The ‘Dark Side’ of Leadership Personality

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Aims of the paper

The study conducted by Khoo and Burch (2008) aimed to identify the relationship between managers’ scores on the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) and scores on the Multi-Factor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ). The HDS determines negative personality traits, while the MLQ measures transformative leadership. Thus, the scholars aimed to investigate the association between personality traits and transformational leadership. This paper will summarize the researchers’ article and provide recommendations to managers based on the study’s findings.

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Definition of the ‘Dark Side’ of Leadership Personality

Khoo and Burch’s (2008) research focuses on the ‘dark side’ of leadership personality and its relation to transformational leadership. The ‘dark side’ of leadership personality refers to the negative traits that leaders can possess. These characteristics are harmful in the workplace because they lead to the leader’s ineffectiveness and undermine interpersonal relationships among employees. The authors argue that narcissism is a major negative trait associated with leadership. According to Khoo and Burch (2008), individuals with this quality often easily acquire a position of power but demonstrate low effectiveness after assuming managerial roles. Thus, the concept of the ‘dark side’ of personality implies that leaders’ success depends to a certain extent on their characteristics.

Negative leadership traits are measured by the HDS, comprising 11 scales, each of which has a corresponding DSM-IV Axis 2 code used for classifying personality disorders. All 11 scales are divided into three categories, characterizing three flawed patterns of interpersonal relationships: “moving away from people,” “moving against people,” and “moving towards people” (Khoo & Burch, 2008, p. 88). The first tendency describes individuals who become estranged from others to manage the feeling of insecurity. The second pattern refers to those who are confident and competitive and cope with their insecurities by manipulating and intimidating others. Finally, the third category reflects obedient and conformist individuals who seek other people’s approval. Further, the qualities of the three groups will be reviewed in more detail.

The “moving away from people” category comprises five traits: Excitable, Cautious, Leisurely, Reserved, and Skeptical. Excitable quality corresponds to borderline personality disorder and refers to individuals who are difficult to please and demonstrate intense but short-term enthusiasm for anything. Cautious aligns with the avoidant personality disorder and defines people who avoid taking risks due to the fear of rejection or disapproval. The Leisurely trait is underpinned by passive-aggressive behavior and describes independent individuals who become irritated when hearing others’ requests. If a person scores high in the quality of Reserved, he or she is uncommunicative and disinterested in other people’s feelings. This characteristic corresponds to the schizoid personality disorder as per DSM-IV Axis 2. Finally, Skeptical means distrustful and questioning the true intentions of others; it aligns with a paranoid personality disorder.

The second category – “moving against people” – includes four traits: Bold, Colorful, Mischievous, and Imaginative. Those who score high in the Bold trait are overly self-confident, have the feeling of grandiosity, and overestimate their capabilities. According to Khoo and Burch (2008), similar features are characteristic of a narcissistic personality disorder. In the HDS, Colorful means expressive and dramatic and describes individuals who need to be at the center of other people’s attention. The corresponding DSM-IV Axis 2 code for this trait is a histrionic personality disorder.

Further, Mischievous is someone who enjoys testing the limits and taking risks and is exploitive, manipulative, and cunning. The underlying psychological condition for this quality is an anti-social personality disorder. Finally, Imaginative means thinking and acting in a creative and sometimes unusual way. This characteristic is underpinned by the schizotypal personality disorder as per DSM-IV Axis 2.

The third group of qualities comprising the ‘dark side’ of leadership personality – “moving towards people” – contains two characteristics: Diligent and Dutiful. Diligent individuals are perfectionistic and meticulous; they strictly follow the rules and procedures and expect others to behave the same way. According to Khoo and Burch (2008), obsessive-compulsive disorder is closely related to this personal trait. The second characteristic in this group – Dutiful – describes individuals who rely on others for guidance and support, do not tend to express an unpopular opinion, and are unwilling to take independent action. The condition underpinning this trait is a dependent personality disorder. All the described qualities included in the HDS comprise the ‘dark side’ of leadership personality and may negatively affect leaders’ effectiveness in the workplace.

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Since Khoo and Burch (2008) aimed to study the relationship between these traits and transformational leadership, the authors provided a definition of this leadership type. The researchers argue that the role of transformational leaders is to encourage followers not just to perform according to the set standards but to exceed performance expectations and attain what was deemed unachievable. Transforming followers’ mindsets in a way that will bring them to a higher level is what distinguishes transformational leadership from transactional one, which focuses on short-term performance and punishment. Transformational leadership is characterized by five major behaviors that leaders demonstrate toward their subordinates. They include idealized influence (behavior), idealized influence (attributed), inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Khoo & Burch, 2008). These behaviors are measured by the MLQ and reflect the leader’s standards of conduct and the ability to inspire, encourage innovation, and provide support.

Khoo and Burch (2008) state that transformational leadership is negatively associated with most of the ‘dark side’ leadership traits. This is because transformational leadership requires a specific set of personal qualities, most of which conflict with the ‘dark side’ characteristics. For example, Khoo and Burch (2008) argue that extraversion is one of the most important traits of transformational leaders. It means that such leaders are sociable, and their interests are directed outwards rather than focused on themselves. Thus, extraversion does not align with such ‘dark side’ traits as being cautious, reserved, leisurely, bold, and others. Other qualities associated with transformational leadership are agreeableness and emotional intelligence (Khoo & Burch, 2008). Like extraversion, these traits conflict with the ‘dark side’ leadership personality. Khoo and Burch (2008) pay specific attention to narcissism and transformational leadership. The authors state that, although both of them may involve charisma, that is, the ability to inspire others through one’s charm, transformational leadership involves much more than charisma.

Based on the characteristics involved in the ‘dark side’ leadership personality and the qualities required for transformational leaders, Khoo and Burch (2008) formulated research hypotheses regarding the relationship between these two concepts. The authors hypothesized that transformational leadership would be negatively associated with such traits as Bold and Mischievous. They assumed that narcissism and anti-social behavior contradicted the idea of transformational leadership that is focused on emotional intelligence and integrity and extends beyond charisma.

The Research Methodology

Khoo and Burch (2008) applied a quantitative research design by administrating questionnaires to 117 senior managers and chief executives of public and private organizations in New Zealand. According to Khoo and Burch (2008), the response rate was 68.4% since 80 respondents returned fully completed questionnaires. Among them, there were 35 women and 45 men, and the average work experience of participants was 17.7 years (Khoo & Burch, 2008). The researchers recruited participants from their network in the business community of New Zealand.

The researchers used two questionnaires: the HDS and the MLQ. The MLQ was a self-reported questionnaire consisting of 45 items that evaluated how often the participants demonstrated five behaviors characteristic of transformational leadership. The frequency was measured by a 5-point scale ranging from 0 to 4. The HDS was a survey consisting of 168 questions measuring the 11 dysfunctional leadership behaviors. Each item of the HDS required the participants to answer either “true” or “false.” High scores in any of the 11 negative traits indicated that the participant was at an elevated risk of developing workplace problems. Both questionnaires were reliable and valid tools, commonly used in both research and consultancy. The MLQ was sent directly to the participants along with a biographical questionnaire. The HDS was administered online because it was the only available option for use in research. The authors received ethical approval for their methodology from the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee.

Khoo and Burch (2008) applied statistical methods of data analysis. The authors calculated mean and standard deviations for the MLQ and HDS scales and presented differences in scores between genders. The relationship between transformational leadership and the HDS dimensions was established using standard regression analysis. In particular, three different regressions were performed to assess the association between transformational leadership and the three categories of the ‘dark side’ leadership personality described above.

Main Findings

Khoo and Burch (2008) found that transformational leadership was negatively associated with Reserved and Cautious traits and positively associated with the quality of Colorful. It means that such characteristics as uncommunicativeness and reluctance to take risks were not suited for transformational leadership while being expressive and dramatic was appropriate. Further, Khoo and Burch’s (2008) hypothesis that Bold and Mischievous traits would have a negative relationship with transformational leadership was not confirmed. The authors explained this finding by assuming that individuals who scored high in the Bold dimension tended to be narcissistic. Since questionnaires were self-reported, these participants could have rated their leadership behavior higher than it actually was. Khoo and Burch (2008) explicated the positive relationship between the Mischievous dimension and inspirational motivation behavior by the fact that such leadership conduct requires risk-taking. Moreover, this association points to pseudo-transformational leadership in which employees follow the leader because they are unknowingly manipulated.

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The researchers also found that, in the category of “moving against people,” the Colorful personality had the strongest positive association with transformational leadership, while the Bold trait was negatively related to it. Therefore, this finding partially confirmed Khoo and Burch’s (2008) hypothesis. In the group “moving away from people,” the characteristic of Cautious had the strongest negative relationship with transformational leadership. This result suggests that people avoiding interpersonal contact for fear of being rejected are unlikely to become effective leaders.

Advice to Managers Regarding Leadership

One set of recommendations can be given to managers involved in appointing leaders in the workplace. Those responsible for promoting employees to leadership positions should carefully consider the personality of the candidates for promotion. As Khoo and Burch (2008) note, identifying the ‘dark side’ of personality helps organizations detect people who have the potential for inadequate work performance and deviant behaviors. In order to determine individuals’ risks of demonstrating inappropriate conduct, managers may test them using the HDS. Based on the results of the survey, they should appoint only those individuals who have a higher potential of exhibiting ethical behaviors. It is much easier to grant the right people the position of power rather than try to change the leader’s personality once he or she has proved to be ineffective. Therefore, managers should reconsider their recruitment and selection strategies to prevent individuals with strong negative personal qualities from being appointed to positions of power.

Another set of recommendations is intended for managers who act as leaders within the organization. For people in such positions, it is crucial to develop self-awareness in order to know their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders should pay attention to how they react in different situations and notice any destructive behavior patterns. Asking for employees’ feedback can help managers identify their ‘dark side’ traits. Receiving feedback is especially important for individuals with narcissistic personalities because, as Khoo and Burch (2008) point out, they tend to deny that they possess any significant shortcomings. After managers determine their negative personal characteristics, they should make efforts to reduce them or mitigate their impact in the workplace. Possible strategies include identifying and avoiding triggers of undesirable behaviors, developing coping mechanisms, maintaining physical and mental health, and participating in psychological training programs for leaders and managers to learn to manage stress.


Khoo, H. S., & Burch, G. S. J. (2008). The ‘dark side’ of leadership personality and transformational leadership: An exploratory study. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 86-97. Web.

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