Whether we like it or not, CEOs are not perfect, with some showing what may be referred to as ‘destructive’ behaviours. However, dealing with the destructive leadership behaviour of CEOs is often put in the too-hard basket.
With the current focus on bullying and harassment in the workplace, combined with bottom-line implications, the potential cost to organisations of destructive leaders cannot be ignored, especially by the HR manager.
What is destructive leadership behaviour?
Leadership has generally been seen as a positive force – people follow leaders who provide direction, motivate people and articulate a vision and purpose. Poor or bad leadership has been seen as an absence of the good, rather than a negative element in its own right.
However, there has been recent growth in understanding the unique characteristics of destructive leadership. The types of behaviours associated with destructive leadership include being unable to make decisions, bullying, lying, micro-managing, favouritism, exhibiting erratic behaviour, emotional displays and being vindictive.
Such CEOs are often seen as toxic and evil, which in addition to the aforementioned litany of behaviours, also often leave their organisation in a worse position than when they commenced as CEO. However, the CEOs themselves often do not appear to suffer, with compensation payouts in the form of golden parachutes.
Quite often, destructive leaders lack behavioural integrity, which is the pattern of alignment between their words and deeds.
CEOs with low levels of behavioural integrity are perceived as potentially deceitful, untrustworthy and dishonest. A glaring example here was Aubrey McClendon, former CEO of Chesapeake Energy.
He used company funds to support his own lifestyle and agendas. The fallout from this and other controversial behaviours saw Chesapeake Energy’s share price fall from $67 to $11 a share.
Lack of behavioural complexity has been identified as the failing of a number of high-profile CEOs, whose companies suffered as a result.
A link between a lack of behavioural integrity and a lack of behavioural complexity among destructive CEOs may well exist.
In terms of the bottom line, CEOs who display destructive leadership behaviours can seriously harm their organisation. This can occur through a range of issues, such as:
- De-stabilising the company.
- Potentially decreasing the share value.
- Dissatisfaction among employees, leading to potential for sabotage.
- Stress due to role conflict.
- Increased absenteeism.
- Cultivation of whistle-blowers.
- Negatively impacting on the image of the company.
These can lead to a massive negative impact on the organisation, which, in some cases, may never recover.
What can be done about it?
An inherent issue with destructive leaders at the CEO level is whose responsibility is it to remove the leader for the sake of the organisation?
Regrettably, the responsibility for the identification of a CEO who displays destructive leadership behaviours is not clear-cut. In a private organisation this responsibility typically falls to the board.
For HR practitioners and employees to identify destructive leadership behaviour in their CEO and to become the ‘whistle-blower’ is even more problematic.
They may be able to appeal to the chair of the board (or minister in a government department) but they would more likely need to go to an outside regulator, such as an ombudsman or anti-corruption unit, where they may have the protection of anonymity.
Getting the right CEO
To date, it is our view that the potential or capacity for destructive leadership by CEOs is not typically assessed or given adequate consideration in the process of selecting CEOs.
As destructive leaders are often difficult to identify in advance, boards and HR managers need tools to be developed that can assess the potential for such behaviour in an applicant.
Selection panel members need to engage in the selection process with a strong moral awareness and be on the lookout for destructive leadership behavioural potential, either from the applicant, or from a more considered examination of their past record.
One suggestion is to test all applicants for their level of behavioural integrity and behavioural complexity.
So, on the face of it, even though destructive leadership behaviour is harmful, it is not detrimental to all. While the issue is a challenge for HR, it is not one that HR can solve alone.