Global events such as the collapse of major corporations and the crisis in banking have brought the need for a better understanding of corporate leadership into sharp focus.
Our research into the darker side of leadership could help organisations avoid the enormous economic and personal cost of company failure.
"Many leadership theories champion 'heroic' models, placing value on leaders who are self-confident, assertive, visionary and willing to take risks," says Professor Malcolm Higgs, Director of Southampton Management School. "However, people with these characteristics can also have a tendency for self-centred, controlling behaviour. This may improve an organisation's performance over a short or medium period but can prove very damaging in the long term."
The research looked at examples of leadership in the context of narcissism, a set of personality traits which, if taken to the extreme, can result in highly egocentric, over-confident or arrogant behaviour.
Malcolm explains: "When reviewing cases of corporate collapse, it became clear that the company leaders involved were very narcissistic. They gave the impression of being visionary, but often their visions were grandiose and self-promoting, rather than serving the long-term interests of the organisation."
The research identified another destructive element of narcissistic leadership; the inability to cope with bad news or challenging opinions. This causes leaders to become increasingly removed from the realities of their company's performance, while fostering a culture of blame and fear which undermines staff morale.
"By being aware of the dangers, boards of directors can consider how best to avoid recruiting a narcissistic leader or identify and act on potential problems before the damage is done," says Malcolm.
This is just one example of the cutting-edge research being carried out at Southampton Management School. One of the leading centres in its field in the UK, the School's academics work with major companies across the world in sectors as varied as banking, manufacturing, healthcare and transport. A fast-growing discipline within the University, its future plans include an expansion of its executive education programme and increased engagement with businesses.