In many aspects of our lives, we rely on those in positions of power to lead us. The role of leaders becomes especially salient in times of uncertainty. Throughout your life, you’ve probably seen several ways leaders can respond to challenging and ambiguous situations. A transformational leader can see the opportunities in turmoil and inspire people to follow them to a better future. On the other hand, an incompetent leader will leave you to deal with everything alone. In the worst-case scenario, a destructive leader will see the potential for self-enhancement and exploit others to maximize their gain.

4 Clues to Identify a Destructive Leader

People leave managers, not companies.

Incompetent and destructive leaders both create negative consequences, but the distinction between the two is essential. An incompetent leader may lack the compelling charisma to engage others to follow, but we wouldn’t call someone lacking charisma actively destructive. A destructive leader intentionally and systematically behaves in a way that violates the organization’s members and stakeholders’ best interests. The extent of damage that a destructive leader can cause often goes unnoticed until it is too late (e.g., Enron), but there are clues you can look for to help you identify destructive leaders earlier. These clues reflect behaviors and attitudes that can reveal the destructive nature of an otherwise seemingly competent leader.

What causes destructive leadership patterns?

Everyone has some characteristics that are annoying to someone who prefers a different way of behaving and working. These characteristics are inherited in our DNA and influenced by the environment in which we grew up. The genetic influence was passed down from generation to generation and is a product of evolution that helped your ancestors survive the environments they encountered. And they can help you too, as long as they don’t become distorted from early experiences of chronic fear.

In destructive leadership, typical behavior patterns become distorted into extremes powered by the brain’s more primitive parts under such circumstances. When this happens, we are in fear-mode, and a blend of fear reactions becomes our norm. These distorted patterns become habitual, and our responses to others become unhealthy. For example, suppose we experienced excessive criticism in our early development. In that case, our ego will record a perception of being diminished by important caregivers and sense that our very survival depends on not being criticized. In this case, we may learn to strive excessively for superiority to alleviate the fear of feeling inferior in our assessment of ourselves.

While a reactive pattern like this helped us survive the precise environment we were born into, in a global world, that same pattern may not. The brain’s brilliant design constructs a set of behaviors that will ensure our survival in whatever we experience in the development years to maturity. But if we move to an entirely new environment as an adult, the patterns that served us before may not translate into helpful practices somewhere else.

The reason anxiety and stress are at an all-time high.

In the last century, this phenomenon has become even more complicated. With the advancement of technology comes exposure to human systems all over the world. Transportation enables moving to any part of the globe in a day or two. As we move about rapidly from one culture to another, we find ourselves unable to understand why we are perceived positively in one environment and the opposite in another. No wonder anxiety and stress are at an all-time high, especially for those who interact in global companies. Adaptation to other cultures becomes a necessity, making self-awareness and emotional intelligence some of the most critical skill sets of our time.

First, look for the underlying intention.

Because all human systems are imperfect, and most parents do the best they can do, many of us have traces of fear behaviors that can drive others nuts. There are a few prototypical examples of these types of behaviors, including, but not limited to

  • The constant worrier who is always second-guessing themselves,
  • The storyteller who seems to live in an ideal world no one else can relate to,
  • The dominant driver who wants everything to go their way,
  • The prideful judge who doesn’t realize they can’t possibly know everything there is to know about everything.

When we’re talking about destructive leadership, we’re not merely referring to annoying habits unless they have become very extreme or painfully frequent. Destructive leaders have little interest in how they are perceived, so they are rarely interested in how they could improve.

Destructive leaders are single-mindedly self-interested.

Generally, healthy leaders may have annoying habits, but when you look beneath the surface, two things are different:

  1. They adopt a mindset that conveys they care about their impact on others and are willing to listen, learn, and exert the choice and character to change.
  2. They hold a positive intention toward others and work for the good of the mission and the enterprise they serve.

On the other hand, destructive leaders are either:

  1. Un-coachable because they adopt a rigid mindset that conveys they don’t care about their impact on others and will use their authority to manipulate others to bend to their will. They imply, “I am who I am, so deal with it.”
  2. They have a hidden ulterior motive for wanting and using power to serve themselves at the expense of others, the mission, or the enterprise.

So, as we lay out the four clues of destructive leaders, keep two things in mind. Do you have a hunch that they are well-intended, and are they willing to work on themselves? If the answer to both is affirmative, they are probably not destructive, but just like you and me, they are trying to serve their company and grow as best they can. In these circumstances, we can mind our own business and work on our self-improvement plan rather than thinking about how annoying they are. After all, it’s temporary unless they are genuinely destructive. And then you must do everything in your power to remove them from your company, or they could take the whole thing down.

Clue 1: Behaviors or words that imply “I’m kind of a big deal!”

Excessive fabrication and exaggeration that is nowhere near the truth.

This destructive pattern arises from an inner identity that seeks to resolve a childhood dilemma about not getting enough attention from caregivers, so they do not feel special. This dilemma results in insatiable attention-seeking and an inflated need to be special, unique, or novel. The inner fear is feeling trapped in the loneliness or sadness of not being “special” enough to those who matter. Because they perceive being attention-deprived or unworthy, they feel shame, and it becomes so painful, they rebel from authority figures whom they believe could not be trusted. Instead of following appropriately, they become rebellious and provocative, conning others to go along with their fantastic plans.

Clues you will notice:

  • Exaggeration of the truth to the point of fantasy
  • Unapologetic self-promoting and self-aggrandizing
  • Excessive talking to dominate others
  • Pontification and fabrication of elaborate stories
  • Disrespect for authority figures
  • Disregard for rules that are contrary to their aims
  • Automatically dismiss ideas from others
  • An insatiable need to be the center of attention
  • Terminally individualistic, unique, or novel
  • External image is unusually extreme in some way

Results in a Chaotic Climate

These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they demand attention but don’t want the restrictions that come with being front and center. When they are in the limelight, it can be exceedingly uncomfortable because they also unconsciously fail to believe they are impressive enough. So they attract attention, initiate excessive activity, and then thwart the attention this draws. This pattern makes them unpredictable, so the shadow of the climate they create around them is chaotic and confusing for others.

Clue 2: Behaviors or words that imply “None of this is my fault!”

Excessive conflict-avoidance by deflecting personal responsibility.

This destructive pattern arises from an inner identity that seeks to resolve a childhood dilemma about not getting enough approval and acceptance. This dilemma results in insatiable approval-seeking and an excessive need to be liked by everyone, even strangers. The inner fear is to be rejected or ridiculed by others as unlovable by those who matter. Because they perceive being unacceptable to others, they feel powerless and unworthy of care. This experience can become painful and they are unable to communicate or ask others for what they need because they don’t feel they deserve it. They defer to those in authority roles and suffer quietly in dependence, hopelessness, and seen as “needy” for any shred of approval.

Clues you will notice:

  • Complaining, blaming, gossiping about others
  • Disgruntled resentment of those in authority
  • Giving up their power and being dependent on others
  • Come across as “needy” and draining
  • Asking others to decide and then resenting it
  • Avoiding leadership to avoid culpability later
  • Unconsciously inviting others to dominate them
  • Blaming others for being the “bully”
  • Desire to be the “nice” or “good” one
  • An insatiable need to be liked, accepted, included

Results in a Conflict Averse Climate

These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they put extreme energy into taking care of or helping others with an unstated expectation that there will be a reward in return. For example, they take care of someone with the expectation that the other person will take the responsibility of making decisions for them. However, they may not tell the other person this expectation. There is an unconscious deflection of blame because they don’t want to be accountable for potentially adverse outcomes. In this way, they can remain blameless of all actions and continue to believe that they are “good” or “innocent.” This pattern creates an environment of bitter finger-pointing and undermines the mission, their leaders, and others, all so they can remain blameless.

Clue 3: Behaviors or words that imply “Just do what I say!”

Excessive dominance over others by disregarding their humanity.

This destructive pattern arises from an inner identity that seeks to resolve a childhood dilemma about not getting enough autonomy and power over circumstances because of controlling authority figures. This dilemma results in insatiable power-seeking and an excessive need to dominate others or even objectify them. Instead of valuing other human beings in their own right, they see them as objects that are useful to their objectives and manipulate them. The inner fear is to be considered weak or vulnerable. Because they need to perceive themselves as all-powerful, they seek to be the heroic warrior who will save others, when the real underlying intent is to protect themselves from their deep-seated fear of vulnerability. They end up feeling angry at anyone who shows signs of weakness or being human in any way, in favor of demonstrating impenetrable vitality that is invincible.

Clues you will notice:

  • Dismissal of others as useless to their agenda
  • Frequent impatience with how slow others are
  • Disregard for the values or needs of others
  • Appears unsympathetic to others’ concerns
  • Apparent inability to be still long enough to have a two-way conversation
  • Apparent inability to be quiet long enough to listen to others
  • A belief that they are the heroic warrior who will save the weak
  • Disdain for human frailty or weakness of any kind
  • Objectifies others and uses them for their goals
  • Demands for loyalty at all costs in exchange for protection

Results in an Autocratic Climate

These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they demand unquestioning loyalty. They will use their power to protect others’ from harm, but they require absolute subservience in return. They disregard moral values that may get in their way, and they expect those around them not to question them and do the same. They are aggressive toward anyone who shows a lack of loyalty in any way. The disloyal are dismissed and disregarded quickly. You are either “in” or “out,” and there is no in-between.

Clue 4: “Trust me; I’m never wrong.”

The excessive diminishing of others and disdain for their lack of knowledge.

This destructive pattern arises from an inner identity that seeks to resolve a childhood dilemma about not being smart enough to make logical choices because authority figures consistently discount them. This dilemma results in an insatiable status-seeking and an excessive need to be seen as important by others. The inner fear is being seen as insignificant, which is painful because it implies that you are less than others or not enough—being “less than” causes intense feelings of inferiority. Because they see this as intolerable, they do everything in their power to earn external credentials that will prove outward signs of accomplishment.

Clues you will notice:

  • Dismissal of others as stupid or unintelligent
  • Never forgets mistakes
  • Interrupts to say what is wrong before others finish speaking
  • Unwilling to rely on others who cannot live up to their standards
  • Come across as cold and unapproachable
  • Perfectionism that becomes excessive and obsessive
  • Moralistic whistleblowing and condemnation of authority
  • Judging others as idiots who don’t know anything
  • Excessively critical of anything that is not perfect
  • Creating impossible standards that no one can reach

Results in a Climate of Stagnation:

These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they set standards so high that nothing and no one can ever be good enough. The insatiable desire to outwit others and prove them wrong leads to an uncertain, withholding climate that focuses on a negative perspective on everything. Tossing out objections first becomes the norm, and the unintended consequence is to avoid the work required to do everything right.

Now what?

If you recognize these patterns in your current leadership team, you may want to be cautious. Remember that destructive leaders are more than just annoying. They are intentionally self-serving to the detriment of others. This self-focus does not mean they are incapable of improving since people are always capable of change if they choose, but it may indicate they don’t WANT to change. Understanding their motivations can help you recognize when they are using you to satisfy their unconscious internal fears. You can use this knowledge to create a strategy to interact with them in a way that minimizes damage to yourself, or if you can’t, you can begin to plan your exit or transfer to a new leader or company if needed. If you’ve already thought about leaving your organization because of one of these leaders, you are not alone.

If you see some of these clues in yourself, all is not lost. Most people can identify with one or two of these patterns. BUT if they become extreme, they will eventually hurt you and everyone around you. Destructive patterns may create short-term wins but will not help you in the long run because they are not sustainable. The quick wins may seem “right” now, but they may come at a high cost later since they are likely to backfire. However, if you are aware of it, you can move past these fear-based behaviors with conscious development. You have the choice to stop fear from controlling your actions and decisions if you commit to becoming a better leader.

If you would like to know which unconscious fear tendencies come naturally to you, you can take the True Tilt Personality Profile here. You might just save yourself from sabotaging your career by not realizing how hidden fears drive your patterns.

Take the True Tilt Personality Profile