Great Leaders can be Dysfunctional

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

To be a great leader, we generally hear advice like you must be competent and have the ability to apply both people skills and technical competencies.

Now that we have finished this Top 10 series, we understand what leadership is and realize that great leaders exude special talents and abilities.

Here is a twist on what I’ve noticed is really significant about great leaders: I’ve witnessed that great leaders are many times very dysfunctional, difficult people. They can vary from hard-headed, abrasive, annoying, passive-aggressive types to the silent, non-expressive, quirky ones that struggle with why they have to take time to communicate with people.

You know what I’m talking about. From my point of view, the more problematic an individual may appear – the more potential this person has to be a great leader.

Dysfunctional Behaviors and Reactions

Here is a theory as to why dysfunctional behavior occurs in great leaders. A great leader has most likely faced situations with high uncertainty, high risk, and extreme instability. Great leaders often start developing at a very young age. By the time they are old enough to go to work, they have been through a lot.

To handle these challenging situations effectively, the young leader had to be astute in acting quickly, acquiring survival skills, handling adversity, being flexible, and above all, believing in himself.

Wow – is it possible you have a difficult person in your organization that you have overlooked?

Although dysfunctional behaviors are not the intent of great leaders, the overuse of these habits and reactions can end up seeming inappropriate when working with others. High achievers more than likely (unless they adjust) create undesirable outcomes when they are participating in a team setting.


The qualities that helped the high-performing young achiever to become a “great leader” may be why a difficult present-day person is often referred to as a troublemaker.

The dysfunction comes from a lack of effective adapting to others. As a result, this provokes behaviors ranging from being argumentative and intimidating to shutting down and committing to only his or her agenda.

Example of Dysfunction

Just recently, a member of a top management team (TMT) unfavorably discussed his frustrations with the decisions and outcomes from a management meeting he attended. After the meeting was adjourned, the TMT member expressed to his direct reports how he did not agree with what had been decided. He did not believe that the decision the management team decision had made was going to work for their division.

The outcome of the disgruntled TMT member’s discussion rapidly spread throughout the company from employee to employee. Presently, the rumor mill is at its peak, and employees are in an uproar about something that should have stayed confidential or been supported by the TMT member.


The problem – the TMT member doesn’t understand his role and obligation to be on the management team. Additionally, this TMT member acts as if he is on board with his peers. Pretty dysfunctional, wouldn’t you say?

This example of dysfunctional behavior is a pattern of fracturing that breaks down trust and hampers communication within today’s organizational culture. If the TMT leader is frustrated with the strategic decision that has been made, then the other members in the organization become frustrated too.

In order for the TMT to successfully implement a strategy, they must arrive at a shared vision and be supportive as to how it will be rolled out. Why did this happen?

High-achieving individuals often struggle with time-consuming activities that team efforts commonly require. In this case, the TMT member has more loyalty to his division’s team than his TMT team. The whole TMT team has now become dysfunctional.

Cycle of Distrust

When dysfunctional behaviors are overused, it creates a roadblock to openness and trust, which affects results. Here’s the key: as long as leaders are willing to work on how they are perceived as well as develop “human relationships,” they can smooth out their rough edges.

If they don’t, then a preference to “get the job done” overrides an increase in self-awareness, which results in people not feeling safe to discuss priority matters. The avoidance of behavioral discussions creates a cycle of dysfunction, which leads to forms of suppression, defensiveness, and fear, which impacts team performance.

Actions for Smoothing out Dysfunctional Habits

What should we work on to smooth our rough edges? Did you notice I said “our” rough edges?  If you really think about it, each one of us is someone, a difficult person. Right? Below is a brief checklist for each of us to formulate some actions in order to effectively channel our dysfunctional tendencies.

  • Use power to serve others.
  • Align vision with followers’ needs and aspirations
  • Encourage, consider, and learn from criticism
  • Stimulate followers to think
  • Communicate honestly and directly in a professional manner
  • Commit to doing whatever must be done to achieve the best results, no matter how difficult
  • Coach, develop, and support team members
  • Rely on internal moral standards and convictions
  • Look in the mirror and accept responsibility

Here’s my leadership philosophy for selecting great leaders: identify the most difficult people you work with or live with and realize they are great leaders in the making.

The next step is for you to help each person channel their leadership drive and smooth their rough edges. What’s the phrase? You may have several diamonds in the rough!

How Are Great Leaders Dysfunctional?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • joe valenti says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I personally and professionally have little patience sometimes because I tend to analyze situations quickly and then say and do things which can create disconfort in others.

  • Thanks Joe for reading the article and giving a specific, personal example of what great leaders do.

  • Carlos Contreras says:

    Many of the youth that I work with come from broken homes, single parent families, alcoholism, gang affiliations, and much violence. This has left them with a hopeless outlook on life yet a strong self awareness and interdependency. Once you look passed the rough edges you see the potential they carry on their shoulders. Their sense of loyalty and doing what is right is unmatched. The motivation to take initiative while ignorant of all facts is impressive. To fan those great qualities and work out their rough edges gives them joy and a sense of purpose. Those are the ones I love to work with, the difficult ones, the ones that aren’t afraid to make change!

  • Karin Sebelin says:

    Interesting article …
    I know a few people (great leaders) who show sometimes a great dysfunctional behaviour, but for me it was clear that often publicity is the problem behind (I speak here of social media especially). They hide themselves behind this behaviour to attract attention, to gain attention. We have to show understanding for these people, have to convinvce them with heart and appreciation. And you won’t believe it, it works (from my experience).

    Love is the way —> humanity.

    Best regards
    Karin Sebelin

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