Why Leaders Behave Badly

A Freudian Perspective on Bad Leadership

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2014 22 Pages

Psychology - Work, Business, Organisational and Economic Psychology


Abstract: In this paper, important works on leadership and psychology are reviewed. The literature review provides an overarching analysis of the psychology of leadership and has a focus on bad leadership. The paper follows by presenting an original psychological evaluation of two bad leaders, as defined by author Barbara Kellerman: Vincent Cianci Jr. and Mario Villanueva. The basis of this analysis is influenced by Sigmund Freud and his psycho-analytic works. The paper concludes with a discussion of why it is important to incorporate psychological factors into leadership studies and a call for future, similar research. The conclusion also highlights the benefits associated with the continued study of both bad leadership and bad followership.


The study of leadership as an academic discipline is a relatively modern development. Interest in leadership study was heightened in the late 1970’s when James MacGregor Burns (1978) released his seminal book Leadership. The study of psychology, on the other hand, has long been an academic pursuit. Despite the different pedagogical time frames of these two disciplines, there are many important lessons that can be learned when both psychology and leadership studies are synthesized. Leadership involves groups of people and constant human interaction. As a result, psychology can be used to help explain why leaders lead and why followers follow. Leadership also involves individual behavior and decision making, which, when evaluated psychologically, can yield insight into leaders’ actions. The natural overlap that exists between the two studies creates a situation in which a deeper and true understanding of leadership can be ascertained if psychology is properly incorporated into the analysis. This paper synthesizes important works on both psychology and leadership, and has a specific focus on bad leadership.

The notion of bad leadership is newer than the study of leadership itself and did not receive much attention until the last decade. Today, there is a significant amount of literature on both bad leadership and bad followership. However, the majority of this literature focuses on why subordinates follow bad leaders and how bad leaders (i.e. ineffective or immoral) are able to sustainably lead large groups of individuals despite their malpractices. This paper attempts to add to the existing conversation on bad leadership by providing a psychological evaluation of bad leadership behavior based on the works of Sigmund Freud, and by illuminating the psychological factors that cause these leaders to engage in such behavior.


The Psychology of Leadership and Group Dynamics

In this literature review the concepts of leadership, followership, power, and authority are explored. Throughout the review, particular attention is given to the psychological factors that form the foundation of leadership. The first section of the review explores popular works on leadership, followership, and power dynamics and attempts to draw connections to the underlying psychological phenomena that directly influence all group dynamics by highlighting similarities between these contemporary, popular works and the original writings of Sigmund Freud. The second section of the review focuses on a specific Freudian concept referred to as “Those Wrecked by Success.” First, the paper reviews the original, relevant literature by Freud and follows by examining the literature that applies some of these Freudian concepts.

Kellerman (2004) provides an exhaustive overview of the notion of bad leadership with a plethora of real-life examples, and categorically divides bad leadership into seven groups: incompetent, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular, and evil. As is evident in the names of the groups, the first three involve ineffective leadership while the last four groups involve immoral leadership. This distinction is both interesting and important. Some leadership scholars, such as James MacGregor Burns (1978), insist that a leader be both effective and moral. Kellerman (2004) provides dozens of examples of leaders who fall into the groups listed above. From Enron employees and drug traffickers to charity service leaders and the Olympic Committee, Kellerman effectively illuminates the differences between ineffective leaders and immoral leaders, both of which are considered bad.

While each of these bad leadership categories is important, given the purpose and scope of this paper, Kellerman’s “corrupt” group distinction is exclusively reviewed. Kellerman defines corrupt leadership as “the leader and at least some followers lie, cheat, or steal. To a degree that exceeds the norm, they put self-interest ahead of public interest” (Kellerman, 2004, p.147). It is important to note that this involves actions from both the leader and followers. Kellerman explores four cases of what she considers corrupt leadership. Specifically, she examines Vincent Cianci Jr., who was mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Mario Villanueva, who was a Mexican politician, Andrew Fastow, who was the chief financial officer of Enron, and William Aramony, who was leader of the United Way of America. For each individual, Kellerman provides biographical information that presents a compelling argument for why each of these leaders is corrupt. The major successes and failures of two of these individuals are examined in detail in this paper. Kellerman focuses on the actions of these leaders and how they were able to lead effectively despite their immoral natures. She discusses leadership dynamics as well as followership dynamics, which she considers equally as important. Especially in the case of Andrew Fastow, the corrupt nature of leadership that occurred would not have been possible if follower obedience and follower involvement were not present.

Aside from the examples Kellerman (2004) provides, many other cases of corrupt leaders exist. For example, hedge fund owner and manager Steven A. Cohen and some of his subordinates have recently received a tremendous amount of attention from the SEC in the wake of insider-trading accusations. It is common to observe instances of insider-trading, tax evasion, and other illegal economic schemes in today’s world, each of which would be considered examples of corrupt leadership by Kellerman. Later in the paper, the psychological factors that lead to these types of bad leadership are more thoroughly explored. The paper utilizes some of Kellerman’s corrupt leader examples as prototypes for the psychological analysis.

Prior to Kellerman and Burns’ work, two groundbreaking experiments, conducted by Milgram (1974) and Zimbardo (1971, 2007), provide compelling experimental evidence regarding the dynamics of power and authority in groups. Milgram (1974) shows the effects of power and authority on an individual basis and Zimbardo (1971, 2007) shows the effects that context, environment, and situation have on group dynamics.

Milgram’s (1974) experiment is commonly referred to as the Stanley Milgram Shock Experiment, which took place at Yale University beginning in 1961. The experiment involved three individuals: a shocker, the person actually shocked, and a perceived expert who gave the instructions for shocking. In the experiment, the researcher (perceived expert) orders the teacher (shocker) to give painful shocks to the learner (person actually shocked). The shocker operates under the false pretense that he or she is actually shocking the learner for wrong answers. In reality, the learner is actually an actor who pretends to be shocked in the aftermath of a wrong answer. The only “blind” candidate in the experiment is the teacher. The experiment shows that the teacher often unquestionably shocks the learner for wrong answers regardless of the designated wattage and observed pain that he or she is inflicting. This experiment provides solid evidence of the effect power and authority (particularly in the form of perceived expertise) can have on individual behavior. The majority of blind candidates (teachers) did not cease shock administration despite the fact that the learner was clearly in pain and that the designated wattages were dangerous for human health. This sort of unrestricted obedience helps explain why so many individuals follow bad leaders without questioning the nature of their duties and assigned tasks.

Zimbardo’s (1971, 2007) experiment is commonly referred to as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, which took place in 1971 at Stanford University, twenty-four American and Canadian male college student volunteers participated. The researchers simulated a prison environment and the volunteers were arbitrarily selected to be either prisoners or prison guards. After being exposed to the simulated environment, the behaviors and interactions of both prisoners and prison guards changed drastically and rapidly. Prison guards began to treat the prisoners in a sadistic manner and prisoners began to act submissively in the face of this inappropriate behavior. In fact, only one prisoner spoke out against the unusually cruel treatment and this individual joined the experiment late (he had to replace another volunteer who was removed from the experiment due to perceived psychological damage). This prisoner, who spoke out against the cruel guard treatment, was seen as a wrongdoer by his fellow prisoners despite the guard treatment being undeniably cruel. Additionally, the experiment, which was designed to last two weeks, was deliberately cut short after only four days due to unexpectedly extreme and deleterious dynamics that were observed between guards and prisoners.

Zimbardo (1971, 2007) refers to this phenomenon as the Lucifer effect. This name is derived from the biblical story of Lucifer, who was God’s favorite angel. Upon committing two cardinal sins, Lucifer was sentenced to hell by God. Once in hell, the power, authority, and behavior of Lucifer were forever changed. The Lucifer example is analogous to the prison experiment in the sense that both Lucifer and the prison guards were drastically changed by the environment in which they were situated. Prior to being in hell, Lucifer was considered God’s favorite angel, and, prior to being in the simulated prison, the prison guard volunteers were considered normal, friendly individuals. This experiment provides evidence of the effects context, environment, and situation have on group dynamics, power, and authority.

Kellerman (2008) focuses less on environment and instead presents a compressive overview of followership, highlighting the importance of follower consideration in the leader-follower dynamic. When leadership studies first developed in academia, the focus was entirely on the leaders and, as a result, followers were not seriously considered. Kellerman (2008) illuminates the significance of followership and claims that ignoring followers is equivalent to ignoring a key variable in a two variable (leader and follower) equation. In Followership, Kellerman divides followers into five different groups: isolates, bystanders, participants, activists, and diehards. Progressing from the former to the latter, the groups are arranged by level of follower engagement. Kellerman effectively synthesizes works from various fields such as sociology, psychology, history, and leadership and provides an abundance of followership examples. Despite the lack of authority and power of followers, Kellerman argues that followers do have an impactful effect on group dynamics and leadership effectiveness in general.

Kellerman cites Freud (1921, 1939) as “the first” to highlight both the individual and group benefits of followership (Kellerman, 2008, pp. 53-58). Freud (1939) provides a psychological explanation for the reasons why followers capitulate to leaders regardless of whether the leader is considered good or bad. In “Moses and Monotheism”, he (1939) describes certain individual follower benefits that ultimately cause individuals to obediently follow regardless of leadership effectiveness or morality. Freud uses the biblical example of Moses and his ability to lead thousands of slaves to freedom in Egypt. He discusses the need individuals have for authority figures and relates this notion to the father figure. Freud argues that individuals unconsciously seek to replace their fathers with another figure of similar authority (i.e. a leader). He also states that there is a relationship between individuals’ relationships with God and individuals’ relationships with leaders. Followers’ relationships with God (or other religious figures) stem from the initial childhood relationship they experience with their father and mother. These relationships, often lost with time, can be rekindled by individuals who engage in followership. Many will act obediently in the face of an authority figure analogous to the parental and religious dynamics of their past.

Kellerman (2008) also acknowledges Freud as “the first” to discuss the collective incentives that cause individuals to follow despite leader effectiveness or morality (p. 57). Freud (1921) presents these group incentives in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” He discusses the ancient dynamic of simple societies and specifically uses ape communities as an example of early and primitive human interaction. In these primitive societies, it is argued that group members join together, under the rule of a dominant male, in order to experience the security and safety the members instinctually desire. Due to the instinctual nature of groups, Freud argues that it is important for such groups to have strong leaders who have the capacity to subdue the “barbarian” nature of these primitive groups (Kellerman, 2008). As far as good versus bad leadership, Freud asserts that the risks associated with bad leadership are assumed by followers due to their desire for authority figures and need for guidance.

In a similar manner, Lipman-Blumen (2006) offers an insightful account of followership in The Allure of Toxic Leaders. From Catholic Church officials and basketball coaches to Adolf Hitler and Enron’s CEO, Kenneth Lay, Lipman-Blumen presents a compelling argument explaining why followers obediently follow such individuals despite their immoral and unethical natures. Lipman-Blumen points out that these bad leaders depend on reliant and compliant followership to succeed as effective leaders. As highlighted by several authors (e.g. Kellerman 2004, 2008; Bass& Avolio, 1993; House & Shamir, 1993) leadership requires interaction between leader and followers. As a result, mere leader action is ineffective unless followers are onboard and willing to cooperate. Lipman-Blumen discusses the psychological needs for groups and camaraderie. She argues that toxic leaders are able to exploit these innate desires to create loyal and unquestioning supporters. Her discussion of the need for security, order, authority, and belonging is directly and originally articulated by Freud (1921). In “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” Freud highlights the desire that exists within all individuals for authority. As discussed, he argues that this longing stems from the authority, order, and security that parents provide their children at a young age. Lipman-Blumen also discusses the illusions that leaders are able to create for followers. She argues that in an uncertain world, “the illusion that life is both controllable and meaningful allows much of social life to proceed” (Lipman-Blumen, 2006, p.51). This conversation is also reminiscent of Freud’s (1921) work. In a similar fashion, Freud discusses the need for individual group members to feel equally loved by the leader, regardless of whether this love is an illusion or a reality.

Lipman-Blumen (2006) claims that the illusions toxic (and nontoxic) leaders are able to provide cushion followers from reality and cause individual group members to feel significant. In reality, according to Lipman-Blumen, these group members may not be significant; however, these artificial, leader-manufactured illusions allow followers to feel meaningful and motivate them to unquestionably obey orders. In many cases, the illusions of safety and security create an allure for toxic leaders. For example, during the chaos and pandemonium of World War II, millions of individuals indubitably followed Adolf Hitler in an attempt to attain safety, security, and camaraderie. Notwithstanding Hitler’s immoral and evil nature, these followers remained loyal and obedient throughout Hitler’s reign over Nazi Germany. Lipman-Blumen succinctly highlights the reasons that followers follow bad leaders, which is an essential part of the bad leadership equation. Without the support and compliance of followers, leaders, both good and bad, simply cannot survive and prosper.

Another important leadership concept that has psychological underpinnings is discussed by Bass and Avolio (1993) who articulate and define transformational leadership. The authors separate the characteristics of a transformational leader into four different categories, which are often referred to as the four I’s: “intellectual stimulation,” “inspirational motivation,” “individual consideration,” and “idealized influence.” By understanding the value and significance of the four I’s, one can comprehend transformational leadership and its potential effectiveness. Each of these behavior types, when combined effectively, makes for good transformational leadership. While the names assigned to the various behaviors of a transformational leader are fairly self-explanatory, a brief description of each is given. Intellectual stimulation involves the intellectual engagement of followers by the leader. This requires the leader to constantly challenge the competency and dexterity of his or her subordinates to ensure that performance is maximized on a case-by-case basis . Inspirational motivation requires the leader have a clear vision and mission for the group as a whole. If the goals of a group are clearly articulated, and the desire to achieve these goals is shared equally among the group members, the purpose and meaning necessary for effective group action will be realized by all members. Individual consideration describes actions taken by the leader to treat each of his or her subordinates in a unique and special manner. This special and individual treatment highly motivates followers because it makes them feel appreciated and desired by the leader. Finally, idealized influence encompasses the notion of positive role-modeling by the leader. If the leader of a group acts in an ideal manner, subsequent follower emulation occurs. All four of these concepts describe unique leadership behaviors that motivate followers. As Bass and Avolio discuss, this increased motivation leads to increases in performance.

Goethals (2005) insightfully notes that many of the leader characteristics presented by Bass and Avolio (1993) are paralleled in Freud’s (1921) “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” While Bass and Avolio do not explicitly cite Freud as a source of influence, it is clear that many of the leadership and followership concepts discussed by Freud are imbedded in the model presented by Bass and Avolio. For instance, Freud (1921) speaks of followers’ longings to feel equally loved by the leader, the need for a common goal or purpose within a group, and the ubiquitous desire for authority figures. For instance, Freud claims “the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader” (Freud, p. 123). This quote directly relates to the idea of individual consideration. If leaders engage in this type of behavior, members of the group are likely to feel unique admiration from the leader. Whether or not this leader admiration is an illusion or reality is beside the point, the important connection is that the follower believes he is unique and loved by the leader. Additionally, Freud notes that if the leader is a “fanatical believer” in a specific set of goals and aspirations, he or she will be able to “awaken the group’s faith” (Freud, p. 81). These ideas relate closely to the notion of inspirational motivation. If leaders are passionate about the mission and vision of the group, they will be able to inspire and motivate followers accordingly. If a faith is commonly shared within a group, power and authority are granted to the leader and obedience is observed among followers.

Goethals (2005) also noted connections between Freud’s group psychology and House and Shamir’s “charismatic leadership.” Further examination of the literature makes the connections clear. House and Shamir (1993) cite three different forms of leadership considered to be charismatic. First, the charismatic leader has a clearly formulated mission and vision for the group. These goals must be well articulated by the leader. Second, the charismatic leader leads by example and acts as a role-model for followers. Similar to the notion of idealized influence, this behavior type motivates followers to engage in behavior that allows the mission and vision of the group to be realized. Last, charismatic leaders express high levels of expectations and confidence in their followers. This behavior maximizes individual follower performance and sets clear follower expectations.

Because there is overlap between the charismatic and transformational leadership models, it makes sense that certain Freudian influences present in Bass and Avolio’s model are also present in House and Shamir’s model. For the purposes of this review, some of the connections between Freud’s group psychology and the charismatic leadership model are illuminated. However, this conversation is deliberately limited due to the similarity that is present between the two leadership models. House and Shamir argue that if all members of a group are able to identify with a common belief, the apparent cohesion and collective identity lead to higher performance and the ability to impose authority effectively. Freud (1921) discusses this concept when he addresses the fact that leaders must have the same characteristics and goals as followers. To be precise, Freud states that leaders must “possess a strong imposing will” and “give an impression of greater force” (Freud, p. 129). This concept, originally articulated by Freud, has many ties to the first type of charismatic behavior previously described. Charismatic leaders have the same authority, presence, and vision articulation described by Freud. By engaging in this type of behavior, leaders are able to effectively empower followers and maximize performance through increased motivation.

Leaders Wrecked by Success

While Freud’s works Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego (1921) and Moses and Monotheism (1939) are often referred to in leadership literature, a discussion and application of Freud’s “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work” (1916) with relation to leadership (particularly bad leadership) are uncommon. For the purposes of the literature review, the three essays that comprise this work are analyzed in terms of their original, psychologically based significance. Later in the paper, the psychological concepts from these essays will be applied directly to bad leadership examples.

The three essays that comprise “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work” are “Exceptions” (p. 311), “Those Wrecked by Success” (p. 315), and “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt” (Freud, 1916, p. 331).The latter two essays are more relevant to the focus of this paper; however, all three works have important applications for understanding leadership-followership dynamics, individual proclivities, and human behavior in general. The first work, “Exceptions”, describes individuals who feel entitled to special privileges for unconscious reasons. “Those Wrecked by Success” describes the tendency for individuals to implode when cherished desires and wishes are realized. Finally, “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt” describes the criminal actions of individuals that result from the unconscious sense of guilt associated with success and happiness.

Freud (1916) illustrates the wreckage that is commonly associated with stories of success through four different examples. Two of these examples arise in Freud’s clinical work and the other two from literary examples. The clinical examples include a male patient who has achieved great success in his employment progression and a woman who was on the verge of marrying a man who deeply and sincerely loved her. Upon reaching his ambitious career goals, the male patient became extremely depressed and melancholy. He ultimately lost his ability to function and lost the laudable achievements for which he had worked so hard. The female patient, upon realizing the existence of requited, mutual love, ultimately became psychotic and dysfunctional in the weeks leading up to her planned union. Both of these real-life cases exemplify the wreckage that sometimes results from bliss, mutual love, and success attainment. The two literary examples Freud (1916) uses include Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Ibsen’s Rebecca Gamvik. Freud discusses Lady Macbeth’s resilient and resolute nature that dissolves only upon the attainment of her long-term ambitions. Her seemingly impenetrable countenance disappears when her ultimate success and desire are realized. Similarly, Freud argues that Rebecca Gamvik engages in self-defeating behavior and ultimately commits suicide due to the extreme guilt associated with her incestuous desires and oedipal wishes of which she becomes conscious. Using these four examples, Freud is able to provide explanation for the paradoxical “wrecked by success” phenomenon.

In the last essay “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt” (p. 331), Freud concisely describes the reasons why individuals who experience high levels of happiness and success commit crimes. Notwithstanding the brevity of this essay (it is only one page), Freud provides important messages regarding human nature and individual proclivities. Through his analytic work, although no clinical examples are cited, Freud argues that individuals “who have…become very respectable” often engage in criminal activities as an unconscious coping mechanism. Freud argues that there is a sense of unconscious guilt associated with feelings of true happiness and success that has ties to prepubescent experiences. Additionally, he argues that individuals experiencing this unconscious form of guilt commit crimes and engage in other forms of self-defeating behaviors to tie the guilt to something palpable, relatable, and real. Freud claims, “He was suffering from an oppressive feeling of guilt, of which he did not know the origin, and after he had committed a misdeed this oppression was mitigated. His sense of guilt was at least attached to something” (Freud, 1916, p. 331). This notion is useful for understanding why individuals experiencing high levels of happiness and success may engage in criminal and other self-defeating activities, despite the lack of a practical, conscious motivator.

Levy, Seelig, and Inderbitzin (1995) expand upon Freud’s discussion of those wrecked by success by providing an informative clinical inquiry. The focus of this paper is to distinguish between those who are actually wrecked by success and those who avoid success. The authors argue that Freud does not make this distinction clear in his original literature. Levy, Seelig, and Inderbitzin make their argument through a clinical study of a patient referred to by the authors as “the broadcaster” (p. 644). The patient is given this name because the researchers observed that he was able to eloquently, calmly, and clearly articulate the wreckages of his life. His form of speech and body language, despite the fact that he was describing difficult life experiences, reminded the researchers of a news broadcaster describing impersonal events.

The researchers argue that the circumstances of the patient’s personal life and upbringing create a dynamic in which one is likely to be wrecked by success. The broadcaster patient describes a number of professional and personal life problems that repeatedly arose in the aftermath of success attainment. Specifically, the patient describes failures he realized after being accepted to a prestigious university. Additionally, he describes the failures that occurred in his first three jobs. After graduating late, due to his academic failures, the patient was fired from his first three jobs, each of which provided a praiseworthy employment opportunity. These professional failures, according to the patient, were due to overambitious projects and a disorganized lifestyle. The patient also describes a mutual love situation that he was unwilling to finalize due to seemingly contrived reasons. Each of these instances provides clear examples of an individual who has been continually wrecked by his own successes. The researchers observed that the patient was intellectually superior to many of his peers. This aspect of the patient, coupled with his family life and upbringing, create a context where one is likely to be wrecked by his or her own successes, according to the researchers (Levy, Seelig, & Inderbitzin, 1995; Schafer, 1984).

The broadcaster chronicles the relationship he has with his parents as troubled. The parents of the patient still remained in his life but their rapports were tarnished. The patient describes his mother as “controlling, dominating, intrusive, and belittling” and describes his father as “weak, victimized, paranoid, and irrational” (p. 646). The mother was thoroughly disappointed in her husband and his lack of success despite his competence and intellect. As a result, the mother looked to her son as the primary source of her satisfaction. The patient claims that his mother would constantly make the dissatisfaction she had with her unsuccessful businessmen husband publically known, and that his mother “saw a chance to recoup her losses by vicariously experiencing through him many of the things she felt cheated out of by her husband’s problems” (p. 647). The researchers argue that this family dynamic creates a situation in which the patient has become an oedipal victor while the father has become an oedipal loser. As a result of this complex, the adult successes of the patient created internal dangers for which failure was the best remedy. These internal dangers result from complex psychological phenomena that, for the purposes of this paper, are precluded from review. The important lesson from this work, given the scope of this paper, is that certain circumstances (i.e. well-endowment, intellectual superiority, and unconscious oedipal triumphs) may create a context in which an individual is destined to by wrecked by his own successes. The distinction the authors make between those who are actually wrecked by success and those who merely avoid success is also a valuable contribution.

Nelson (1983) also provides some interesting examples of self-defeating behavior that occur in the wake of success attainment. A distinctive case of this is something psychologists call “sergeant’s syndrome” during World War II. This syndrome describes the psychological phenomenon that seemed to dominate the behavior and emotion of many sergeants after they were promoted from the status of ordinary solider or given more authority and jurisdictional power. Despite the fact that this type of promotion was considered a successful achievement, there are many accounts of individuals who actually felt wrecked in the wake of increased authority. Nelson (1983) describes the common unhappy sentiment of many newly promoted sergeants who felt satisfied with their positions prior to the promotion. He cites an example of a sergeant proclaiming “I’d rather be mother than father.” This quote illuminates the conscious dissatisfaction that many sergeants experienced after receiving increased responsibilities. However, this self-imposed suffering and melancholy may also serve as a psychological mechanism to cope with the unconscious guilt associated with success and happiness attainment.

Zaleznik (1993) offers a rare piece of literature in his book chapter “Those Who are Wrecked by Success – Henry Ford,” further exploring this notion (pp. 241-273). Despite the obvious similarities between this work and Freud’s, including his paper “Those Wrecked by Success”, Zaleznik and Anne Jardim do not cite Freud in their Henry Ford case study. Regardless, Zaleznik (1993) presents a compelling argument of an individual who was wrecked by his own success. He argues that many of the success realized by Ford ultimately led him to engage in self-defeating behavior. Zaleznik examines Ford’s life and analyzes certain successes that were accompanied by subsequent failures. The two major wreckages examined are Ford’s reluctance to change the highly successful Model T and his anti-Semitic behavior. When the Model T was first introduced in 1908, it dominated the automobile industry and offered consumers the option of buying a car at unprecedentedly low prices. However, in the decades to follow, Ford remained persistent and adamant that no major changes be made to the car despite numerous suggestions from colleagues and other experts. This type of ineffective leadership would fall into Kellerman’s “rigid” category of bad leadership (Kellerman, 2004, p. 75).

The other example of Ford’s wreckage that Zaleznik (1993) presents is his anti-Semitic behavior and comments. In 1918, Ford purchased a weekly newspaper called The Dearborn Independent. The newspaper ran for almost ten years until 1927 and throughout those years many anti-Semitic articles such as “The International Jew” were published. Zaleznik (1993) highlights some of the psychological motivators that may have influenced Ford’s inappropriate and morally bad behavior. For example, he discusses the fact the Ford’s mother died when he was only thirteen years old. He also discusses the animosity that Ford expressed towards his father for the majority of his life. The sort of oedipal defeat that Ford experienced through the birth of his younger siblings and the death of his mother may have created an unconscious sense of guilt. As a result of this guilt, Ford created many situations of self-imposed suffering such as his repeated anti-Semitic comments for which he apologized later in life. The success that Ford experienced caused him a great deal of anxiety and angst and, although the source of this anxiety remained unconscious, Ford attempted to alleviate it by engaging in wreckful behavior. Zaleznik’s (1993) writings are valuable because they provide a rare examination of the paradoxical wrecked by success phenomenon and directly apply it to a successful leader. Later, this paper employs a similar methodology by providing a psychological analysis of bad leaders in attempt to add to the current scarcity of relevant literature. This paper differs from Zaleznik’s work because it specifically incorporates Freud while the piece on Ford does not.

Donnelly (2012) also provides an insightful and relevant literary example of success and the accompanying wreckage through her psychoanalysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Donnelly analyzes the character Arthur Dimmesdale and argues that his self-imposed suffering is a result of the happiness and success he experiences early on. Dimmesdale, a puritan minister, is wrecked by the success and happiness he experiences through his mutual love with Hester Prynne. As Donnelly (2012) points out, this paradoxical phenomenon is often challenging for the layperson to grasp. The fact that mutual love and blissfulness actually cause Dimmesdale to “lose his mind” is a difficult concept to understand. The idea, argues Donnelly, is that an unconscious goal of suffering is to alleviate feelings of guilt. Dimmesdale engages in many forms of self-inflicted pain such as fasting and scourging. These actions are the result of the anxiety he unconsciously feels from the admiration of his congregation, coupled with the requited love of Hester Prynne. These successes create a sense of unconscious guilt for Dimmesdale as he is reminded of the first years of his life, when happiness was abundant and tools like reality-testing and repression were nonexistent.

By inflicting pain and suffering on himself, Dimmesdale is able to unconsciously cope with the guilt associated with feelings that would normally be repressed. The frustration that results from the self-inflicted suffering enables Dimmesdale to focus on reality and distracts him from the dangerous thoughts of absolute happiness and mutual love, where repression capacity is severely limited (Donnelly, 2012). In the end of the novel, the physical manifestation of his suffering becomes too extreme and Dimmesdale ultimately dies on the scaffold as a result. The most important point reiterated in this literary example is that the success and happiness that Dimmesdale realizes (not his self-inflicted pain and self-defeating behavior) are the actual causes of his death. The suffering Dimmesdale imposes upon himself is the result of an unconscious coping mechanism used to alleviate feelings of guilt associated with success, blissfulness, and mutual love.

These clinical, biblical, and literary examples provide the basis for the psychological analysis of bad leadership that is further explored in this paper. However, unlike the works reviewed above, this analysis has an exclusive focus on corrupt leaders, as defined by Barbara Kellerman (Kellerman, 2004). The attempt is to illuminate the psychological factors that lead these highly successful individuals to engage in self-defeating and wreckful behavior. While the following section has a Freudian influence, certain complex psychological concepts such as oedipal factors, id, ego, superego, and libido are primarily precluded from the discussion due to the scope of the paper.


The following provides a psychological examination and analysis of corrupt, bad leadership behavior. The examples used in this analysis are borrowed from Kellerman’s (2004) B ad Leadership, especially from the “Corrupt Leadership” chapter (pp.147-168). This section includes analysis of two individuals: Vincent Cianci Jr., former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island and Mario Villanueva, former Mexican politician. What follows highlights the major successes and subsequent failures of both. Additionally, the analysis aims to illuminate the psychological factors that led each to engage in the self-defeating, corrupt behavior that ultimately ruined their careers. The foundation of the psychological evaluation is taken from Freud’s (1916) work “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work” and is directly influenced by “Those Wrecked by Success” and “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt” (pp. 315-333). However, as stated, some of the more complex psychological concepts that Freud used in his psychoanalysis are deliberately excluded from this paper.

Vincent Cianci Jr.

Vincent Cianci Jr. was a successful politician who held office as mayor of Providence, Rhode Island for a record breaking twenty-one years. He was first elected mayor in 1974 and became a popular and idealized figure by the citizens of Providence. However, after being in office for seven years, Cianci’s first public signs of corrupt behavior began to surface. In 1981, twenty-one of Cianci’s subordinates and fellow administration members were convicted of several charges including: larceny, conspiracy, and extortion (Kellerman, 2004). While Cianci himself was not convicted of any crimes by the United States Attorney’s Office at this time, it is likely that he was involved in the illicit behavior and that it foreshadowed his corrupt future. Interestingly, despite this initial debacle within the Cianci administration, his popularity remained high. Just two years later, in 1983, Cianci was accused and charged on six different counts by a grand jury. These charges included battery, assault, and kidnaping, representing Cianci’s most egregious offenses. Cianci held a man, who he believed to be sleeping with his wife, captive in his home. While holding this man captive, Cianci allegedly threated him with murder, burned him with a lit cigarette, and assaulted him with a fireplace log (Kellerman, 2004). While some of the details of this story remain unclear, it is important to note that Cianci’s ex-wife and the individual who was assaulted both denied having adulterous relationship. As a result of these offenses, Cianci was forced to resign from office. However, even after these horrendous offenses, Cianci was admired by many Providence citizens who hoped he would return to office when eligible (Kellerman, 2004).

In 1984, only a year after his felony charge and resignation from office, Cianci began a new career as a radio talk show host. This was a significant success for Cianci as his show helped him remain revered and gain further popularity. In 1990, he successfully re-ran for mayor of Providence and remained mayor until he was forced to resign, yet again, in 2001. An exemplification of Cianci’s tremendous success and popularity is highlighted by the fact that no one bothered to run against him in the 1998 election, sensing the futility of such efforts. Cianci was forced to resign in 2001 when he was found guilty of racketeering and conspiracy, fined $100,000, and sentenced to five years jail time (Kellerman, 2004). Even after he was forced to resign from office for the second time, Cianci remained popular and loved by many. As Kellerman (2004) points out, the sustained popularity realized by Cianci despite his repeated illicit behavior was most likely due to his effectiveness as a leader. While many of his actions were ethically questionable, Cianci was able to change the city of Providence in a variety of positive ways. For the purposes of the psychological evaluation that follows, this sustained popularity serves as a central psychosomatic factor.

Vincent Cianci is an excellent example of an individual who was wrecked by his own successes. It is apparent that Cianci was an exceptional man who was well-endowed with charisma and intellect. While little information exists on his early life, Cianci was a gifted child. The continued successes that Cianci realized throughout his life repeatedly caused him to engage in self-defeating behavior. The first clear example of a wreckage caused by his success is the kidnapping and assault case discussed above. From a psychological perspective, this inappropriate behavior was caused by the unconscious sense of guilt Cianci was experiencing due to his committed marital relationship and high levels of success. The psychological factors that effected Cianci in this case are similar to Donnelley’s (2012) discussion of the deleterious effects mutual love and congregation popularity had on Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Cianci was likely feeling both anxious and unconsciously guilty because he was experiencing high levels of bliss, requited love, and success attainment. In the case of the kidnapping, Cianci committed a crime in an attempt to tie his sense of anxiety and guilt to a palpable and conscious source. As paradoxical as this may seem, it is a common coping mechanism for individuals experiencing high levels of anxiety associated with success. Anxiety is not to be confused with stress and frustration. The key difference between these feelings is that the source of one’s anxiety is not known, whereas the source of stress and frustration can be consciously identified. As a result of this distinction, it is easier for individuals to cope with stress and frustration than to deal with anxiety. In fact, as is the case with Cianci, many individuals create stress and frustration for themselves by engaging in self-defeating behaviors. This self-imposed suffering allowed Cianci to essentially convert his feelings of anxiety into more manageable feelings of stress and frustration.

After his first major failure, Cianci was forced to resign, but he remained popular and became successful again, being reelected to office just years later. Cianci’s sustained popularity undoubtedly caused him a great deal of anxiety and also led him to engage in another instance of reckless behavior. Cianci created a problem for himself, yet again, by engaging in racketeering and conspiracy. Whether Cianci had a conscious desire to get caught for his illicit actions cannot be determined without thorough psychoanalysis. However, it appears that Cianci was attempting to cope with his sense of guilt by engaging in unlawful and corrupt behavior. Cianci unconsciously wanted to be caught because the associated legal ramifications distracted him from his anxiety and enabled him to feel frustrated about his wrongdoings. There is no practical justification for any of Cianci’s illicit actions. He was an extremely popular mayor who broke records for holding the longest time in office and his unlawful actions did nothing to help improve his political career or personal wealth. His time in office would have been even longer if he had not been forced to resign on two separate occasions due to self-defeating behavior. As a victim of his own success, and the associated high levels of anxiety, Cianci ultimately ruined his career by engaging in reckless behavior that served as a coping mechanism for his unconscious sense of guilt.

Mario Villanueva

Another example of a political leader wrecked by his success is Mario Villanueva, who was a Mexican politician that successfully climbed the political ladder in Mexico, beginning his career as the mayor of Cancun and ultimately becoming governor of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in 1993. Villanueva was a popular governor in Mexico and remained in office until 1999 when he fled and went into hiding due to criminal accusations against him (Kellerman, 2004). Villanueva was charged with drug trafficking and money laundering associated with his involvement in drug cartels (especially the Juarez Cartel, which is one of Mexico’s most notorious). The gravity of his offenses was tremendous; in fact, the amount of cocaine he was accused of facilitating the transfer of was so unreasonably large it seemed as though Villanueva wanted to get caught trafficking the illicit drugs. In 2002, the Southern District of New York issued two federal indictments for Villanueva and submitted an extradition request. Villanueva was accused of facilitating the transport of two hundred tons of cocaine from Mexico to the United States. This quantity of cocaine is equivalent to $2 billion on the wholesale market, and as much as $20 billion on the retail market (Kellerman, 2004).

According the United States Department of Justice (2013), Villanueva allowed cocaine to freely be transported through airports and shipyards without question and investigation. Under his agreement with the Juarez Cartel, Villanueva would make between $400,000 and $500,000 per shipment of Cocaine that came out of the Quintana Roo region. Villanueva tried to hide his massive amounts of laundered money by setting up a plethora of bank accounts in the United States, Switzerland, the Bahamas, Panama, and Mexico (“Sentenced In Manhattan Federal Court,” 2013). Villanueva was extradited from Mexico in May 2010 after serving seventy-three months in a Mexican prison, and in August 2012, Villanueva pled guilty before the United States District Court. On June 28, 2013, he was sentenced to 131 months in prison for “conspiring to launder millions of dollars in narcotics bribe payments that he received from the Juarez Cartel” (“Sentenced In Manhattan Federal Court,”2013). Villanueva’s political success and civic obligations as a public official serve as important factors for the psychological evaluation of his actions that follows.

Similar to that of Vincent Cianci, the story of Mario Villanueva provides another real-life example of an individual and leader who was wrecked by his success. Villanueva also experienced an ambitious political career and realized many laudable achievements. Beginning his career as a local representative, the charismatic Villanueva quickly advanced in the Mexican political hierarchy by becoming mayor of Cancun and eventually governor of Quinta Roo. In order to achieve such successes, Villanueva was clearly an exceptional candidate when it came to politics and persuasion. As a result of his repeated successes and high levels of ambition, Villanueva engaged in irrational and illegal activities that ultimately led to his incarceration. On a conscious level, Villanueva may have been motivated by a sense of greed and a longing for excessive personal wealth. However, Villanueva was unconsciously motivated to engage in the reckless behavior by his anxiety and sense of guilt associated with his success. The massive scale of the drug trafficking (200 tons of cocaine) that Villanueva was involved with suggests that he may have wanted to be caught (either consciously or unconsciously). Again in this example, there is no practical or rational explanation for Villanueva’s extreme, illicit behavior. He did not need the money he received from the Juarez Cartel, as he was already living a luxurious life as a successful, wealthy politician prior to his involvement with them.

Villanueva engaged in this form of self-defeating behavior because he was wrecked by his own success. His experiences as a highly respected public official created a sense of unconscious guilt and anxiety that were difficult for Villanueva to cope with. As a result, he committed outrageous crimes in an unconscious attempt to alleviate the suffering for which he likely did not know the source. After committing such crimes, and dealing with the subsequent investigations and consequences, Villanueva was able to psychologically associate the source of his suffering with something concrete. In doing so, he effectively shifted his anxiety to the tangible feelings of stress, frustration and humiliation, which are easier to psychosomatically manage than anxiety and angst. As in the case of Vincent Cianci, Villanueva eventually ruined his exalted political career by engaging in wreckful and self-defeating behavior.


The psychological evaluation of these two individuals helps demonstrate the value that can be realized when leader behavior is assessed psychologically. While the paradoxical nature of the wrecked by success phenomenon may be difficult to grasp, it helps explain the motivators, albeit sometimes unconscious, that cause leaders to behave badly. It is also important to note that the same psychological phenomena that are applied directly to leaders in this paper exist within all humans, despite their title or position. For example, followers who experience high levels of success may find themselves engaging in self-defeating behavior as a result of the associated blissfulness and happiness. Similarly, an individual who is self-employed (i.e. neither a leader nor a follower) may fall victim to the same enigmatic fate in the wake of his or her successes.

The existing literature on the psychology of leadership is thorough and beneficial. To better comprehend both leadership and followership dynamics, one must have a solid understanding of psychology and human behavior. Thus, incorporation of Freud’s (1921, 1939) pivotal works yields useful intuitions into group dynamics, power relationships, and authority. This information has already been effectively provided by several authors (e.g. Kellerman 2004, 2008; Goethals, 2005; Lipman-Blumen, 2006). However, the application of Freud’s (1916) “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work” to leadership studies is limited. As a result, a call for future research in this regard is warranted.

Unlike Freud’s other works, his (1916) piece provides unique insights into leadership behavior. While his other writings offer important lessons about group dynamics and why followers follow, they do not answer the question of why, psychologically speaking, leaders behave badly. This is an essential issue to address. To gain a deeper understanding of the wrecked by success notion and how it applies to bad leadership, comprehensive, clinical psychoanalyses of actual bad leaders are needed. These clinical inquiries, conducted by trained psychotherapists, would provide additional, worthwhile information furthering the premise presented in this paper.

The academic pursuit of bad leadership and followership studies is a vital endeavor. From a followership perspective, it is important for subordinates to be aware of their leaders’ effectiveness and morality. If followers were more cognizant of the nature of their leaders’ behaviors, ineffective and immoral leadership would not be sustained. As highlighted by the many reputable authors reviewed, the successes of these bad leaders would not be possible without the unyielding, unquestioning support of followers. By revealing the false illusions bad leaders often project and pointing out the universal, instinctual desire for authority figures, academic literature can assist future and current subordinates by encouraging them to think independently and question the actions of their leaders. The study of bad leadership can also provide leaders with standards for self-checking and self-reflection. This would allow leaders to adapt and avoid instances of bad leadership. The continued study of ineffective and immoral proclivities among bad leaders and followers yields astute insights that would help curb the proliferation of bad leadership.


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Title: Why Leaders Behave Badly