Focus on leadership theory may be a warning sign of a problematic boss, research says
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > Focus on leadership theory may be a warning sign of a problematic boss, research says

Focus on leadership theory may be a warning sign of a problematic boss, research says

by Freya Lucas

November 12, 2020

While self improvement, reflection, and deeper learning are all traits which are encouraged in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, new research has shown that those individuals who are deeply interested and invested in leadership theories are more likely to be narcissistic and self serving, creating toxic work environments.


The research, conducted by the University of Queensland, suggests that the more narcissistic the leader, the higher their interest in leadership theories, building on previous research showing leadership was “an activity that appeals to, and boosts, people’s inflated sense of self.”


“The more narcissistic individuals are, the more they endorse various theories of leadership and the more they want to learn about them,” Dr Nik Steffens said.


“This in turn suggests that what motivates some people to engage with leadership theory is more a personal concern for the self than a social concern for the greater good.”


“Our findings chime with an emerging body of work which suggests that narcissists desire to be the centre of attention and that one way in which they are able to feed this ambition is by striving for positions of responsibility and power over others.


“It would appear that those who have self-serving tendencies not only have an elevated motivation to lead and exert their influence but are also those who are most keen to learn about contemporary theories of leadership.”


While there is a large volume of work which outlines the toxic effects of narcissistic leaders, there has been less reflection on the leadership theories that support and fuel their self-absorption, Professor Alex Haslam said. 


“Theories of leadership tend to celebrate what makes individuals superior to others and propose that it is this superiority that allows organisations and societies to flourish,” he noted. 


“One consequence of this is that most prevailing leadership theories appeal directly to leaders’ narcissism.”


Professor Haslam outlined the importance of the findings, at a time where there are low levels of public trust in corporate and political leaders. 


“This is an arresting finding, as it suggests that rather than leadership and leadership theory being the solution to our current woes, they may actually be their cause.”


“If the people who are drawn to the study of leadership are primarily interested in looking after themselves, we should not be surprised if they use their learning to do precisely this.” 

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