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Talent Assessment | 6 Min Read

How to Make Your Leadership Free of Dark Traits

Dark Traits Create Bad Leaders

I’ll bet most of the companies that are in life-or-death battles got into that kind of trouble because they didn’t pay enough attention to developing their leaders.”
                         – Wayne Calloway, former Chairman, Pepsico, Inc.

Current personality and leadership literature suggests that, due to their high need for power and social dominance orientation, a variety of dark triad personalities (narcissists, machiavellians, and psychopaths) can be found in leadership positions.

“Not all is hunky dory in the real world & not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom,”
-Robert Hare, Author of ‘Snakes in Suites’

Bad leadership often leads to creation of stressful work environment and causes employees to display counterproductive behavior impacting employee and organizational productivity. Additionally, poor ethics of leaders have been known to put the company reputation at risk.DARK TRAITS CREATE BAD LEADERS STRESS AT WORKPLACE EMPLOYEE DISENGAGEMENT

Let’s have a look at some of the biggest leadership fails that can be traced to dark traits:

  • Blackberry: the history of nepotism marked by poor leadership was enough to bring the company down from its position


  • Enron is a classic example of leadership gone corrupt 
  • Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen may have contributed to the company’s unethical and illegal installation of software that failed to accurately report emissions on its vehicles. 
  • Martin Shkreli, founder and former chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals had just acquired the drug and immediately hiked the price, making the cost to patients exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was arrested on December 16 for securities fraud and subsequently stepped down from his post 
  • Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos was formed to disrupt the way companies test for disease and offer less costly blood test but it misled both the government and the public about the capabilities and effectiveness of the product. 
  • Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher & UB group who kept drawing fat paychecks & growing his personal assets while his companies continue to make loss, employees went without pay & bank without loan payment. 
  • Diamond jewelry designer Nirav Modi was accused in February by state-owned Punjab National Bank of perpetrating a $1.8 billion fraud.



What are Dark Trait?

Dark Traits are steady and stable characteristics of a person that if triggered, lead to display of undesirable, counterproductive and destructive behavior, which has a negative impact on the surrounding people (friends, family, coworkers, and customers).

The given three traits combined are called dark triad:

  • Narcissism (selfish, boastful, arrogant, lack of empathy)


  • Machiavellian-ism (duplicity, manipulation, self-interest, and a lack of both emotion and morality) 
  • Psychopathy (lack of empathy, remorse, antisocial, criminal & volatile)

Dark traits are a reality and they exist in all of us. The Dark Triad personality traits can be toxic and damaging in the workplace. But someone exhibiting these traits may initially be a high achiever and potentially charming, conscientious and achievement-oriented.  Hence it’s highly crucial to measure their presence and degree via skilled tools. Dark trait assessment is highly crucial at leadership level owning to the huge implication that actions have on organizational success, performance and functioning.

Strong leaders help an organization to maximize productivity and achieve business goals, whereas toxic leadership hurts productivity and put the health of the business in jeopardy.

Most of the stunning leadership disasters have common ingredients such as executives who didn’t listen & a culture where dissent is not heard.” –Stephen Covey, author of several bestselling books on leadership and self-improvement, including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


Call of the Hour

Leader development researchers have argued that developmental interventions based on increasing self-awareness and coaching may be effective at mitigating the negative effects of these character flaws. There are enough examples to justify the need to not trust leaders blindly & having mechanism in place to audit the way they rule and run the organization.

Here we have listed the most effective ways to deal with dark traits in leadership:

  • Invest In Dark Traits Assessment:

Assess dark traits while selecting shortlisting people for leadership roles. Make dark trait assessment an integral part of performance appraisal or leadership development module. Ensure to have timely assessment to check the degree of the traits over a period of time.

  • Role Alignment:

Assign people roles based on the assessment of traits so that it can work for organizational advantage. For example: An HR person should avoid putting a person who is high on temperament in a team which is dealing with attrition & morale issues. Studies have shown that psychopathic and Machiavellian tendencies facilitate both the seduction and intimidation tactics that frighten potential competitors and captivate bosses.

  • Educate & Share Information:

Educate your workforce around dark traits so that they are equipped to understand & handle the subtle & direct manipulations. Invest in coaching & training them on handling corporate bullying, conflict management, assertive communication & reporting malpractices & injustice.

  • Coach the Leaders:

Offer coaching & training to mold & shape the desired behaviors. Put people who are high on certain dark traits in one to one coaching or training sessions that help them manage their behavior. For example: a person high on self-obsession need to have more weight-age to team & subordinate performance in his annual growth planning. Sharing knowledge coaching people should be one of the appraisal criteria in their appraisal evaluation.

  • Encourage Feedback & Skip Levels:

Implement 360 degree feedback & skip levels to gain timely feedback for people in leadership roles. Encourage people to act as whistle blowers. For example it’s imperative to have 360 feedbacks for a leader who scores high on thrill seeking traits.

  • Build Cultural Accountability:

Make leaders accountable for positively impacting cultural parameters such as positive work environment, employee development, feedback, coaching, communication, attrition & morale.



Good and bad incidents are realities of life where the daily struggle is to maximize good. Investing in assessment of dark traits helps us understand degree of their existence & hence minimize their impact on organization or use them in an intelligent way which fosters positive results and outcomes. Thus, knowledge on the strengths and weaknesses of the dark triad can be utilized in leader development and maintaining positive culture within the organization.

As Jack Welch puts it –My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”

Hope you are taking out ‘weeds’ timely from your system too.

Originally published May 1 2018, Updated August 21 2020

Romila Kanchan

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