The Dark Side of Leading Change

Leadership was famously depicted as a seduction (Calas and Smircich, 1991) and to this day individuals, organizations and societies still appear to be seduced.  A counterbalance to this seduction is more open acknowledgement and discussion about the dark side of leading change.  This brings realism to theories and practices and has the potential to inform leadership and leading change.  Initially, I share examples of the dark side of leading change practices.  These may be isolated organizational ‘bad apple’ aberrations.  My intent here is not to question these practitioners, but rather the theoretical intent which informs these practices.  I highlight how academics encouraged coercive persuasion, manipulation and aggression in the development of leadership.  Rather than practices to be avoided, these developments were seen as beneficial even integral to what was being prescribed.

1. Dark Side Leading Change Practices In Managing and Leading Organizational Change (Hughes, 2018), I was interested in sharing with readers research-informed illustrations of how not to lead change.  When I encountered the case examples offered by Boddy (2017) and Espedal (2017) whilst not typical of all organizations they were troubling.

Boddy (2017) in his longitudinal case study of a UK charitable organization highlighted the presence of a psychopathic CEO.  The longitudinal research design enabled comparison between the previous CEO and the current CEO of this charity.

The psychopathic CEO was found to rule via fear and intimidation and to deny any real voice to those working under him. In contrast, the previous CEO encouraged and facilitated employee suggestions and contributions to both organizational tactics and strategy. (Boddy, 2017:144)

The case study is well worth reading, but one example of the psychopathic CEO denying any real voice to subordinates was the working group convened by the CEO to look at organizational strategy.  Instead of appointing staff including senior directors only junior staff and middle managers were invited to join the group.  Junior employees were easier to manipulate towards the CEO’s point of view.

In organizations, we may encounter brutal and/or manipulative change leaders, but it is rare to read their testimony in research reports.  In this context, Espedal’s (2017) research whilst disturbing is revealing. He was able to interview a group of fifteen leaders who had socially constructed reputations as good and efficient change agents.  All respondents were senior executives and the two quotations are taken verbatim from his research interviews.

In leading change I confront the organization rather than serve it. In order to motivate me confront the organization (sic) I need freedom associated with ‘brutality’. (Espedal, 2017:158)

In leading change I must perform and get results. Thus, I need power to secure compliance to my domination through the shaping of beliefs and desires and through commitment to common goals. (Espedal, 2017:158)

Despite the questionable nature of these leading change practices, I want to focus on the involvement of academics.  I question academic complicity in encouraging the dark side of coercive persuasion, manipulation and aggression in leading change practices.

2. Coercive Persuasion Tourish’s (2013) chapter on ‘Coercive persuasion, power and corporate culturism’ in The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership is highly recommended. You can see my recommendation as I stand in the middle of a forest here:

My review of The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership

Organizational Culture and Leadership (Schein, 1985) was an important milestone in studying organizational culture and change leadership.  However, Schein’s (1985) honest and open acknowledgement that such cultural change would require coercive persuasion is largely overlooked.  Cooke (1999) is one of the few scholars to highlight what has been omitted in accounts of Edgar Schein’s work.   He (1999) highlighted how Schein’s research into the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) informed the writing of his book Coercive Persuasion (Schein, 1961).  This out-of-print book informs Schein’s (1985) influential account of organizational culture and leadership. His insights into understanding coercive persuasion arose out of studying the treatment of prisoners of war by the CCP during the Korean War.  Schein (1961) separated coercive persuasion into three sub-phases.

Unfreezing – Destabilising a person’s sense of identity, diminishing confidence in prior social judgments and fostering a sense of powerlessness.

Changing – Offers a chance to escape punishing destabilisation by demonstrating that the preferred ideology has been learned, demonstrating zeal through displays of commitment.

Refreezing – Promoting and reinforcing behaviour acceptable to the controlling organization, the target is encouraged to understand the errors of his or her former life.

Schein (1985) regarded coercive persuasion as integral to changes in organizational culture and leadership.  Yet academic accounts of either organizational culture or leadership rarely acknowledge the integral aspect of coercive persuasion.  In terms of practice, Schein’s (1985) sub-phases of coercive persuasion offer a window on potential negative experiences arising out of cultural change and leading change.

3. Manipulation I remain deeply concerned by Kotter’s (1996/2012) Leading Change being prescribed to university students and practitioners (please see LINK for further discussion). In this sub-section, I limit myself to his encouragement of manipulation in organizations, ‘to some degree, all management is manipulation…’ (Kotter, 1996: 128).  He is probably more famous for his pyrotechnic analogies and this is one of his most famous.

Visible crises can be enormously helpful in catching people’s attention and pushing up urgency levels.  Conducting business as usual is very difficult if the building seems to be on fire.  But in an increasingly fast-moving world, waiting for a fire to break out is a dubious strategy.  And in addition to catching people’s attention a sudden fire can cause a lot of damage. (Kotter, 1996: 45)  

Multiple copies of Leading Change (Kotter, 1996/2012) can still be found on most university library book shelves and this book is still frequently favourably cited by academics, despite my best efforts.  However, to this sceptical reader the quotation, rather than being a call to action is an endorsement of leading change through manipulation. The fear of a fire and the threat to lives seeks to terrify people, increasing their sense of urgency and making them more malleable to leadership.  However, in the absence of a fire if a leader pretends that there is a fire the subordinates will be terrified enough to follow the leader. Why, oh why aren’t more academics courageous enough to question the indoctrination of students into becoming the leading change manipulators of tomorrow?

4. Aggression In my final years of academic employment I was fascinated by the shift from managing change to leading change and how this shift was academically informed. Eventually, I managed to convince at least myself on why this shift occurred (please see this LINK for further discussion).  In my quest, I reflected on the 35 years of academic writing potentially informing the shift from management to leadership (Hughes, 2016).  One of the most frequently cited rationalizations for this shift was offered by the Harvard Business School professor Zaleznik (1977).  The paradox is that this supposed rationalization for the shift was informed neither by literature nor original research.  By way of mitigation, Zaleznik (1977) acknowledged that it was a working paper prepared for a conference. It did contain (for this reader) some of the funniest insights into leadership and management ever written.

Leaders work from high-risk positions, indeed often are temperamentally disposed to seek out risk and danger, especially where opportunity and reward appear high … Managers prefer to work with people; they avoid solitary activity because it makes them anxious. (Zaleznik, 1977:72)

In leadership development workshops, I would often suggest to participants that when they went back to their workplaces, they find a manager to befriend, lest that solitary manager becomes lonely and anxious. There had to be more substance to Zaleznik’s contribution than this stereotyped and pejorative dualism of leaders versus managers.

The substance was to be found in his book The Managerial Mystique: Restoring Leadership in Business (Zaleznik, 1989). Sadly, it is rarely cited by business school academics as it doesn’t help in promoting the favoured income-generating narrative – isn’t leadership great! I would encourage anyone with the time and the money (it is very cheap second-hand), to buy the book and draw their conclusions. My conclusions are very biased, but they do offer another explanation for the dark side leading change practices featured earlier.  The first chapter commences with this sentence ‘Business in America has lost its way, in a sea of managerial mediocrity, desperately needing leadership to face worldwide economic competition’ (Zaleznik, 1989:11).

Zaleznik (1989) organized the book into four major sections; argument, analysis, consequences and the cure: leadership.  The book offers a detailed history of USA business/political leaders, businesses and the corresponding development of management studies over the previous century.  Taylorism was presented favourably as being ‘…founded on a love of manufacturing and a humane desire to do things better’ (Zaleznik, 1989:75).  Zaleznik (1989) was sceptical about Elton Mayo and to a lesser extent Kurt Lewin, in that he believed that they were guilty of promoting workplace cooperation.

Zaleznik (1989: 235) looked back fondly to early USA corporate leaders ‘modern management represents a sharp divergence from the early forms of corporate leadership in which a patriarchal figure, such as Andrew Carnegie or John D Rockefeller, constructed large enterprises’.  It is telling that Zaleznik (1977) who had previously suggested that the mystique of leadership might relate to a longing for heroic parents, now offered USA patriarchal figures as leadership role models.  Zaleznik (1989: 123) lamented that ‘the corporate world, however, has a long way to go to understand the uses of anger in human relationships’. The potential darker side of leader/manager differentiations surfaces. Zaleznik (1989: 25) was critical of managers who ‘…tend to fear aggression as a force leading to chaos’ instead, he believed that ‘leaders comfortable with aggression often create a climate of ferment that intensifies individual motivation’ (Zaleznik, 1989: 26).   Cooperative managers fearful of aggression were to be replaced with solitary leaders ‘comfortable with aggression’ who were tasked with intensifying the motivation of individuals. 

Zaleznik (1977/1989) was one of the main proponents of a shift from management to leadership.  I pose this question to anybody who has studied leadership at a business school or attended a leadership development workshop in their organization.  How explicit was the coverage of the aggression favoured within leadership?

5. In Conclusion There are no performance, status or financial motivations in writing this post. However, the views expressed here had gnawed away at me for some time.  In universities, I often encountered a pejorative stereotype that business school academics offered the ethical solution to problematic leading change practitioners. My lived experience was almost the opposite of this stereotype.  For me, some of the favoured academic literature remains part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

I began this post by introducing research-informed illustrations of the dark side of leading change practices. I then explained how Schein (1985) encouraged coercive persuasion, Kotter (1995/2012) encouraged manipulation and Zaleznik (1989) encouraged aggression. The shift from managing change to leading change was far less neutral than most business school academics are willing to acknowledge.  What gnawed away at me was that business schools in encouraging dark side behaviours of coercive persuasion, manipulation and aggression, problematically indoctrinate the leaders of tomorrow. Power and politics are other elements of the dark side of leading change (please see Hughes, 2018 for a chapter covering these debates).

Engaging with the dark side in this post has inevitably been gloomy, so I am going to end on a lighter note.  I was delighted to be invited by Rune and Bernard to co-edit the second edition of their edited reader Organizational Change, Leadership and Ethics (By and Burnes, 2013).  The second edition is ‘in production’ and should be published later in 2022.  This book benefits from thought-provoking contributions from internationally respected leadership and organizational change academics.  They help to restore my faith that academic writing still has the potential to positively change organizations and societies. Thankfully, not all academics encourage the dark side of leading change.

LINK Organizational Change, Leadership and Ethics (By, et al, 2022) (forthcoming)


By, R.T. and Burnes, B. (2013). Organizational Change, Leadership and Ethics. London: Routledge.

Boddy, C.R. (2017). Psychopathic leadership a case study of a corporate psychopath CEO. Journal of Business Ethics, 145(1): 141-156.

Calas, M.B. and L. Smircich. (1991). Voicing seduction to silence leadership. Organization Studies, 12 (4): 567-602.

Cooke, B. (1999). Writing the left out of management theory: The historiography of the management of change. Organization, 6(1): 81-105.

Espedal, B. (2017). Understanding how balancing autonomy and power might occur in leading organizational change. European Management Journal, 35(2): 155-163.

Hughes, M. (2016). The Leadership of Organizational Change. London: Routledge.

Hughes, M. (2018). Managing and Leading Organizational Change. London: Routledge.

Kotter, J.P. (1996/2012). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Schein, E.H. (1961). Coercive Persuasion. Norton: New York (out of print).

Schein, E.H. (1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Tourish, D. (2013). The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective. London: Routledge.

Zaleznik, A. (1977). Managers and leaders: Are they different? Harvard Business Review, 15 (3): 67- 84.

Zaleznik, A. (1989). The Managerial Mystique: Restoring Leadership in Business.  New York: Harper and Row. 

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