The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership


The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadershipWhat influence does an inspirational speech about company mission and vision from a CEO have on the ethical behavior of employees? According to the research, a great deal.

Transformational leadership, the practice of influencing the behavior of others to implement monumental change and new direction using a synergistic style of engagement and team building, is highly touted for its positive results. Mention just a few role models of transformational leadership — Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa — and you find why the inspiring influence of altruistic courage and grit make for remarkable leadership practice.

Research is suggesting a bit of caution, however, in how we engage in the transformative power of inspiration and its associated vision-sharing process within our organizations.

According to a 2013 study out of Drexel University, there are two sub-types of transformative leadership. Both leverage the mesmerizing energy of inspirational messaging, bold visioning, and the infusion of team spirit and camaraderie. Both also result in a strong sense of ownership and a heart-to-heart connection with the organizations and its leaders. Within both styles of transformational leadership is also the formation of a strong sense of family, purpose and acceptance.

They differ, however, in the framing of one or more components of the message being conveyed for that call to action leaders seek to convey. The difference can be subtle, and both could be introduced without seeming to contradict one another, but the difference exists nonetheless; and that  can make all the difference when it comes to the ethical or unethical behavior of an organization.

The difference in messaging and visioning is one of “gain” vs. “loss.” Imagery and messaging in a true transformational setting convey what can be gained, achieved and celebrated when an altruistic organizational mission or goal is reached. The ethical behavior of the individual members is positively enhanced and sustained across the organization.

When the organization’s message contains elements of what can be “lost,” however, the influence on ethics can be strikingly different. When transformative leaders speak about what can be lost as a result of failure — a loss of market share, diminished revenue, unserved populations, or lost public acceptance — the resulting unethical behavior of its members can be astonishing.

This form of negatively-imagined influential leadership is called pseudo-transformational leadership. It is called so because of its ability to mimic much of the same tools and trades of the true transformational model while imposing negative rather than positive imagery and messaging to influence behavior. Rallying around a common enemy, a common fear, or a common aversion, can influence a call to unity and action. The resulting actions, however, can be quite tragic.

Research shows that such negative influences still lead to strong team spirit and a sense of belonging to an organization and its mission, but the negative weight of consequences cause teams and their members to accept unethical behavior for the sake of defending and protecting the organizational family from failure and shame.

These forms of unethical behavior have been found to include financial fraud, fabrication, avoiding product liability and the withholding of crucial information from unsuspecting groups of stakeholders. Such behavior insulates in the short-term but results in long-term decline and, eventually, total destruction.

One need not look very far to see the consequences of such action. One well-known global financial institution recently learned this dark lesson all too well.

Leaders leveraging the transformational style need remember that the style itself is not the problem. When used properly and with an emphasis on the good, transformational leadership can result in success. When used to induce fear of failure or to enhance an aversion to loss or shame, the resulting impact on behavior can be quite costly.

Leaders seeking to adopt or continue the use of transformational leadership, and organizations who hire leaders adopting such a style, need not discourage transformational leadership. Rather, they should seek out to understand the imagery and message being framed by their leaders and ensure no negative imagery is being used and that no fear or shaming is included in messages seeking to motivate productivity, efficiency and results. Strong ethical guidelines, repeatedly shared and strictly enforced, remain important to each and every organization.

Lastly, leaders need to understand that team spirit, however strong, is in and of itself not a guarantee for sustainable success. How team spirit influences the quality of ethical actions taken on behalf of the organization becomes the true measure of success. Leaders are encouraged to promote an abundance mindset when discussing potential and opportunity with organizational members, and avoid the negativity of deficit-based imagery.

JC Cruz is an executive coach and organizational consultant specializing in team development, human dynamics and workplace harmony. He served 16 years as vice president and chief strategy officer for South Texas College before entering private practice in 2014. To learn more, visit or email