Leadership and the “Dark Side” of Personality

Topic(s): leadership, personality
Publication: The Leadership Quarterly (2011)
Article: Leader development and the dark side of personality
Authors: P.D. Harms, S.M. Spain, S.T. Hannah
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

Recent research suggests that some positive personality traits (e.g., conscientiousness) are related to leadership outcomes. But what about the “dark side” of personality? In other words, what about subclinical traits, meaning those traits that fall between “normal” and what would be considered a personality disorder?


The authors (Harms, Spain, & Hannah, 2011) studied subclinical (“dark side”) traits and their effect on leader development in West Point cadets. They found that development did occur, with all twelve leader development dimensions increasing over the three-year time period. Subclinical traits had an effect on the rate of leader development, but the nature of that effect was mixed. Some traits (cautious, bold, colorful, dutiful) were correlated with leader development. Other traits (skeptical, imaginative) had an inverse relationship with leader development, meaning that more of the trait means worse leadership.


These results suggest that we should not see all “dark side” traits at being completely bad; in terms of leader development, some seem to help and others seem to hurt. In addition, this study provides further evidence that leadership develops over a long period of time, and personality explains much of that change. Therefore, personality assessments that go beyond the “big five” (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) would be useful as part of leadership development programs.


Harms, P. D., Spain, S. M., & Hannah, S. T. (2011). Leader development and the dark side of personality. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 495-509. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.04.007

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