Real Leaders

The Dark Side of Leadership

When you hear the word leadership, what comes to mind? Most people associate leadership with being the best of the best, demonstrating high ideals, and living and acting with integrity. But as long as there have been leaders in the world, there have been leaders who have blatantly compromised their principles.

In fact, one of the earliest known literary writings, The Epic of Gilgamesh, centers on immoral leadership. In it, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, introduces the idea of the “lord’s right,” in which leaders get to exercise jus primae noctis, the right of a lord to deflower local virgins on their wedding nights. Why? Because they can, that’s why.

It’s this because-I-can attitude, this type of behavioral latitude, that warrants joining morality to leadership. Just because you can do things non-leaders can’t doesn’t mean you should. But a leader’s freedom to “call the shots” is the very thing that causes some to lead in compromised and self-serving ways.

The Leader-Follower Dynamic That Spells Trouble

Leaders and followers share an unwritten understanding: when you’re the one who sets the rules, grades performance, signs paychecks and doles out rewards, you have more power and freedom than those who don’t get to do these things. Others serve at your pleasure and are accountable to you, not the other way around. In time, this can be massively seductive.

Leaders are always being told how special they are. Think, for example, of the numerous privileges leaders are afforded: they get fatter salaries, larger offices, more agenda airtime, better perks, and more deference.

They also get less flak when they interrupt people, show up late for meetings, or skirt around the processes and policies everyone else has to follow. Even the simple fact that there are far fewer leaders in the world than followers exemplifies a leader’s specialness. The fact that not everyone gets to be a leader suggests that they are a cut above the rest of us mere mortals.

Followers, too, often enable, contribute to, and embellish the specialness of leadership. Followers build the lofty pedestals their leaders adorn. Every time followers say “yes” when thinking “no,” bite their tongues, mimic a leader’s style, or capitulate to unethical directives, the specialness of leadership is reinforced.

A Leader’s Ego Keeps It Going

The more praise and deference followers bestow upon a leader, the more the leader believes in his or her own specialness. It feels good to have your ego stroked by eager-to-please followers, and, before long, some leaders will start to surround themselves with sycophants and suck-ups — just to keep the pampering going.

Given this, is it really surprising that some would be seduced into thinking they are “better” than everyone else, that they deserve more of the spoils, or that they should be free to act with impunity?

Should it really catch our attention that some leaders are more concerned with the privileges attached to their position, instead of being grateful for the privilege of making a positive and lasting impact on people’s lives?

Is it at all shocking that some leaders would succumb to thinking that they’re the focal point, instead of the people they’re charged with leading? There really isn’t anything surprising or shocking about it. Hubris is what you get when a leader becomes spoiled.

The Costs of Hubris

While all the real-world costs of hubris are high, perhaps none is as costly as the sheer loss of potential for the good a leader could have accomplished — and all the lives the leader could have positively impacted — had he or she not become so enamored with power.

Hubris, as a “leadership killer,” also damages a leader’s potential legacy.

Above all, leadership is a tradition that’s carried out and passed on from generation to generation. A leader’s legacy is built by developing and nurturing the skills and talents of the people who are doing work on a leader’s behalf.

A leader’s most important job isn’t to acquire more power; it’s to empower others so that they, too, become future leaders. But these new leaders will never get there—or be inspired to try—because hubris snuffs them out.

Now ask yourself: Does any of this strike a chord? Do you find yourself drawn to leadership’s dark side? How will your actions today define your legacy tomorrow? What will the people you’ve led in the past say about you long after you are gone?

By Bill Treasurer and Captain John “Coach” Havlik.

Havlik is a U.S. Navy SEAL (Retired), who led special operations teams around the world during his 31-year naval career, including the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the SEAL’s most elite operational unit. Captain Havlik was a nationally ranked swimmer and is a member of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame and Mountaineer Legends Society.