*It is important to distinguish among leaders who are sad, bad, or mad. Sad leaders are simply incompetent. It is the bad or mad ones — bullies, tyrants, psychopaths — who most often derail and cause significant harm to their organizations.business-suit-690048_1920

*Research shows that derailed leaders lack one or more specific types of skills: intrapersonal (self-awareness), interpersonal (emotional intelligence), leadership (team-building), or business skills (planning, organizing). These critical skills are interrelated; failure or inadequacy in any one type is likely to damage overall effectiveness.

*Three personality disorders most often play a role in leadership derailment: anti-social (psychopath), narcissistic, and histrionic. These disorders comprise what psychologists call the “dark triad” of personality.

*It is commonly assumed that people with serious personality disorders rarely rise to positions of leadership, but the opposite is true. There is increasing evidence of clearly diagnosable disorders among high profile executives, politicians, lawyers, and religious leaders. Once in power, they are unlikely to change.

*Psychopaths can be very successful at work, due to their boldness and superficial charm. It is the stress of leadership that can push a psychopath over the edge into destructive, anti-social behavior.

*Unlike other disorders, narcissism has two clear sides. The “bright side” of narcissism is self confidence that can motivate and inspire the trust of others. The “dark side” is self-aggrandizement and arrogance

There are five personality disorders that tend to show up in particular sectors. Importantly, the traits associated with these disorders may be useful, even healthy, when present in moderation, but serious problems occur when the disorders become dominant.

1. Paranoids. In organizations concerned with business or national security, like research and development firms or some government agencies, the culture tends to encourage suspiciousness and distrust of outsiders. These conditions foster the success of paranoids, who are super-vigilant and secretive to the point of obsession. Some of their characteristics make paranoids effective managers: they are alert, careful, observant, and tactical. However, because they believe that others want to harm them, they can also be belligerent, hostile, stubborn, and consumed with irrational hatreds.

2. Schizotypals. Many businesses value creativity and the ability to innovate. Because of their tolerance for eccentricity, these organizations may have a relatively high number of schizotypal managers: nonconformists who simply enjoy being idiosyncratic. Schizotypals are often highly talented and full of ideas, but they are unable or unwilling to discipline themselves and cannot prioritize, collaborate, or cooperate. They are often self-absorbed and indifferent to how their behavior affects others. While they rarely rise to the top in large companies, schizotypal leaders can easily derail smaller organizations.

3. Histrionics. Fields like advertising, media, and fashion tend to attract people who are histrionic. Sometimes described as “drama queens,” they are emotional, theatrical, and skilled at getting attention. In certain situations, they can fuel momentum and help revive tired organizational cultures. But histrionics make poor leaders; they are handicapped by impulsiveness, impatience, and inability to strategize or maintain a clear focus.

4. Passive-Aggressives. Passive-aggressives believe that their bosses and colleagues are unfair and always trying to take advantage of them. They procrastinate, delay, and put out minimal effort. While devaluing the workplace and caring little about results, they often express their anger by sabotaging others. Passive-aggressives are rarely promoted to senior leadership positions, but even as middle managers they can demoralize teams and derail departments.

5. Obsessive-Compulsives. Obsessive-compulsive managers are good at following rules and promulgating elaborate policies and procedures. They are perfectionists, preoccupied with detail and minutia. In bureaucratic organizations and in jobs like quality controller or internal auditor, they perform well and may achieve significant levels of authority. But in leadership positions, obsessive-compulsives hold companies back. Rigid and fearful of change, they deprive their subordinates of control and discourage innovation.


In addition to personality disorders, certain behavioral dispositions may mark leaders as “oddballs” and serve as precursors to derailment. These include:

1. Schizoids. Schizoids are loners; they are distant, aloof, and indifferent to those around them. More interested in data and things than people, they may do well in fields like programming and information technology. But they make rude, tactless, insensitive managers who communicate poorly and cannot motivate staff. Schizoid behaviors are summarized by the pneumonic DISTANT:

D: Detached affect

I: Indifferent to criticism and praise

S: Sexual experiences of little interest

T: Tasks done solitarily

A: Absence of close friends

N: Neither desires nor enjoys close relationships

T: Takes pleasure in few activities

2. Borderline. Originally referring to the border between neuroses and psychoses, the term “borderline” now describes people who tend to vacillate between self-love and self-hatred. Unpredictable and unreliable, they are given to angry outbursts and reckless, even dangerous, behavior. In extreme cases, they may become suicidal. Borderline behaviors are characterized by AMSUICIDE:

A: Abandonment

M: Mood instability

S: Suicidal or self-mutilating behavior

U: Unstable and intense relationships

I: Impulsivity

C: Control of anger

I: Identity disturbance

D: Dissociative (or paranoid) symptoms

E: Emptiness

3. Avoidant. Avoidants suffer from extreme feelings of inadequacy. They are socially inhibited and withdrawn, especially avoiding situations where they might be criticized. While their intelligence and technical skills may win positions of power, they feel threatened by anything new or different. Their timidity and insecurity undermine their teams.

4. Dependent. People with this behavior pattern are child-like in their dependence on others for support and guidance. They tend to be clinging, submissive, and overly eager to please. Dependent personalities can be well suited to caring professions like nursing or social work. But their focus on trying to satisfy everyone makes it nearly impossible for them to lead anyone. Dependence is summarized by the pneumonic RELIANCE:

R: Reassurance required for decisions

E: Expressing disagreement difficult

L: Life responsibilities need to be assumed by others

I: Initiating projects difficult

A: Alone

N: Nurturance

C: Companionship

E: Exaggerated fears of being left to care for themselves

5. Self-Defeating. Self-defeating people are excellent workers: they tend to be reliable, loyal, respectful, and undemanding. However, they have trouble delegating and are easily exploited by others. Their generosity becomes distorted into masochism. A key management failure of self-defeatists is their propensity to gravitate toward people and situations that lead to disappointment or failure.

6. Sadistic. Sadists are aggressive and dictatorial, with a strong need to dominate others. They do not hesitate to be cruel or malevolent. Their business results may be excellent, but come at the expense of employees. Sadists are organizational bullies who get what they want by humiliating, demeaning, and destabilizing their teams and colleagues.


Organizations that promote based on loyalty or other characteristics unrelated to competence can end up with leaders who simply lack sufficient intellect to do the job. While cognitive capacity alone does not predict leadership success, research shows that general intelligence is an excellent indicator of potential.

Furnham argues strongly for incorporating IQ or other intelligence tests into all standard candidate evaluations. His reasons draw on extensive research into the relationship between intelligence and job performance. Findings of this research include:

*Across all jobs and all ratings of success, intelligence is very important.

*The more intellectually difficult and technically demanding the job, the more important intelligence becomes for success.

*Higher levels of intelligence are needed as people rise up the organizational ladder.

*Higher intelligence reflects higher capacity for learning.

*The essence of intelligence at work is the ability to deal with complexity — the key feature in the workplace.

*As social, cultural and work life become more complex, the role of intelligence becomes increasingly dominant.

To date, this type of testing has not been widely adopted by organizations because of controversies about sex and race differences in intelligence. But Furnham believes the tide is turning as the costs of ignoring the issue become apparent.


Organizations cannot always prevent leadership derailment, which has multiple roots and pathways. However, they can address its joint causes — dark side personality, toxic followers, and dysfunctional culture — so as to manage its impact.

Furnham identifies six organizational points or processes with the potential to help prevent and/or mitigate derailment:

1. Recruitment. When educated about the behavioral patterns and backgrounds associated with derailment, recruiters can be on guard against certain high-risk candidates.

2. Selection. Selection of leaders should focus on selecting “out” as well as “in.” It is critical to screen for the symptoms of personality disorders that may be benign or even helpful in the short term, but are likely to become destructive over time.

3. On boarding. This term is used to describe the induction process used by companies to acclimate new employees to the culture and to their jobs. The process can also help to avert maladaptation, by setting appropriate goals and explaining clearly how the organization functions.

4. Planning development. Most people join an organization expecting to advance in a clear direction. When someone takes responsibility for helping young managers plan their futures, it can help them identify meaningful opportunities while steering them away from jobs for which they are unsuited.

5. Performance managing. Often a manager’s potential to derail can be spotted during a careful performance review. By providing honest, regular feedback, bosses and coworkers can help manage the individual’s behavior and expectations.

6. Career pathing. People expect that hard work and loyalty will be rewarded by promotions. But not every promotion is right for every individual. Future problems can be averted by discussing the types of assignments and roles that an individual could pursue as steps in a realistic career path.

In addition to well-designed selection procedures, there are opportunities to recover managers who have derailed, or to pull them back from the brink of derailment. These include coaching, training, and transitioning.

Paradoxically, coaching and training may be least effective with those who are most in need of intervention. But a highly skilled coach can sometimes help leaders develop the self-awareness they need to accurately appraise their talents — and recognize when they are overestimating themselves.

Transitioning refers to the process of moving a potentially derailing leader sideways, downward, or out of the organization. It may include support with specific skills, or with building new alliances and integrating into a new team.

Finally, strong governance and management processes can reduce the prospect of derailment by giving key individuals enough room to maneuver while restraining their power. Most importantly, organizations must hold their leaders accountable for serving the interests of all stakeholders.