Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Dark Side…Bright Side

Written by: on February 7, 2019

“In the struggle to contain the dark side, to reclaim power and to gain wisdom, the first step is awareness.” [1]

In his book The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership, Dennis Tourish explores the negative side of a leadership model that he believes has become the primary model in most organizations. Written after “The Great Recession,” he is highly critical of powerful, charismatic leaders, arguing that, “power, it seems, breeds a sense of entitlement and an inclination to hold others to standards of behavior that we cannot live up to ourselves.”[2]

He describes transformational leaders as having a tendency toward hubris and narcissism and the transformational model as one “which can too easily see a kindly uncle morph into an angry god.”[3] Even though his work is ominous, Tourish’s warning to leaders is a valid one especially in light of the many public leadership failings he references. This book should be received as a word of caution, though not a refutation of transformational leadership.

In Chapter 2, Tourish is especially harsh on the transformational model, claiming the charismatic visionary leader is “inclined to perceive reality through the distorting prism of his or her vision.”[4] He goes on to discuss the cultish environment created by these leaders that refuse to accept corrective feedback. He accuses the leader of exaggerated ideas of self-importance and the belief that he or she is absolutely essential to the success of the organization. Tourish seems to be convinced that transformational leaders are wholly selfish and doomed to immoral behavior.

I wonder what Tourish would say in response to Edwin Friedman in Failure of Nerve when he discusses the concept of the leadership self:

“Well-defined self in a leader – what I call self-differentiation – is not only critical to effective leadership, it is precisely the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.”[5]

Friedman argues that the expression of self in a leader is actually what moves the community forward. Though Friedman’s is a different approach than Tourish’s, perhaps they find agreement in the concept that the leader is capable of both positive and negative organizational impact. For instance, if the lack of self-regulation by the leader causes destruction, it is the self-regulation of the leader that brings health and growth to the organization.

The title of this book, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership, indicates there must also be a bright side. I am not ready to throw out the transformational model altogether. Tourish offers helpful words of caution to all who lead. Temptation will come. However, I cannot accept that all visionary leaders are doomed to fail. Perhaps Tourish will produce another volume of work that includes solutions and hope for the transformational leader. Until then, I join with the Psalmist and pray, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:10).


[1] Tourish, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective, 9.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 23

[4] Ibid., 25

[5] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 163.


About the Author

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

6 responses to “Dark Side…Bright Side”

  1. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    I am with you Rhonda. Hopefully not all transformational leaders are doomed! Perhaps, as Wallance suggests, this won’t happen if their moral fabric is healthy and ‘well maintained.’ Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Rhonda. I had to keep reminding myself as I was reading Tourish that the whole enterprise of leadership isn’t all bad. There’s always that danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    I did appreciate his clear warning that if we aren’t careful we could all succumb to the pitfalls of leadership, no matter what model we adopt, if we ignore our human tendency toward selfishness and pride.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great post Rhonda. I think those of us who are around very charismatic leaders have seen those who are not all bad, but have also seen our fair share of bad. Like you and others I think anything that gets out of balance is not good, and what I’m learning more and more is that, leadership gets out of balance when it becomes all about one person.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you for this, Rhonda. I was reminded in your opening paragraph of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees – that they put heavy burdens around the necks of others that they themselves cannot carry. I hadn’t considered yet this week that Jesus had a response to the dark side of leadership while on the planet. And of course, He offers us a different way forward. In this together!

  5. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Rhonda. I think Tourish understands the danger and undeniable effects and knows all of us leader types will downplay reality because of our own blind spots. I found his “extreme” approach to be intentional almost like shock therapy, to move us back to center and to press us toward differentiation and adult development. Like Friedman and family systems, Keegan and Lahey address this and actually give a description of the kind of developed person Tourish describes in his leadership model of processual communicative leadership. I wrote about this too.

  6. Mary Mims says:

    Rhonda, I agree with you that transformational leadership does not have to be bad, but it would be good if the principles set forth were used instead of just being a fad. I think leadership is lacking these days and we need true leadership. I haven’t given up hope, but I do not like what I see. I guess that is what you are saying but maybe Tourish sees the direction of leadership swinging the wrong way.

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