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Assessing positive and destructive leadership on multiple dimensions: How to better understand and improve the behaviour of the people who lead us.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - LEADERPROFILE (Assessing positive and destructive leadership on multiple dimensions: How to better understand and improve the behaviour of the people who lead us.)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-10-31

What is the problem/issue being addressed?

The corporate world, the military, politics, and others all rely on skilful leadership to optimize their potential, unite followers, reduce conflict, and distil the various centrifugal forces within organizations into success. While the positive forms of leadership – the traditional focus of leadership research – make individuals, organizations, and societies flourish, negative forms of leadership have devastating consequences. This negative impact is magnified psychologically due to the fact that humans perceive and process negative input more elaborately than positive input (density hypothesis) and that negative behavior generally is more harmful than positive behavior is helpful (bad is stronger than good phenomenon). Destructive leadership does not only negatively affect the direct target but also indirectly affects the target’s environment (kicking-the-dog phenomenon). This immense and widespread negative impact necessitates nuanced empirical investigations into root causes as well as moderating contextual factors in order to better understand how individuals and organizations can react to and /or prevent destructive leadership. Recent critique stresses that models on destructive leadership should on the one hand avoid unnecessary construct proliferation and on the other hand attempt a holistic conceptualization, where constructs, antecedents, and consequences should be investigated on the level of leaders, followers, and the environment alike. The current project aimed at advancing research on destructive leadership by i) conceptually identifying current challenges and potential solutions, ii) adapting and developing paradigms which enable to study leadership in the laboratory and with novel technologies, and iii) then using those paradigms to study the cognitive und neural underpinnings of (destructive) leadership.

Why is it important for society?

To overcome current socio-political challenges, Europe needs strong leaders, whether this be in political, corporate, or societal contexts. One of the 2016/2017 Horizon2020 societal challenges defined by the EU is focused on ‘Europe in a changing world’. We need to foster inclusive, innovative, and reflective societies. Our societies, however, can only be as reflective as their leaders. European leaders are under considerable strain, considering fast changes rooted in globalisation, migration, the economic crisis, and digitalisation. We, thus, need to support our leaders by putting them on our scientific map and helping them to develop sound self-reflection skills. The proposed project will do exactly that and, further, open up a multitude of possibilities to translate the outcome into directly applicable intervention strategies.
What are the overall objectives?

This project worked at the forefront of translating classic leadership research to the laboratory. We i) compiled conceptual work which points out why current shortcomings in leadership theory necessitate the inclusion of experimental and neuroscientific methodology into the canon of leadership research, ii) developed and adapt experimental paradigms to fit leadership content, and iii) used those newly developed experimental setups using novel technologies (including social robotics) to study the psychophysiological underpinnings of differential leadership behaviour (for detailed list of concrete outcome, exploitation, and dissemination see below).
This action has enabled six concrete studies and ten paper projects (including four conceptual papers and papers on the six studies).

1. Diving deeper into the dark: Current conceptual and methodological challenges in the investigation of destructive leadership

2. Explicit and implicit follower evaluation of differential leadership behaviour

3. Conditional rule breaking and creativity in entrepreneurship

4. Robot leadership


The work described for the four topical clusters has been disseminated by submissions / revisions in high-impact peer-reviewed scientific journals. Furthermore, all work has been presented at various international conferences (10 peer-reviewed presentations). To exploit the work and disseminate it to practitioners, the MSCA fellow has thought manifold courses to practitioners, real-life leaders, and high-ranking managers in the context of the Executive Master and custom-made programs at the Executive Education Center at TUM ( During the action, the applicant has founded the ‘Munich Neuroscience in Novel and Compelling Contexts Meetup’ (Munich NiCE Meetup) together with a colleague from the Ludwig-Maximilian-University; in this context they bring together scientists form various areas of applied neuroscience affiliated with various universities and institutes (including Helmholtz and Max-Planck) and practitioners from applied fields for regular meetings, talks, and thought exchange. Unfortunately, the dissemination event described and planned in the original MSCA proposal could not be held as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The very same event is now planned to be held in conjunction with the 2021 International Conference for Neuroergonomics ( of which the MSCA fellow is chair. Full funding for this large-scale conference is ensured and no MSCA will be needed as the action will already be concluded once public events like the planned international conference will feasible again based on the development of the global pandemic.
Progress beyond the state of the art

The action has allowed for threefold progress beyond the state of the art in the field. First, the project enabled conceptual work (mirrored by a comprehensive review article and multiple conceptual papers) describing the current status-quo in research on leadership especially pointing at conceptual and methodological shortcomings. Second, the action made the first step towards overcoming those shortcomings by translating experimental frameworks to the study of leaders and their followers. Therefore, lots of work went into methodological paradigm development and validation, but also into using those new paradigms in experimental studies on leadership. Third, the action pioneers in exploring so-far not applied technologies to experimental leadership research (including electroencephalogram, eye tracking, social robotics, and virtual reality). Results from the action are promising, but further research will have to demonstrate the practical use of those technologies in the context of better understanding and advancing leadership.

Societal Impact

The outcome of the project will impact society, because it will further enhance the validity of leadership assessment, especially in the context of destructive leadership. The more precisely our tools can capture certain leadership styles, the more likely they will arrive in practical applications, and call destructive leaders to account. Not only will we improve the identification of destructive leaders and, thus, limit their negative impact on followers and organisational success. We will also enable better informed and more differential evidence-driven intervention strategies, to i) enhance leaders’ self-reflection and improve their leadership behaviour and ii) to advise followers on how to best deal with destructive leaders.