REVIEW: Destructive Leadership in Education

The paper opens with the acknowledgement that the exploration and investigating into destructive leadership within education is an under-researched area, and then draws on literature from philosophy, psychology and sociology to create a theoretical paradigm in which destructive leadership can be understood. It attests to the fact that the study of destructive leadership within an educational context as a concept has been born from psychological and organisational management literature. By establishing this paradigm, what Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson then do is pursue a less explored tangent of the overarching topic, that being the morphology of destructive leadership, namely the form, structure and processes that take place in the event of destructive leadership, in other words, the manifestation and operation of destructive leadership in action. They then attempt to plug the gap in the literature regarding the morphology of destructive leadership in four ways:

1. Creating a synthesised explanation of destructive leadership drawn from philosophical, psychological and sociological literature and theory;

2. By applying the trajectory of the autopoietic theory, an explanation of destructive leadership at work with the outcome becoming one that renders such leadership both normative and pervasive, with a specific focus on the interplay between agents, the leaders and the followers, within the environment in which destructive leadership occurs;

3. Basing their exploration and evaluation of destructive leadership specifically within the context of education

4. Conclude their paradigmatic conceptualisation of destructive leadership through the coining of the phrase ‘dysergy’ to connote the adverse impact and effect of destructive leadership.

What is destructive leadership?

Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson define leadership to be a process in which the agents, the leader and follower, are analysed within their context, the environment. They then further distil this definition by adding that the process of leadership is an influence process used to achieve an intended purpose and outcome. Encompassing the existing literary discussion on the conceptualisation of leadership, it is found that it is by definition constructive, with values and belief systems lying at the heart of understanding leadership. Leadership, therefore, is commonly discussed and understood through a positive lens. Conversely, Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson, as stated in their opening summary, take an alternative approach and seek to define the opposite, what they call destructive leadership as an antithesis to the commonly held perspective of leadership being constructive. Whereas the statements of Aristotle are taken to frame positive leadership, the theory of narcissism from psychology is used to form statements on what destructive leadership could include.

Inherent within the term destructive leadership is the element that harm is a result of it. Scanning the academic investigations of destructive leadership in Britain, America and Australia, Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson found that there is very little available. Taking the premise that harm must result for there to be destructive leadership, it is defined that the resulting harm could take the form of psychological, physiological and relational harm that could manifest itself as chronic fear, anxiety, anger, humiliation, loneliness, disorientation as well as the violation of professional conduct and individual rights, power imbalance exploitation and verbal and non-verbal abuse, to name a few. By construing destructive leadership and its effects in such stark terms, the researchers deduct the hypocrisy of destructive leadership in how the instigating agents create outcomes for their followers (the teachers) that are the complete opposite of what they intend to create for their students.

Who are the leaders?

I like the premise that when construing destructive leadership, Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson employ a transdiciplinary approach that collates analyses from the domains of leader, follower and environment in order to distil its morphology, achieving a precise and educationally relevant analysis. A simple way of summarising the comparison between constructive and destructive leaders is by taking the contrasting philosophical concepts of reverence and hubris when discussing the characters of leaders. Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson then discuss a variety of testing models that can be used to assess destructive leadership including Costa and McCrae’s (1992) five-factor model and Paulhus and Williams’ (2002) Dark Triad. Within the former model are five categorisations: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, whereas the Dark Triad stipulates three personality traits: Psychopathy, Narcissism and Machiavellianism, the basis of all three being callousness qualified by Paulhus. For the purposes of clarity, the manifestations of these eight personality traits could include but are not limited to: egocentricity, impulsivity, deceptiveness, low levels of empathy, disregard for social norm, grandiosity, dominance, vanity, superiority, manipulation, cynicism and sadism. It is within this framework with these very stark pegs that Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson use to depict the perpetrators of destructive leadership.

Who are their followers?

Whereas there is an active analysis of destructive leaders and their traits, it seems that the analysis of their followers is a by-product of this proactive analysis of destructive leaders, including the perception of such leaders and their contributions to creating hostile and toxic working environments. There’s also the concept of followers being colluders or compliers and the adverse effects of empowerment. More interestingly though, there is a discussion of O’Moore and Crowley’s (2011) study which entailed 100 psychological assessments of ‘followers’ that had suffered some sort of workplace bullying. As it found that an overwhelming percentage of the sample suffered from poor levels of physical and psychological wellbeing, the impact was not prevalent in any particular personality type and therefore the impact of destructive leadership can have a unilateral effect on followers. The neutralisation of the context of personality in followers is a stark contrast compared with the fixation of personality traits when discussing leaders; one could argue that the resulting approach of the latter, albeit singular to one study, could be taken as evidence to contradict the resulting approach of the former – if personality is effective in the behaviours and conditions of leaders, how can it be ineffective in the behaviours and conditions of followers? It is an interesting point for many consequent questions as well: firstly, what part of the psyche is affected when an individual endures workplace bullying; secondly, how much of an impact do personality traits have on active and omissive behaviours and choices; and thirdly, are experiences subjective when looking at personalities? These questions belong to a psychological enquiry, one that will be very important to begin looking at as we continue to look at wellbeing.

What part does the environment play in all of this?

Context is vital, especially as there is a lack of academic investigation of destructive leadership within an educational context. Here, the term environment can be taken to be synonymous of the term context in order to distil the specific morphology of destructive leadership in education leadership. It is recognised that organisations are social systems that have both internal and external characteristics that achieve specific purposes, their legitimacy secured by the achievement of common goals. As a result, leadership becomes a contract of exchange between the leader and the follower in which both are complicit to achieve the common goal and where the power balance is asymmetrical. There is also the notion that the environment becomes symptomatic of destructive leadership traits and can have a wider effect in a number of ways, including poor communication and/or the lack of it, isolation, affected reputations, occupationally feeling meaningless and poor physical and psychological health.

It is important to emphasise that leader, follower and environment are domains that are not to exist independently but collaboratively in order to effectively recognise the morphology of destructive leadership in education. By using this paradigm, the analysis is developed as it is recognised that destructive leadership may not come about solely because of destructive leaders but also colluding followers and environments, highlighting the pervasive and penetrative nature of destructive leadership. The paper then focuses on Klaussner’s (2014) toxic triangle of the above three domains, (slightly changing the terms to ‘leader’, ‘subordinate’ and ‘organisation’), and classifies perceptions on behalf of both the leader and subordinate to include four different processes – functional passive, functional active, dysfunctional passive and dysfunctional active – and that these perceptions are moderated by the inherent power asymmetry between these two agents within the organisation/environment. It is then stated that it is through these four classifications that harm is resulted in which both the leader and the follower are complicit in creating, making the case that destructive leadership is an outcome that is relational and reciprocal, it is not just the case of destructive leaders and innocent followers or affected environments.

Applying autopoiesis

Autopoiesis is a biological concept that refers to a system that is able to reproduce and maintain itself, in a simple definition. Now, by applying the concept of autopoiesis to destructive leadership to form the view that destructive leadership is a phenomenon that creates and maintains itself is how Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson have defined and explained leadership, leaders, followers and the environment, alongside their emphasis that there is a clear interplay between the three domains (leader, follower and environment) that cannot be dichotomised. In this section of the paper, it is discussed that structural change can occur in two ways – perturbations triggered by the environment or internal dynamics – but in both cases, the change occurs by the components that make up the system itself (leader, follower and environment). Now, whereas a leader and a follower are closed systems by being human beings, they interact in a very open system, that being the environment. This concept makes the agents susceptible to constructive and destructive leadership, happiness and misery or order and chaos, but also highlights how leaders, and in particularly followers, then react or are impacted by destructive leadership in different ways. For example, you may strike a wall with your fist or a hammer. Whereas you will suffer from significant bodily harm if you use your fist to strike a wall, by striking the wall with a hammer, you will experience a non-harmful sensation and a sensation of striking something with force. By using this analogy, we can understand that when a follower interacts with a leader or an environment, depending on their own disposition, the effects of destructive leadership could vary to significant proportions.

It cannot be ignored however that this directly contradicts the findings of O’Moore and Crowley’s psychological study which found that poor levels of wellbeing were not prevalent in any particular personality type, especially if we take personalities to be the essence and driving force behind behaviours, attitudes, perceptions and reactions. In the event of this standoff between a reasonable deduction using autopoiesis and the results of the psychological study, investigating this further will help decide which standpoint is more correct and viable. It is not just this standoff either that is called into question, larger and more broader concepts such as subjectivity, mindset and perception, which are key themes investigated in mental health literature, are also quizzed and turned over and become a paradox. I would like to read more about these concepts when discussing wellbeing, linking to areas such as autonomy, thresholds and boundaries which inevitably vary from person to person, teacher to teacher.

Micro, meso and macro levels of effect

By trying to explain the morphology, at first Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson provide an understanding of what destructive leadership is, what it does and how it has an effect. The second layer to their explanation is how destructive leadership takes place on a micro, meso and macro level, differentiating between outcomes and effects in severity from anxiety to isolation to implications on an ethical and mindset level. It is said that destructive leadership can take effect in four ways: on an individual level, between the relational dynamic between leader and follower, the wider environment and context and a universal level of ethics. It is clear from this taxonomy that destructive leadership can penetrate levels of structure, bringing in again the notion of interconnectivity and interplay between the three main domains. It is clear here then how environments can become symptomatic of destructive leadership and how colluding followers come to be. Therefore, not only does destructive leadership eradicate operational and functional equilibrium in an educational context, it can weaken relational and individual equilibriums too, which gives rise to a severe cause for alarm and offers another reason underpinning the teacher crisis citing decreased job satisfaction and increased levels of stress and mental illness.

Now, we can use the discussions above to understand what destructive leadership simply is by using the Dark Triad as a basis of understanding its traits and purporting behaviours and attitudes and therefore can also understand its effects on followers and the environment on a micro, meso and macro level. It would be useful to reiterate however the differentiation in severity of the resulting harm caused by destructive leadership, especially when we consider the impact of destructive leadership within a wider environment and the universal level of ethics frameworks. Whereas the effects of destructive leadership within the frameworks of individual and relational dynamics can be physical and tangible, some of the effects within the wider environment and indeed on an ethical level are theoretical, affecting ideas and perspectives and therefore the resulting harm and damage is more obstinate and in turn, more difficult to change. This deduction also contextualises the relevance of the autopoietic theory when viewing destructive leadership as in the end, it is ideas and perspectives that are used to form views on leadership of what leadership needs to look like, and should that be destructive or constructive, it is a heavily embedded ethos that recreates itself unless it undergoes radical change. By having destructive leaders, colluding followers and symptomatic environments therefore, positive change to transition from destructive to constructive leadership becomes extremely difficult and a long process.

What is dysergy and how is this a result of everything above?

This leads us smoothly onto Ryan, Odhiambo and Wilson theory of dysergy, which they define as “the ultimate consequence of destructive leadership is a diminished whole.” (pg19) Dysergy ultimately discusses the outcome of destructive leadership as being contextual situations in which individuals feel subdued and unable to perform and excel personally and professionally, as a result of destructive leadership traits, perspectives and processes, power asymmetry and disturbed structures and equilibriums. The dysergy being explained here is a severe form of harm resulting from destructive leadership that can cause destruction on many levels. This definition gives rise to so many questions and inquiries regarding the teacher experience within the context of destructive leadership including and not limited to the measures and evaluations of personal and professional performance, what teacher subjugation is and what it looks like, how although power asymmetry is inherent to a leader and follower dynamic, how can it cause harmful effects in some instance and not in others, leading back to the academics’ focus on personalities and the effects of personality traits and behaviours of leaders. The investigation is a complex one, one that will require persistence and volume to inform our understanding of such questions which, I think, are being uncovered as an archaeologist would uncover the remains of a fossil, by digging through years of history and experience and discovering the underpinnings of the phenomenon. In our case, that phenomenon would be teacher wellbeing.


The paper concludes reiterating the lack of investigation and exploration of destructive leadership in educational contexts and how it must be deeply concerning for those who have experienced it and those responsible for upholding the integrity of the profession. A very valid point. As the paper aims to contribute towards this gap, it also shows that like destructive leadership practice found in other work places, it can also be found in educational work places. This is not surprising when we consider declining recruitment and retention rates, increasing sickness and absence percentages and the growing number of teachers who are quitting the profession altogether. It would be naive to attribute the cause of these results to destructive leadership on its own and would go against the underpinning understanding of this paper, that being the occurrence and impact of interconnectivity and interplay between a number of domains that contribute towards the outcome of destructive leadership. However, understanding the pervasive power of destructive leadership and how it can cause harmful effects and outcomes on a micro, meso and macro level in all cases is a phenomenon that can destroy individuals, educational establishments, communities and the profession itself if left unchecked and unregulated. Is that what we are seeing now? Perhaps. And so the next question should be – how can we stop it?


Ryan, P., Odhiambo, G., Wilson, R. (2019). Destructive leadership in education: a transdisciplinary critical analysis of contemporary literature. International Journal of Leadership in Education. 22 (1).

Costa, P., McCrae, R. (1992). NEO personality inventory-revised. FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Klaussner, S. (2014). Engulfed in the abyss: The emergence of abusive supervision as an escalating process of supervisor-subordinate interaction. Human Relations. 67(3).

O’Moore, M., Crowley, N. (2011). The clinical effects of workplace bullying: A critical look at personality using SEM. International Journal of Workplace Health Management. 4 (1).

Paulhus, D., Williams, K. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality. 36 (6).

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