When evaluating a particular leader, I tend to start with analysis. That is, rather than rushing to judgment about whether they are a “good” or “bad” leader, I start with, “What kind of leader are they?” and then break down their history of leadership behavior and characteristics to answer the question.

In general there are two broad categories of leader: values-based and dark.

Values-based leaders tend to think of their followers as valuable contributors to a team and concentrate on improving those followers by building upon their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses. Dark leaders tend to think of their followers as expendable tools and use them for personal gain.

Examples of values-based leadership models include transformational leadership and servant leadership. Both are thoroughly grounded in research and real-world examples, and learning all about them could easily turn into a full time endeavor, so I provided a couple handy links to sources that provide a basic overview of each.

The Center for Servant Leadership explains, “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Those characteristics can be observed and measured.

Dark leadership includes toxic and narcissistic models, which are also thoroughly grounded in research and real-world examples. A comprehensive study of them would likewise take a spot of time, so I included a couple links here to articles that provide a quick overview of each.

As noted by Dr. Jean Kim writing in Psychology Today, toxic leaders tend to refuse to listen to feedback, are prone to excessive self-promotion and self-interest, frequently lie and are inconsistent, and lack a moral philosophy. Those characterstics as well can be observed and measured.

Note the general purpose of values-based leadership models is to help leaders improve themselves and their teams, while the general purpose of dark leadership models is to help followers survive under a dark leader.

On then to the question that is the title of this essay: What kind of leader do you prefer? Values-based? Or dark?

I confess I tend to prefer the former, and it seems most people say they do as well.

So when contemplating the leaders we actually prefer, it may be helpful to ask ourselves, “What kind of leader are they?” And when answering that question, keep in mind that analyzing a leader is a lot like checking the temperature outside with a thermometer.

Thermometers are generally accepted as valid and reliable measurement tools. They measure the thing they are intended to measure and they produce consistent results. If the temperature is the same in two places, the same thermometer will tell you; and if you use two thermometers in the same place, they’ll both tell you the same temperature.

Now, 32 degrees is generally the temperature at which water begins to freeze, so if you prefer non-freezing temperatures to freezing temperatures, you might use a thermometer to determine whether or not to go outside when the temperature is 32 degrees or below — and you’d likely use that information to decide how to dress should you choose to go outside.

So if you prefer a values-based leader, but the answer to the question, “What kind of leader are they?” is dark or toxic or narcissistic, you may want to reconsider your decision to follow that particular leader or, at the very least, how best to go about it.

Of course you could also check the temperature outside, get a reading of 32 degrees or lower, then tell your friends it’s not actually freezing outside and step out without bundling up.

I’ll close this brief essay with a point about the distinction between fact and opinion. That 32 degrees is the temperature at which water begins to freeze is a fact. That fact is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

Not liking freezing temperatures is an opinion. That opinion is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

Yet if you say you don’t like freezing temperatures while cheerfully going out on a sub-freezing day without wearing a coat and gloves, people will be inclined to doubt the sincerity of your declaration that you don’t like freezing temperatures.

And if you declare it isn’t actually freezing outside, it won’t change the fact that hypothermia and frostbite are very likely outcomes should you go out without the right clothes or linger too long.

What I used just there is of course an “analogy” and, while no analogy is perfect, those who read this far will undoubtedly have been able to follow along, got my point, and this next paragraph will be redundant and possibly superfluous. But for the more literal-minded or less-discerning reader, here is what I’m telling you:

If the answer to the question, “What kind of leader do I prefer?” is “values-based,” but the answer to the question, “What kind of leader are they?” is “toxic,” and you’re following that toxic leader, there are two ways to close the say-do gap and maintain your credibility: either align your words to your deeds, or align your deeds to your words.

Cliff W. Gilmore Administrator
Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.
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