The Leadership Odyssey: From Darkness to Light

 Dr P Singh*, A Bhandarker** and S Rai***

Sage Response, November 2015

One of the biggest crises in contemporary societies is the crisis of leadership along with the environmental crisis and energy crisis, according to a study conducted by the authors on 157 management graduates from the millennial generation (2009). The leadership crisis is evident in all walks of life be it politics, academics or business. Institutions are floundering owning to the alarming rise in self-aggrandizement and corruption, directly in proportion to the fall in leaders playing their roles with vision and integrity. In today’s context, organizations are unable to harness the enormous human potential available, because leaders don’t know how to lead.

In fact many a position holder deludes himself by the thought that now that he has been given the position, it means, that others have to listen to him, accept his thinking, because he is saying it, as if by some god given capability, someone overnight turns into a great leader. Rather we have observed the opposite phenomenon taking place. Many times as soon as people get to a position of high power- Ceo, Chairman and Managing director – they ‘lose their head’; such is the impact of positional elevation to the highest level. A perfectly normal and amiable person becomes imposing and insufferable. It is difficult to understand how this mutation takes place. Is he not the same person as before? Has he changed? Amazingly enough once they are out of power, they revert back to their earlier behavioral pattern. Such phenomena have been attributed to feudalistic Indian society and the hierarchical orientation which exists in large organizations. The question which gets raised however is the leadership issue in the changing demographic context, with more and more Millennials joining the workforce. It has already been found that there is a gap between the mindsets of these two generations. Clearly leaders will have to change their approaches and adapt to successfully handle the younger people entering the workforce and tap their capabilities.

We were curious to understand the impact of leaders on their team members and direct reports. How do they cope with Toxic leaders and how does a Virtuous Leader positively impact subordinates and in turn impact workplace performance?

These were the fundamental questions which the current research sought to answer. The authors are of the view that one can learn about leadership, as much by knowing what to do, as by understanding what not to do. Hence, the book examined both Toxic leadership as well as Virtuous leadership phenomenon as perceived by direct reports and team members.

Toxic and Virtuous leadership have been defined in terms of their impact on people- do the leaders create emotional distress in people; or do they have a positive impact which enhances the self-esteem, enthusiasm and zeal among employees? An attempt has been made to provide rich insights into Toxic Leadership and Virtuous Leadership by developing Indian case studies. These case studies have been built exclusively of top level leadership – chairman, managing director, and Ceo. The approach has been to interview people who have worked with the selected leaders. We also conducted a survey among executives (734) in the corporate world regarding their experiences with both Toxic leaders and Virtuous leaders. In addition, data was gathered not only in India but also from executives and officers from a number of countries in Asia and Africa.

The uniqueness of this research lies not only in the blend of data from qualitative and quantitative sources, but also in its data set- national and international. Above all the basic concept underlying this work is also unique. Researchers typically focus on either positive leadership approaches like Transformational, Turnaround, Consultative; or they study Toxic Dark or Destructive Leadership phenomenon. So far researchers have not attempted to examine both together. In fact this is one of the distinctive conceptual contributions of this book – the model being that human behavior ranges from Toxic at one end to Virtuous at the opposite end. Although endowed with both kinds of potential, leaders generally tend to operate at different points of this continuum. When they operate exclusively at the toxic end, they become terrible and hated leaders. When they operate at the virtuous end of the continuum, they become humane.

The book contains four major chapters:

  1. Peaks and Valleys of Leadership (is a literature review on both Toxic leadership and Virtuous Leadership
  2. Toxic Leader Profile
  3. Virtuous Leader Profile
  4. Leadership Consciously: A Road Map for Moving from Toxic to Virtuous Leadership.

Findings bring out that leaders have a powerful impact on people whether positively or negatively. By now it is common wisdom that employees leave their bosses not organizations. Our study found that the most hated leaders are those who are arrogant, blame others, self-opinionated and close minded, create insecurity among people, manipulative and play favorites. Those position holders who display toxic behaviours are disliked and create negative emotional reactions among people like emotional distress, desire to quit, fear, anxiety and insecurity, loss of self-confidence and self-worth, feeling powerless and helpless withdrawal, lack of passion and commitment. The most liked and admired Virtuous leadership behaviors are humble and empowering, respectful about the dignity of others, good listeners, provide clear sense of direction for performance and being approachable.

The book aims to sensitize people – executives and would be leaders- on the behaviors to cultivate in order to influence and lead people towards achieving larger organizational goals. In fact the book can enable leaders and would be leaders on their personal leadership odyssey – the journey to shape themselves to be the best that they can possibly become, by reducing their toxic side and enhancing their virtuous side. The last chapter deals with ways and means to break the autopilot of assumptions and stereotypes at the individual level and enables movement towards learning and leading consciously. The book advocates managing oneself holistically – including the Spiritual, Intellectual, Emotional, and Physical levels - in order to lead consciously. The checklist provided at the end of the book is a useful reminder to readers about the areas to focus on and areas to ignore.

The book is available on Amazon and

*Dr P Singh, currently Ceo LEAD CENTRE; fmr Director IIM-L and MDI-Gurgaon, New Delhi, India; **Dr Asha Bhandarker, Distinguished Professor of Org Beh, IMI-Delhi, India; and ***Dr Snigdha Rai, Assistant Professor, IMI-Delhi, India