When Leaders Fail in Character

5 min read

At West Point, we devote tremendous intellectual energy to understanding the foundations of effective leadership. Upon graduation and commissioning as an officer in the US Army, cadets (now freshly minted second lieutenants) begin a career of leading others in challenging and sometimes dangerous situations. While there are many attributes of good leaders, there is one overriding and immutable factor — good character. To be effective in combat or any other context, the leader must be trusted. And to be trusted they must exemplify positive character traits of honesty, integrity, and genuine caring about the well-being of their followers.1 A cadet may graduate first in their class in academics or physical fitness, but if they fail in character they will fail as a leader.

Source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4Free

Toxic Leadership

Source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4Free

A recent study identified four attributes that characterize West Point cadets.2 These are relational (establishing positive social connections), commitment (finishing what one starts), honor (being truthful and of the highest integrity), and Machiavellian (seeking power and achieving goals, regardless of the costs). West Point graduates who exemplify the first three attributes stand to be effective Army leaders. Those whose leadership style is characterized by Machiavellianism will be toxic leaders who ultimately cause harm to the individuals and organizations they lead.

Machiavellianism, along with narcissism and psychopathy (dubbed the dark triad by psychologists), are associated with poor interpersonal adjustment. Leaders high in these traits should fail in all contexts. Nevertheless, even a casual analysis of leaders suggests that all too often people with these traits rise to positions of leadership. History is full of leaders who cared only about themselves, lied to their followers, and used any means available to retain power. The political landscape today is no different.

In some ways, the dark triad provides a competitive advantage for those wishing to rise to power. Self-aggrandizement and using others as stepping stones to achieve power, then discarding them when no longer needed, can be seen among leaders from authoritarian dictatorships to democracies. This is just as true in the workplace as in the political domain.

Weaponizing social media
It seems counterintuitive that such toxic leaders may rise to power. Even in a democracy, these traits may confer an advantage in garnering votes. Politicians who bluster about their own accomplishments and qualifications may more easily capture attention in this social media-driven world. Many voters form their opinions based on 20-second sound bites from quasi-news sources or social media feeds instead of carefully studying and weighing the qualifications and competencies of candidates. The candidate who is not constrained by telling the truth can weaponize social media and spread falsehoods instrumentally to achieve the goal of garnering votes. Machiavellian candidates will stop at nothing to be elected and remain in power even if it means resorting to the most underhanded strategies.

It is easier to understand how such people rise to power in non-democratic nations. Dictators do not flinch at using violence and intimidation to achieve their political goals. And, once in power, they use those same tactics to retain it. History demonstrates the consequences of such unrestrained power. Dictators in today’s world use the same tactics.

Perhaps in a democracy, a Darwinian principle is at play — aspiring leaders with dark triad traits are simply more successful in convincing others to support them. But another factor is at play. The famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner once stated that “the rat is always right.” He said this in frustration when his experimental rat did not behave as Skinner thought it should. Upon reflection, he concluded the rat was not at fault, rather, the experimenter failed to provide the contingencies of reinforcement needed to produce the desired behavior in the rat.

Skinner’s axiom may apply in understanding how dysfunctional leaders are elected in a democracy. Think of the aspiring leader as the rat, and the voters as the experimenter. The voters reinforce and support behaviors in aspiring leaders that, in most other contexts, would be unacceptable. This shifts the responsibility of toxic leadership from the leader to those who voted for them in the first place.

An education in character
This “blame the experimenter” approach suggests a different strategy for electing leaders of good character. Voters must be educated on what good leadership means. Like West Point cadets, they should understand that mere competence is not enough. Leaders must genuinely exemplify positive character traits and associated behaviors and policies, and genuinely care about others. Character education and development should be as great a focus in children as academic skills. Schools and major social institutions should embrace good character and reward those who display it. Citizens should be encouraged to dig deeper than their social media feeds when weighing the virtues (good or bad) of candidates. Character should be of equal or greater importance in deciding who to vote for than standard resume accomplishments.3

Leadership Essential Reads

Toxic leaders are not true leaders. A better word is manipulators. Manipulators use every means at their disposal to achieve personal glory and power at the expense of the well-being of others. At this point in history, the world desperately needs leaders who formulate policies and make decisions guided by high character and virtues. This is just as true for the corporate world as it is for political leaders. Character education may help aspiring leaders recognize the importance of positive values and virtues and thus shape their leadership style and philosophy. Psychologists and other character scholars can play a vital role in influencing leader development.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

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