July 28, 2015

The Evolution of Leadership Studies

Author: Leslie Trainor, M.A.

Theories on Organizational Behavior have evolved over time from the premise that organizations are microcosms operating within an imaginary, protective dome (closed systems theories) to the concept that organizations are a part of a larger whole (open systems theories). And this evolution makes sense. Organizations are not immune to the influences of the outside world; external dynamics include such things as governmental regulatory requirements, globalization of business and increasing societal pressure to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. Any good businessperson recognizes the importance of these factors and concedes to the realities of operating within the context of the external environment. Wouldn’t it make sense for this evolution towards a more holistic approach to also apply to the realm of leadership studies?

The Importance of Context

The concept of leadership has been romanticized by organizational theorists with an almost singular focus on the person occupying the leader position. This limited perspective constitutes a closed system approach in which context is almost entirely dismissed. Context, on an organizational level, may be summarized as the situational factors that impact organizational behavior. Applying this construct to leadership studies in particular, context refers to the situational factors that impact leader behavior. Leadership analysis without acknowledgement of contextual variables is like trying to make sense of a jigsaw without having all the puzzle pieces in hand. An exemplar for the downside of dismissing context is the case of toxic leadership.

Toxic leadership is a process wherein the conduct of a leader with dysfunctional personal qualities causes harm to the leader’s organization and/or followers. Toxic leaders tend to be manipulative and act in ways that enhance themselves, often at the expense of others. Typical behaviors include demeaning followers, participating in unethical activities and fostering cronyism. The toxic leader may prioritize their own personal agenda as opposed to those of internal and external stakeholders, which is often detrimental to the organization as a whole. It’s hard to imagine such an unpleasant person remaining in a seat of power for very long in a contemporary organization. Nevertheless, there are situations in which this occurs. Why is this allowed to happen? The answer requires cracking open the imaginary dome and taking context into consideration.

Toxic Leadership in Action

As an example, Dov Charney is the founder and former CEO of American Apparel. Throughout his tenure, Mr. Charney faced a litany of sexual harassment allegations. In one such incident, he famously masturbated during an interview with a female reporter from Jane Magazine. It wasn’t until 2014, which was 25 years into his term, that he was ousted by the American Apparel Board of Directors. In a de-contextualized analysis of this toxic leadership scenario, theorists would focus solely on the person occupying the leader position- Mr. Charney. For example, research would be conducted on Dov’s background, his personality traits, his business acumen, his communication style and so on. Certainly one could make an educated guess that he possesses some degree of professional savvy which has allowed him to found a company, grow that company, take it public, and keep it afloat thereafter. Those are exceptional professional accomplishments.

However, as described above, Mr. Charney also possesses dysfunctional personality characteristics that are typical of a toxic leader. It’s difficult to imagine that his professional accomplishments so far outweigh his personal flaws that he was able to remain in power for a quarter of a century, particularly in this era of HR protocols and litigious solutions. It doesn’t seem like an equitable tradeoff.

The Toxic Triangle

Research has proposed that there are certain factors that foster toxic leadership situations. The theoretical model known as the Toxic Triangle represents the nexus of three elements that together create conditions that are contributory to toxic leadership: (1) destructive leader (2) susceptible follower and (3) permissive environment.

The culpability of the destructive leader is obvious, but how could it make sense for a follower to enable a toxic leader? Followers who belong to the leader’s “in group” tend to be beneficiaries of the dark leader’s regime and are therefore loyal defenders of and colluders with the regime. Other members, like many of us, have been conditioned to simply obey authority and fail to challenge the status quo. A third possibility is that followers, particularly those with unmet basic needs, are comforted by a strong leader who brings about social order and group cohesion.

Certain environments are ripe for toxic leadership situations. Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser offer up four types of conducive environments. First, unstable situations resulting in power vacuums or disorder are prime candidates for a toxic leader, who is able to gain and/or enhance their power by promising to restore order. The leader quickly centralizes decision-making and, even after the crisis passes, fails to relinquish his strangle hold. Second, external threats (real or perceived) may prompt organizational members to accept a less than palatable leader if that leader offers the promise of protection. Third, research has found that cultures that are collectivist and espouse greater power distance and uncertainty avoidance are more conducive to toxic leadership. Lastly, situations where leaders are given latitude and discretion absent a system of checks and balances leave the organization vulnerable to toxic leadership as well.

In summary, had researchers not looked beyond the person occupying the leader role, such advancements in understanding toxic leadership would not have been made. This logic may also be applied to leadership studies as a whole. To further leadership studies, it is prudent to take context under consideration. By better understanding leadership, practitioners may, in turn, better craft effective interventions. As the ultimate evolutionary scientist, Charles Darwin, said “it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

Conger, J. (1990). The dark side of leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 19, 44 − 55.

Darwin, C (1871). The Descent of Man. United Kingdom: John Murray.

Johns, G. (2006). The essential impact of context on organizational behavior. Academy of Management              Review, 31(2), 386–408.

Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). Toxic leadership: a conceptual framework. Encyclopedia of Executive              Governance. Retrieved from                   http://www.connectiveleadership.com/articles/toxic_leadership_a_conceptual_framework.pdf

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers,       and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3),                176–194.              doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.03.001