The double-edged sword of a leader's behavior: Examining the implications of a leader's behavior

Key Takeaways:

  • Leader behavior can be a double-edged sword; the same action can have both positive and negative effects.
  • Typical manager behaviors (e.g., rewarding good behavior or stepping in when there are problems) can have surprising and unintended negative consequences.
  • Transformational, charismatic, humble and even ethical leader behaviors (in excess) can lead to negative consequences.

A leader’s job is an extremely difficult one. They often need to make tough decisions, act when no one else will and influence others to realize their vision. These actions can have unintended consequences.

For example, news headlines are rife with examples of leader efforts backfiring, despite leaders’ intentions: “Trump’s focus on coronavirus numbers could backfire,” “Impeachment strategy backfires on Speaker Pelosi,” “This time, Bernie Sanders ‘rigged’ the system against himself.” [1] Regardless of what a leader decides to do, he or she can benefit from thinking ahead to anticipate the consequences of their actions, whether positive or negative.

When and how do leader behaviors backfire? Several researchers have examined this topic within the last decade, outlining these “double-edged swords” (e.g., actions that have both positive and negative effects) and their consequences.

For example, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Management, my colleagues and I conducted a review of nearly 500 studies on thousands of leaders, focusing on double-edged manager behaviors. [2] We found that rewarding followers for a job well done is an integral part of the leader-follower relationship.

Still, followers may perceive that they have less freedom and autonomy when their motivations are controlled in this way. We also found that when leaders only step in when there’s a problem, followers can experience more freedom and autonomy. However, the lack of interaction can harm the relationship with their leaders.

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Even transformational behaviors (e.g., inspiring and motivating followers), which some may assume are always beneficial, can backfire. For example, followers can become more confident in themselves when leaders communicate high expectations, such as when a leader exclaims, “I have complete faith in you all not to mess this up!” However, these followers can simultaneously experience higher stress levels and mental overload because of these lofty expectations. [3]

As another example, although charismatic leadership can unite followers under a shared vision, these behaviors can backfire in excess. Realizing one’s vision also requires managing tactical details, accomplishing goals in the short term and managing processes — too much charismatic behavior can undermine planning, organizing and delegating behaviors. As a result, nothing could get done. [4]

Similarly, humble leader behaviors can improve relationships with followers because they perceive them as unassuming, self-effacing and appreciative. However, these same behaviors can lead followers to view their leaders as less independent, decisive and action oriented, resulting in more ambiguity and less direction. [5]

Even ethical leader behaviors can backfire. Although ethical leader behaviors result in fair and just outcomes, followers may be left thinking that their morality pales in comparison to their leaders’ morality. Moreover, followers may even perceive these leaders as condescending, arrogant or insulting. These negative perceptions may reduce how much followers are willing to go above and beyond for their coworkers and organizations (e.g., helping coworkers with their work-related problems or staying late at the office). [6]

Of course, I am not suggesting that leaders be unethical. I am, however, suggesting that it is vital for leaders to take stock of the consequences of their actions and anticipate how they will manage them.

Furthermore, leaders should actively determine if the pros outweigh the cons, and vice versa, for the decisions they make. For example, in our research, we found that the benefits of rewarding followers are far more compelling than their potential adverse effects. In contrast, the benefits of “stepping in when there is a problem” are just as compelling as its adverse effects. [7]

As a final suggestion, leadership development programs should target the positive and negative effects of specific behaviors and teach developing leaders how to actively recognize and mitigate unintended consequences.

In general, leaders should not try to look at their behavior in a “one size fits all” fashion, with their preferred practices always leading to ideal outcomes. Instead, we should recognize that even the best-laid plans of leaders and managers often go awry.


[1] Allen, J. (2020, February 27). This time, Bernie Sanders ‘rigged’ the system against himself. NBC News.; Lucas, P. (2019, December 4). Impeachment strategy backfires on Speaker Pelosi. Boston Herald.; Mason, J., & Holland, S. (2020, March 9). Trump’s focus on coronavirus numbers could backfire, health experts say,” Reuters.

[2] Young, H. R., Glerum, D. R., Joseph, D. L., & McCord, M. A. (forthcoming). A meta-analysis of transactional leadership and follower performance: Double-edged effects of LMX and empowerment. Journal of Management.

[3] Diebig, M., Bormann, K. C., & Rowold, J. (2016). A double-edged sword: Relationship between full-range leadership behaviors and followers’ hair cortisol level. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 684-696.

[4] Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Hofmans, J., Kaiser, R. B., & De Fruyt, F. (2018). The double-edged sword of leader charisma: Understanding the curvilinear relationship between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114, 110-130.

[5] Zapata, C. P., & Hayes-Jones, L. C. (2019). The consequences of humility for leaders: A double-edged sword. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 152, 47-63.

[6] Stouten, J., van Dijke, M., Mayer, D. M., De Cremer, D., & Euwema, M. C. (2013). Can a leader be seen as too ethical? The curvilinear effects of ethical leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 680-695.

[7] Young et al. A meta-analysis of transactional leadership and follower performance.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.