The Emperor Has No Clothes, by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen's first illustrator 1835 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #029

Dysfunctional Leadership: Context and Causes

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Key Concept

Though it is easy to simply blame the leader in situations where organizations face dysfunction, the author proposes here that there are a number of contextual factors that, in fact, lead to success or failure. Specifically outlined are three models/frameworks that help to better understand the components involved in leadership disasters.

Idea Summary

In this paper, the author examines the possible bases for dysfunctional leadership, moving away from an emphasis on a leader’s performance and personality to focusing on the contextual features that can lead to success or failure.

Even though the ‘romance of the leader-as-hero movement’ has been muted to some extent, the author says that the hype over charismatic, transformational and inspirational leadership continues. Executive coaches highlight how a person ‘can be their best’ or even ‘the best-in-class’; leadership programs entice participants to become ‘local heroes’. The hype about executive excellence generates unrealistic expectations and brings unintended consequences, such as avoidable personal and organizational trauma, criminality, disappointment, failure, exploitation and greed.

Because of this hype, leaders are often (and conveniently) blamed whenever things go wrong. However, the author points out that leadership and organizational failures may occur just as much from organizational and contextual factors.

According to the author, generally, less attention than is merited is given to contextual factors that may have significantly contributed to failures of leadership or the collapse of the business.

He suggests teasing out determinants of a leader’s behaviour-in-context; as isolating such influences can be useful for the well-being of an organization at large. To do so to author suggests three models, based on existing research, that can be used to develop remedial or preventative intervention strategies. 

Business Application

These three models can be employed to develop corrective or protective interventions:

The Toxic Angel: this is the notion of the toxic triangle of three key components which, in combination, are likely to result in destructive leadership behaviour. These are:

  1. Destructive leaders;
  2. Susceptible followers; and
  3. Conducive environments.

Together, they are a recipe for leadership disaster.

The ACE Framework: this suggests that any assessment of a leader’s performance should take into account the effect on their behaviour of the operational within which they are working. Three key dimensions need to be considered both separately and in combination to build a more complete picture of any organizational situation to be addressed:

  1. The key actors/executives;
  2. The internal ‘state’ of the organization; and
  3. External forces (e.g. Financial institutions, media attention, investor interest, etc.)

The Fraud Triangle: this highlights that it is the opportunity to exploit that makes such unhelpful and destructive behaviour viable for the perpetrator (i.e. the  leader) to contemplate in the first place. Counter-productive/destructive executive behaviour is more likely to arise when:

  1. Leaders come under too much pressure or the incentive to defraud is too appealing to deny;
  2. The opportunity to commit fraud exists/can be easily created; and
  3. Leaders can rationalize to themselves that their otherwise disreputable behaviour can be justified as “OK” given the circumstances.

The author concludes that these uncomplicated frameworks highlight that however it may appear a leader’s overt behaviour will be as a result of a dynamic interaction between the various forces highlighted by models above. Instead of simply placing the responsibility for dysfunctional and toxic leadership on the behaviour of the leader(s), more detailed examination of causal factors; this, says the author is the best we can do to look after our leaders and their organizations.

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Idea conceived

  • 2011

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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