What makes a good leader? Are there certain characteristics? Are there practices that are needed? Does it depend on responding appropriately in different situations? What role does the relationship between management and employees play? Or do leaders have to be especially inspiring, authentic, or even spiritual? A very different perspective on this issue has become increasingly popular: the question of characteristics and conditions that negative leadership entails. This is often referred to as the “dark triad” of personality traits: Machiavellian, narcissism and subclinical psychopathy.

The “dark triad” of personality traits

For a long time, psychologists and fitness diagnosticians focused on the question of how effective leadership behaviour can be predicted, to derive conclusions for the selection of personnel. These ranged from initial biographical approaches (where did great leaders come from?) to almost esoteric-looking approaches such as spiritual leadership (an overview can be found in Yukl, 2012).

Since the new millennium, a contradictory approach was used to find out which characteristics drive bad leadership. The result: the “dark triad”, which we will now to introduce in order:

Machiavellianism: Named after the Italian political philosopher and politician Machiavelli, his classic book, The Prince, referenced historical examples where morals were subordinate to governing and maintaining power. Those with Machiavellian traits use deception and manipulation as a way to get ahead – self interest is put at the forefront, with no regard for others.

Narcissism: Named after the beautiful son of the gods in Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection, narcissism today is understood as inflationary, overestimated self-perception. Accompanied are fantasies of power, control, success and the desire to be admired by others. In addition, there is a certain ignorance towards criticism, which appears as arrogant and conceited. Of course, here the range from slightly narcissistic tendencies to extreme cases is quite wide. Relatively obvious, however, is that leaders with strong characteristics can quickly become destructive when responding harshly and condescendingly to legitimate criticism.

Subclinical psychopathy: First, subclinical means that the degree of psychopathy in the clinical sense does not directly require treatment. With psychopathy, there is a lack of empathy. Individuals are not able to empathise with others and rarely feel remorse when they hurt others. Overall, they are emotionally rather cold with a penchant for ruthlessness, beyond assertiveness. They have a destructive tendency but can also be quite charismatic.

What this means for management diagnostics

The environment in which the dark triad can really thrive is also important. Particular caution is required, when company culture is not sanctioned, but rather tolerant of certain tendencies. For example, ruthlessness as assertiveness is tolerated.

For those that work in personnel diagnostics and development, this extensive research means the potential of destructive repercussions of mishires must be made aware of, especially in critical departments. This is especially true for managers in areas with different risk factors.

Further Reading

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The dark triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 199–216.

O’Boyle, E. H., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A Meta-Analysis of the dark triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 557-579.

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 176–194.
Yukl., G. (2012). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentica Hall