Destructive Leadership: A Critique of Leader-Centric Perspectives and Toward a More Holistic Definition

Christian N. Thoroughgood, Katina B. Sawyer, Art Padilla, Laura G Lunsford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Over the last 25 years, there has been an increasing fascination with the “dark” side of leadership. The term “destructive leadership” has been used as an overarching expression to describe various “bad” leader behaviors believed to be associated with harmful consequences for followers and organizations. Yet, there is a general consensus and appreciation in the broader leadership literature that leadership represents much more than the behaviors of those in positions of influence. It is a dynamic, cocreational process between leaders, followers, and environments, the product of which contributes to group and organizational outcomes. In this paper, we argue that, despite this more holistic recognition of leadership processes within the broader leadership literature, current conceptualizations and analyses of destructive leadership continue to focus too heavily on behaviors and characteristics of “bad” leaders. In our view, to achieve a more balanced understanding of destructive leadership, it is important to adopt more integrative approaches that are based in the contemporary leadership discourse and that recognize flawed or toxic leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments as interdependent elements of a broader destructive leadership process. To this end, we offer a critique of the destructive leadership literature, propose a broader definition of destructive leadership, and highlight gaps in our understanding of leaders, followers, and environments in contributing to destructive leadership processes. Finally, we conclude by discussing strategies for examining destructive leadership in a broader, more holistic fashion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
StateAccepted/In press - Jul 6 2016


  • Destructive leadership
  • Environments
  • Followers
  • Leadership processes
  • Toxic leadership

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Law
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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