Leadership – the battlefield between Good and Evil


The notion of the fight between Good and Evil is present in most cultures. We can see it in popular stories such as Journey to the West, The Count of Monte Cristo, Ben Hur, Star Wars, Lion King, or angels and devil-like characters in many religions. These and similar stories are popular worldwide and have been around for a long time, signaling that there is a significant, universal message in them. Recent research on leadership can provide insights into the possible origin of our fascination with the fight between Good and Evil and can provide tips for the everyday battles of our working lives.

An insightful study

The study I am referring to is “Examining the Relationship Between Leaders’ Power Use, Followers’ Motivational Outlooks, and Followers’ Work Intentions” by Taylor Peyton, Drea Zigarmi and Susan N. Fowler. The paper was published in “Frontiers in Psychology”, and can be accessed online for free. The authors hypothesized that different methods of managerial influence will create different attitudes in their direct reports, which will influence their behavior. Based on previous research, they created two categories for managerial influence methods:

Hard Power (perceived positional authority; the perceived ability of the leader to punish people and to decide monetary compensation and rewards), and
Soft Power (perceived expertise, providing a convincing rationale, and the perception of development via interacting with the leader).
Employee attitudes were measured by a range of
Extrinsic Motivation factors (needs for Social acceptance, Material rewards, Job Security), and
Intrinsic Motivation factors (needs for Self-Esteem, Self-Actualization).
Employee behavior was measured by self-reported work intentions.

The research results

The study fundamentally showed that Hard Power tends to create Extrinsic Motivation and employee behaviors related to keeping the job and sacrificing own time. The use of Hard Power negatively correlated with exerting efforts in the tasks, recommending the organization, and doing more than explicitly required. The use of Hard Power significantly correlated with disengagement (it is called Amotivation in the study, correlation with Hard Power use is r=0.386, n=1039).

On the other hand, Soft Power tended to create Intrinsic Motivation and behaviors related to exerting efforts in the tasks, recommending the organization, and doing more than explicitly required. Soft Power contributed to an engaged workforce and negatively correlated with disengagement (r=-0.527, n=1039).

Ramifications to organizations

The results prove what we intuitively know, through our own experiences and from what our relatives and friends tell us about their jobs: our direct supervisors can make a huge difference. The difference in experience can be artistically expressed with the images of Heaven and Hell. There are good leaders and bad leaders and most people come across both in their careers at some stages. There seem to be only two ways to solidify one’s power on the top: an iron grip of power or a democratic, wise king, a coaching leader approach. One is the result of competing for power, the other is the result of self-development and transformation. These two ways are captured in the study as Hard Power and Soft Power and are captured in the legends about tyrants and wise kings, and in the archetypes of Good and Evil. I can easily imagine that the character of the Devil is an expression of the Hard Power Manager (in prehistorical times probably experienced as a sadistic parent, autocratic king or tribe chief) and the Good Hero is an expression of the Soft Power Manager (a good parent, wise king or tribe chief). This duality is a major experience and as old as humanity, and history books also provide long lists for both types.

The Leadership challange

Why do we have Hard Power Managers? They create hell for their subordinates and achieve suboptimal results with their disengaged workforce. Why are these managers still around in great numbers? And a surprising question: Are you one of them? Or will you become one of them once you get promoted to a leadership position? The scale of the problem shows that we are facing something that is deep in human nature and older than our recorded history. We need evolutionary psychology and systemic thinking to better understand the issue, and more powerful methods to make progress.

A view from evolutionary psychology

We, humans, are social beings. Our strengths lie not only in our intelligence and use of tools but also in the fact that we live in organized communities. Even though our societies are much more complex than other mammals, there are still some parallels between our tribes and the hierarchies of chimpanzees: the hierarchy and central command provides efficient coordination. The similarity goes further. Evolutionary psychologists often talk about two sets of basic human competencies that we share with many animals: “Getting Along” and “Getting Ahead”. Getting Along means being helpful and cooperative, Getting Ahead means being competitive and dominant. We all need both sets, but we possess them at different degrees. The “Getting Ahead” competencies are stronger in some individuals, which propels them towards the top of the hierarchy. They become the Alphas, and they have more control over decisions and resources. Most people cannot get to the top of the pyramid (that’s simply how the math of hierarchies works), and they need to rely more on their “Getting Along” competencies.

And here is the problem: the “Getting Ahead Competencies” and “Leadership Competencies” are not the same: emerging as a leader requires different competencies than being a leader. Being ambitious, goal-oriented, charismatic, dominant, and even mischievous or aggressive propels people in the emerging stage: we see an impressive individual with personal ambition and the will to do whatever it takes, hungry for success and obsessed with results. However, the most effective leaders at the helm show a different profile. They are balanced. They are modest and share the credit for success with others. They are considerate and hardly ever rely on coercive power. They are other-centered, not self-serving; they are self-aware; they delegate power and develop others. Unfortunately, the self-focused, dominant, obsessed individuals are often the ones who convince the recruiters and impress top managers. Managing up is the name of the game, and managing subordinates as growing mushrooms: keep them in the dark, throw a lot of dirt on them, and if people try to raise their head, chop them off. And if the self-serving managers are not considered for promotion, they try to get ahead via politics or conspiracy.

The root cause of most leadership problems

An important reason for Hard Power leadership is lacking in Soft Power leadership qualities. People who lack maturity and orientation suddenly find themselves in a managerial position. What took them to the leadership position will not make them successful leaders. Mao Zedong became the leader of Mainland China through winning a revolutionary war. He showed amazing strategic thinking and personal charisma. After getting to the top, he kept on using military tactics to eliminate the problems in the economy and politics and became a Hard Power Leader. Leaders who make it to the top often are not ready and would need a personality transformation, but they don’t understand what’s going on. They find themselves losing authority and struggling in getting things done, so they reach for what seems to be the only solution and start using Hard Power desperately. This comes with rationalizations of course and with developing a new, distorted set of perceptions: the leader joined the Dark Side. In some cases, some experience or an inner voice awakens them and they try to change. Helping leaders in the transition from the self-centered, Hard Power behavior to the other-centered wise leader would be of utmost beneficial. This was recognized by Confucius, whose teachings aimed to influence kings and emperors, just as current leadership development programs try to enlighten corporate managers. The battle between Good and Evil is fully on, and the main battlefield is the consciousness of leaders.

Connection to archeotypes

The devil is dark and the angels are bright. The evil forces live in darkness, under the ground, and lurk in the night. The tyrant has hidden agendas and operates behind the scenes. The Good is represented universally with the light. The dark represents the dark side of human nature that we all possess: selfishness, aggression, trickery, cruelty. Hard Power leaders are ruled by these forces. The darkness also represents a lack of awareness. Most Hard Power leaders are not evil by a truly conscious choice, they rather suffer from a limited and distorted vision of themselves and reality. The light represents clear vision, self-awareness, and giving, and it highlights the importance of transcending the ego and becoming other-focused.

Message for leaders

The message for leaders is recognizing the innate tendency for using Hard Power and actively fight against it. Look regularly into the mirror of truth, get critical feedback and become self-aware. Develop the skills that help to become a better team-builder and coach of others. Embrace and practice “servant leadership”.

Message for followers

The message for non-leaders is to become one and to become a Soft Power leader guided by self-awareness and the attitude of serving a larger purpose. If you don’t go for it, chances are that a Hard Power leader will take the slot. Nice guys, step forward and start building muscles, stop finishing last. Set goals, and start to challenge yourself. If you are a Peter Parker, go out and look for the bug that bites you: choose a cause and engage with the world. Make a dent in the universe. I don’t talk about becoming a manager necessarily. Fortunately, we humans can choose between many competency hierarchies where you can ascend towards the top and experience development and success. Find your superpower, whatever it is. And if you really can’t find any hierarchy that excites you, you can turn to spiritual development, which offers a non-hierarchical way towards the light.

Message for organizations

The message for organizations is recognizing the very real risk of Hard Power leadership: don’t underestimate the power of the dark side. Guard against the rise of Hard Power leaders in the ranks, and create an environment where Soft Power leaders can emerge and flourish. Select and cultivate leaders who are or on the way to become “Level 5 Leaders”, who build great teams through the paradoxical combination of personal humility and fierce commitment (a concept from Jim Collins, “From Good to Great”). Feedback and self-awareness should be the cornerstone of leadership development programs. Large organizations should be regularly scanned with properly executed engagement surveys.


In short, we all have "superpowers", we can tilt the world more towards Heaven or Hell with our actions and choices. Leaders, however, are in a special position: their actions and decisions impact more people, they have even more power to invite light or unleash the dark forces. Leaders, therefore, be aware: "With great power comes great responsibility"! Work on becoming a great "Soft Power" leader with all your might!


Tools to promote Soft Power Leadership:

Leadership Core Competencies 360 Feedback

Organization Effectiveness Survey: OD-Map®

Motivation Questionnaire: MQ

Written by: Gabor Nagy