Is Leadership dangerous?

Associate Professor Jan Ketil Arnulf’s research at the BI Norwegian Business School deals with what leadership is and how it is exercised. 2 months ago Audun Farbrot from the same school wrote about his findings. The statement

“There are few things more dangerous than leadership.”

stood out and made me read the article. Jan explains the dangerous aspects of leadership can be divided into three areas:

  1. Leadership as an illusion.
  2. The dark side of charisma.
  3. ”Derailed”, i.e. tyrannical and/or incompetent, leadership.

That makes much more sense to me and I can relate to it. At that point of the article I thought: Leadership is not necessarily a hazardous occupation but when leadership is misused it becomes a danger to those who are led.

Again, I was wrong!


Dr Arnulf has found no conclusive evidence that leadership exists. “We judge our leaders by the results. ” he said, “But leadership is about interaction with people.” Our understanding of leadership doesn’t match reality.

Wow, what a statement! While I understand what he is saying, I’m not in agreement with the conclusion. Leadership is as much about people as it is about vision and strategy. This means good leaders gain their value not just from what they deliver but also how they get there.


Successful leaders can become infallible in the eyes of their followers or in their own mind. They can attempt things that are unrealistic and put everything on the line.

Yes, definitely that risk exists. I would love to know to what degree it is a problem! Leaders in high positions are much more likely to fall into such a trap compared to middle management. I believe who is held accountable through direct feedback (and is actually listening) is much better equipped to withstand the dark side. (Did somebody say Star Wars?)


Derailed in Dr. Arnulf’s research means people who pretend to be good leaders by copying role models. They are essentially incompetent resulting in: ” a loss of motivation, co-operation and creativity, not to mention all the time that is needed to straighten out all the damage they have caused.”

It’s actually not leadership that is dangerous but people who pretend to be leaders. I have the optimistic or idealistic opinion that the selection process for any leadership role involves knowledgeable and responsible people. Such research and looking at many politicians, industrial and religious leaders (being in power now or historically known) makes me wonder how many such derailed leaders are causing damage all over the world. The line between doing the right thing and the wrong one can be a thin one.

And interesting article that provides much to talk about. What do you think?

2 comments on “Is Leadership dangerous?

  1. Tony Reeves says:

    Hi Frank,

    Some interesting perspectives.

    Looking at people who have led very successful campains or companies (some still so) it is very hard to to identify standout common qualities beyond a passion for what they believe in, hitting a target and having a personal stake in the outcome. None of the ones I am aware of have been through any apparent form of leadership training.

    So it becomes very hard to classify their individual traits. And in terms of dangerous, just to pick 3, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, they were or are only dangerous to their opposition.



  2. Ben says:

    “I have the optimistic or idealistic opinion that the selection process for any leadership role involves knowledgeable and responsible people”

    A recent study highlighted to me how poor companies really are at promoting leaders.

    “Last month, three Italian researchers were awarded an Ig Nobel prize for demonstrating mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.”

    That’s shocking!

    It shows the current way we promote people is fundamentally wrong.

    We can’t promote people based on intuition, years of service etc. Because one person is good in one role doesn’t mean they can then become a leader. I think that’s where physiological profiling could be beneficial in telling who might be best fitted to the leadership role, but few companies seem to take it that seriously even though the downsides on promoting the wrong person are extremely high as it can have a flow on effect to hiring poorer staff and can last for years.

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