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  • Writer's picturePatrick Littorin

Destructive leaders

Why start a war? What makes a person want to expose other people to danger and death? What motivates a person to make such fateful decisions? In recent years, researchers have increasingly succeeded in identifying certain factors for leaders who make such fatal decisions and obviously derail.

In terms of personality, both among politicians and business leaders, there seem to be some common traits. They:

  • Overestimates their own ability and underestimates the strength of others.

  • Puts own, personal interests before the organization or the country.

  • Prioritizes their own image over their actual job.

  • Eliminates anyone who questions your decision.

  • Are arrogant and make ruthless decisions.

  • Do not plan for the long term.

Obviously no good qualities! But why do they still get so much power? The problem seems to be that they also have qualities in common with truly successful leaders. They are intelligent and ambitious, incredibly performance-oriented and deliver results above expectations. Therefore, they are also noticed early and rewarded, they are considered "high potentials". They are fearless, visionary and strong-willed. In their ambition, they are limitless.

But some things set them apart. Those who derail, for example, seem to lack self-insight and often have difficulties in working together. Outbursts of anger are often used as a means of power and they have difficulty dealing with failures. When problems arise, they do not listen to other people's opinions. They do not accept being contradicted and are skeptical of other people's real motives. They only listen to the advice they want to hear.

But how can one identify them before they have time to harm others? Some signs may be that they:

  • Gets sudden outbursts of anger and scolds people in public. Because they are unpredictable, they have a hard time creating long-term relationships and teams. They expect to be deceived and become specialists in conspiracy theories against themselves.

  • Are arrogant, cynical and condescending towards others. They expect to be admired and obeyed. They take place, are seen and heard. For them, it is obvious to be a leader and they always expect success. Superficially, they appear to be energetic and confident.

  • Often charismatic, charming and enjoys attention. Superficially, they appear as interesting people with many thought-provoking ideas.

Leaders with derailment tendencies are difficult to detect - before it is too late. They are suspense-seeking, manipulative and self-centered. Some early warning signs, however, may be to ask various situational- or behavioral questions.

Tension seekers are often impulsive and make quick decisions. They often have poor patience and can easily erupt. Suggestions for questions can therefore be about the person's privacy:

  • Can you describe what your private life looks like? Leisure activities or hobbies?

Good example: When the person describes a harmonious family situation or lives in a long-term relationship or commitment.

Self-centered people often have grandiose thoughts about themselves. They do not blame themselves if something goes wrong but are happy to blame others. At the same time, they are not afraid to take responsibility and like to excel over other people. Suggestions for questions to ask can therefore be:

  • Can you tell about your strengths and weaknesses, or areas of development, that you have been recommended to improve on?

Good example: When the person can describe a couple of good things about his person, as well as just as many less flattering things that should be improved.

Maneuvering people can be cynical. They easily exploit others for their own purposes. Because they do not trust others, they can therefore be both calculating and cunning. At the same time, they are often willing to take calculating risks, for example during negotiations or to maneuver their way through large organizations.

Suggestions for questions to ask can therefore be:

  • Can you tell about a negotiation with a potential customer or with employed staff? How did you set up the strategy? What were the consequences?

Good example: When the person describes a negotiation or deliberation in which both parties were equally satisfied or dissatisfied. Where they could be separated as friends, even if the contradictions were great.

Our test Complete Analysis Plus precisely measures risk behaviors to identify these traits, contact us at for more information.


Finkelstein, S., M. (2003). Why smart executives fail: And what you can learn from their mistakes. New York.

Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad Leadership. Harvard Business Shool Press.

Psykometrika, 2022.

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