Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Overcoming an Addiction to Leadership­­­

Arms upraised toward a charismatic leader in a shadowy auditorium.
Lucie Hartley and ILA Fellow Richard Bolden explore the consequences of an addiction to leadership. Drawing on examples from drug and alcohol services, they illustrate how recovery techniques may help overcome a dependence on heroic and narcissistic leaders and foster more inclusive and compassionate forms of leadership practice.


Despite widespread calls for more collaborative and inclusive leadership in politics and organizations, why is it that people are still frequently drawn to charismatic, narcissistic, and populist leaders? In this article, we suggest that a potential reason for this is our tendency to rely on automatic, habitual, learned patterns of behavior and thought. We compare these patterns to drug and alcohol dependency in order to identify key principles that could help us on the path to recovery. We use the concept of “addiction” both metaphorically — to consider how followers, leaders, and society may become dependent on certain types of leadership — and literally — drawing on real life examples from drug and alcohol services and leaders working in them. Whilst addiction is a contested term — commonly considered to be the result of poor individual choices — we take a more sociological perspective, recognizing the role of societal and cultural influences, and hence a collective (not only individual) responsibility.

Addiction and Longing

Addiction to substances such as drugs and alcohol is a chronic condition that often leads to repeated relapses. Having a sincere wish and plan to change, whilst a crucial first step, is just the beginning of a long and hard journey towards recovery. Traditional interventions aim to help people become more aware of their thoughts and actions, find ways to keep alert to their habitual responses and ensure they have meaningful activities and ongoing support. Recovery, however, is rarely a one-off event and may be better considered as a daily practice that requires courage, strength, and support to maintain, sometimes for many years.

From her experience as a CEO and practitioner in drug and alcohol charities, Lucie (one of the authors) noted how clients often described the early stages of their dependency as a time in which they felt safe and protected. One client described a bottle of wine as “an uncomplaining friend” that “cocooned” him and let him “live in a fantasy.” Another person referred to their experience of taking heroin as like being “wrapped in cotton wool,” whilst someone else spoke of her longing for the “irrevocable glories of the first time.”

Whilst it may be unreasonable to transfer such observations to the field of leadership, there are interesting parallels to be made. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, people continued to seek solace in the pronouncements of leaders such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro, despite their frequent flagrant disregard of the evidence. The current presidential campaigns in the United States and build up towards a General Election in the United Kingdom show similar patterns of delusional thinking. Leadership scholars from a psychodynamic perspective refer to this as the “leadership mystique” (Gabriel, 1997; Kets de Vries, 2001), where followers project hopes, expectations, and/or fears from their childhood onto (potential) parental figures. Grint (drawing on Fromm, 1941) suggests that: “It is into this permanently unstable world that leaders, especially charismatics, step, offering certainty, identity, and absolution from guilt and anxiety to replace – and displace – the moral quagmire and purposeless existence that existentialism reveals” (Grint, 2010a, p. 100).

In a comparison of the approaches of Trump and Bolsonaro to Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinta Ardern during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maak et al. (2021) suggested that narcissism and ideological rigidity are key “fault lines” in leadership. Whilst we echo their calls for more responsible and compassionate leadership, we believe, however, that focusing too much on the traits and actions of individual leaders — the “villains,” “heroes,” and “heroines” of our stories — ignores the broader context that shapes them and their careers.

People who struggle with addictions are often judged harshly, as if they were the only ones to blame for their situation. However, many of them have faced difficult circumstances in their lives, such as poverty, abuse, neglect, family problems, and violence. Research shows that up to two-thirds of drug users have suffered from adverse childhood experiences (Tilson, 2018), and that substance misuse is often linked to other challenges, such as mental health, crime, and homelessness. These problems can be worsened by interactions with health, housing, education, and criminal justice systems that are often hard to navigate, and which can lead people to relive past trauma. In response, services are increasingly adopting “trauma-informed” and “system-based” approaches, where the focus of change is not only on the individual service user, but also the ways in which services are provided, and redesigning systems to provide more sensitive and effective care (Fenney, 2019).

The Toxic Triangle

Domestic abuse, mental ill health, and substance misuse are often called the “toxic trio,” because they are frequently found in families where children and adults suffer harm. Within organizations, Padilla et al. (2007) use the term “toxic triangle,” suggesting that for toxic leadership to take root there needs to be a combination of destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

The COVID-19 crisis, for example, left many National Health Service (NHS) leaders in the United Kingdom feeling emotionally drained and hopeless, trying to cope in an environment that is under-resourced, performance-oriented, and demanding. Ironically, while they work in an organization that values responsibility and compassion, they were exposed to the negative effects of witnessing trauma, with staff in intensive care units during the COVID-19 pandemic having a 40% chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — twice as high as military veterans who have recently been in combat (Greenberg et al., 2021). A report by West et al. (2017) asserts that whilst compassionate leadership is essential to creating a culture of innovation and improvement, it is not feasible to expect individual leaders to show compassion unless a culture of compassion is established throughout the organization.

Frost and Robinson (1999) used the concept of the “toxic handler” to illustrate how leaders and managers are expected to cope with and absorb negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, and conflict on a daily basis. Frost (2003) compared exposure to these “toxic emotions” to the exposure of a factory worker to hazardous or cancer-causing substances — something that he personally experienced in his own work as a manager and that may have led to his premature death from cancer.

Addictive Behavior in Leaders

Drawing on her experiences, Lucie explored how leadership practice in addiction charities may be influenced by patterns of addictive behavior. This involved completing a first-person action research case study, interviews with senior managers from U.K. addiction charities, as well as personally practicing mindfulness and reflection for four months and keeping a journal to document her own leadership and management experience.

The challenge of creating and sustaining work-life balance emerged as a consistent theme across the interviews and the case study. This was manifested in various aspects such as time allocation, role identification, and external expectations. The research participants shared strategies they employed to cope with their stress levels, including acupuncture, yoga, reflection, and meditation. They also expressed the importance of having someone to confide in. In the diary study, Lucie observed a shift in her reflective practice, from simply recalling what had happened and how she felt/thought about it to questioning why she perceived/felt things in certain ways. This was supported by some informal coaching sessions when the coach demonstrated this approach to her own reflections. The regular journal writing provided an additional opportunity for enhanced reflection during this period.

The findings suggest that practicing reflection and mindfulness regularly can help leaders cope with negative influences and interact with them in a different way. The research also highlighted the role of self-awareness, so that leaders can be more mindful of and less influenced by subconscious thoughts and behaviors. Reflection was considered a key skill in enhancing self-awareness and managing internal and external expectations and stereotypes. It was also considered useful to connect with and comprehend other people better. The research concluded that mindfulness and reflection can help leaders to become more aware of themselves and others and to escape the “toxic triangle” of destructive leadership.

As for “followers,” we cannot expect “leaders” to fix and control the complicated problems we encounter. This is a fantasy that can make us feel better, but it does not reflect reality.

Moving Away From Dependency

In order to escape the gravitational pull towards toxic leadership what must we do? According to the transtheoretical model of change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983), people who are thinking about changing their behavior go through different phases in the change process. One of these phases is called the “contemplation phase,” where people are unsure if they want to make a change or not.

Within addiction services a technique called “decisional balance” is often used at this phase with people who have become dependent on drugs or alcohol. It involves users comparing the pros and cons of continuing to use and looking at the short-term and long-term effects. This allows them to recognize the joys and benefits of their substance use, while also confronting the reality of the outcomes. People often use drugs or alcohol to help them cope with the difficult situations or feelings they face. However, this is not a real solution, it creates further problems, and it usually makes things worse over time. The drugs or alcohol may dull the pain or create a false sense of happiness, but these feelings do not last. People end up needing more and more to feel the same way. When they try to quit, they have to face again the emptiness, the challenges, and the suffering they had been avoiding and which led them to use in the first place.

People in leadership roles can have similar contradictory experiences. Whilst there are joys to be experienced from being in these roles (Gosling, 2019), these can also be harmful. Like addicts, leaders would be advised to examine their motivations and the impact (both positive and negative) that the “joys” they seek have on others, their organizations and the broader context in which they work.  

As for “followers,” we cannot expect “leaders” to fix and control the complicated problems we encounter. This is a fantasy that can make us feel better, but it does not reflect reality. We may want to follow someone who promises easy answers, but this will lead to disappointment and frustration when we realize that things are not so simple. We need to accept that there is no one right way, and that we have to deal with uncertainty and complexity.

Cross addiction is the term for switching from one addictive behavior to another (for example, quitting drinking but turning to gambling), which does not address the root causes of the addiction. Grint (2010b) warns that in the context of leadership, there is a risk of replacing the unrealistic ideal of “heroic leadership” with another flawed ideal of “distributed leadership” and teamwork, which have their own difficulties in practice. He argues that people with different worldviews tend to favor different leadership styles and proposes that what is needed is a flexibility to adapt to different kinds of leadership depending on the situation, with followers taking more ownership and both leaders and followers being willing to let go of their “addictions.”

Sustaining Recovery

Those caught in cycles of drug and alcohol addiction need to plan ahead for situations that might trigger a relapse and to ensure that safeguards are in place. For instance, they may prepare an emergency plan for how to cope with a high-risk situation, and they can prepare a “relapse prevention plan,” exploring different strategies, such as meaningful activities and forms of support. Social networks are also important for recovery, and for many addicts, regular participation in a mutual aid group, such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, is indispensable.

With regards to leadership, measures can be taken to reduce the potential negative impact of narcissism and/or toxicity. Maccoby (2000) suggests several solutions, including: finding a reliable partner who can question the leader’s assumptions and encourage them to consider alternatives; instilling the organization with the vision and values of the leader; and the leader undergoing psychoanalysis in order to build self-awareness and reflectiveness. Dotlich and Cairo (2003) claim that effective executives regularly perform ten “unnatural acts” that help prevent derailment, such as surrounding themselves with people who make them uncomfortable, connecting rather than creating, trusting before questioning, giving up some control, and coaching and teaching instead of inspiring and leading.

Many addictive habits are driven by unconscious thoughts and behaviors. Cognitive behavioral interventions, such as relapse prevention, help addicts to become more aware of and manage their “triggers.” One relapse prevention technique, inspired by mindfulness meditation, is called “urge surfing.” This technique helps a person cope with urges or cravings by observing and exploring the physical sensation, rather than acting on the automatic response of their mind.

Leaders can also benefit from becoming more aware of their habitual patterns through reflective and other types of awareness-enhancing practices (e.g., mindfulness). Self-assessment tools, such as the Hogan Developmental Survey, can also be useful in identifying and monitoring behavioral tendencies that may cause executive derailment and in developing strategies to prevent or mitigate the potential causes and effects. Leaders can also engage in regular individual and/or group reflection.

However, the responsibility for being alert to toxic influences and signs of addiction or dependency should not be left to “leaders” only but shared and supported at organizational and societal levels. In a context that is often described as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex), it is interesting to note that the Zulu word “ukuvuka” means “to wake up.” This could encourage all of us to be mindful of our responsibilities to participate actively in the governance and leadership of the organizations and communities we belong to.


To face reality, we have to let go of the wishful thinking that leaders can soothe and distract us from our pain and desires. We are not saying that there is no room for simple solutions or future plans. In fact, we believe that having a clear vision and goal is essential for effective leadership. However, we also think that leaders and their organizations (to achieve their vision) need to be aware of, tolerate, and accommodate the uncertainty, challenges, and unexpected outcomes along the way. Developing a mindful awareness (e.g., through reflection and meditation) helps leaders and followers to do this and to focus on what matters.

A higher level of awareness of the situations, patterns, actions, and habits that are linked to substance misuse and leadership toxicity would benefit leaders, addicts, and organizations. Leaders should question their motives and be ready to sacrifice things, including privileges, that harm themselves or others. While there are times when the expertise of the clinician or leader is needed, leaders and practitioners (health and social care) should resist the temptation of always being the expert and acknowledge the role their clients, employees, or citizens will play in the recovery process or in the resolution of “wicked problems.”

To prevent toxic influences from corrupting the system, we need to establish mechanisms that monitor and correct them, as well as enhance the self-awareness of our leaders. Those recovering from an addiction are advised to reconsider their social ties, be selective about their friends, and seek out those who will help them overcome their dependency and not enable it. Likewise, we need to assess our leaders carefully and make sure they have the right people around them, who will both support and challenge them to act wisely.

A good leader needs to have a strong sense of self and community — appreciating different perspectives, ethical principles, individual rights, and collective goals. This is something that requires the participation of everyone, both leaders and followers, creating a moral bond that can be easily damaged by neglect, indifference, and the seductive promise of “leadership.” Just as we have a personal and social duty to help those who suffer from addiction to recover, we also have a responsibility to be aware of and challenge the negative effects of toxic leadership and our own part in the process. Only then can we break free from our reliance on unhealthy forms of leadership and embark on the difficult, uncertain, and complex journey from crisis to recovery.

Note: this article is based on the following book chapter: Hartley, L. and Bolden, R. (2022), “Addicted to leadership: From crisis to recovery,” in Morgan Witzel (Ed.) Post-Pandemic Leadership: Exploring Solutions to a Crisis. pp. 112-126. Routledge. 


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headshot of Richard Bolden

Dr. Richard Bolden is Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England (UWE). Previously, he worked at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School.  Bolden’s research explores the interface between individual and collective approaches to leadership and leadership development in a range of sectors, including higher education, healthcare and public services. He has published widely on leadership topics and is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership. His most recent book is Exploring Leadership (2nd Edition) with Jonathan Gosling and Beverley Hawkins. 

Lucie Hartley

Lucie Hartley works as a freelance leadership coach and consultant. She has spent most of her career working in health and social care in a range of roles. She worked for many years as a practitioner with people with drug and alcohol problems.  Most recently, Lucie was Chief Executive of a drug and alcohol charity.  She is a Fellow at the Centre for Leadership at the University of Exeter, where she completed her MBA, specializing in leadership.

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