show up as deceptive, callous, aggressive, fearless and have an absence of emotional ties. In the short term or in very chaotic circumstances a psychopathic leader  may have success if their goals happen to correspond with the organisational goals – offering a ruthless and clinical approach where hard decisions or actions are needed. Also the willingness to take risks can correspond to ‘entrepreneurial spirit’, especially if those risks pay off. However, they are highly unlikely to be able to build consensus or follow any of the behaviours that will see long-term enduring success as a leader.



A leader that happens to be a pure narcissist will display grandiosity and a sense of entitlement. They will behave in a dominant manner and be self assured of their own superiority. Pride and egotism are inherent as is a lack of empathy. There is a lot of crossover with psychopathy. Most narcissists are extroverted, show a high degree of openness in personality testing and are agreeable in nature. They will show extreme selfishness and a degree of vanity. In short, narcissists are ‘people people’ who may ooze charisma, but at the helm they will be selfish with their only goal being personal advance. If their objectives happen to coincide with those of others, then they could be very effective, and their personal charm may be an asset at senior leadership level. However, as soon as their goals diverge with that of the organisation, they will become selfish, disinterested or self-preserving.


These three personality traits overlap to varying extents. Common to all is a lack of consideration for others, a lack of co-operative spirit and a failure to demonstrate warmth and kindness. Whilst evil leaders may succeed, they are likely to cause both individual and organisational damage along the way. They could also probably be far more effective if they were coached to behave in less malevolent ways. Often these behaviours develop due to not knowing how to behave as a senior leader and can be ‘unlearned’…although not always.


At its worst extreme, evil leaders will leave individuals, organisations, sometimes event entire industries in ruins. Almost always this could have been avoidable through a more stringent path to leadership, and better preparation along the way.

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