Guilt, Responsibility, and Leadership

  • Camilla SløkEmail author
Living reference work entry


The world is a troubling place. Since Old Testament, we have heard the prophecies of corruption, spiritually, bodily, and/or societal. And since then, social technologies have been developed to form boarders for human behavior have been made. According to Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, one of the most powerful social technologies have been “guilt.” Through the labelling of “guilt” as a mutual binding between two or more persons, we try to enforce responsibility and duty on and for each other, still knowing in the back of our heads, that this might actually not happen. Failed responsibility leads to guilt, or at least the surrounding’s expectation of some kind of expression of guilt. This chapter looks into the three different ways of understanding guilt and responsibility in relation to leadership. First, the paper dives into contemporary understanding of leadership, it is puzzling that none of the contemporary literature in this field deals with the possibility of leaders being guilty. In contemporary society, we reject on the one side guilt when individuals in organizations openly blame themselves for wrongdoing, since we claim that any act of an organization is too complex to be reduced to one person. On the other side we call for guilt, when responsible individuals overtly fail to express regret of their doing, though they were in fact accountable, both in position and in act. In conclusion, we are in contemporary times uncertain of how to understand guilt. But what does that do to responsibility?

Secondly, the chapter shows how the only research field that deals with the leader as guilty is in the field of psychopathy. Here, we find that a leader with psychopathic traits fall short of any sense of guilt. However, this does not inform us how ordinary leaders may actually experience guilt if not psychopaths? Thirdly, the chapter presents how the historical Protestant understanding of “guilt” as part of human nature, and how this worldview has been left all together, leaving us on the one hand with leaders as possible psychopathic when lacking guilt and on the other side ordinary leaders as incapable of expressing guilt in a contemporary Post-Christian culture that has no common understanding what guilt would possibly mean.


Guilt Responsibility Psychopathy Theology 


The branding of “guilt” as irrelevant for a modern society started with Sigmund Freud in his book Civilization and its Discontents (1931). Sigmund Freud looks at the cultural impact of sin and states that its role is to socialize human beings through “guilt.” Freud (1931) states that his purpose is “to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt” (p.134). Ever since, guilt has had a hard time in psychology and psychiatry. On the other side we call for guilt, when responsible individuals overtly fail to express regret of their doing, though they were in fact accountable, both in position and in act. In conclusion, we are in contemporary times uncertain of how to understand guilt. But what does that do to responsibility?

Structure of the Chapter

In the first section, the chapter defines how the literature on transformational leadership primarily views leadership in positive terms. While Bass and Riggio leaves some room for leaders who fail in their leadership, labelling this “the pseudo-transformational leadership,” they do not ascribe any possibility for the real leader to fail, i.e., become guilty when things fail. This leaves lack of responsibility or failure in responsibility totally ignored.

In the second section, the chapter analyzes how the critical literature on leadership labels this “seduction” or more often “psychopathic.” The object of focus for psychopathy in leadership is lack of responsibility. Among the many characteristics of failed leadership, lack of responsibility and lack of feeling of guilt is paramount. The chapter shows how the literature on psychopathic leadership indirectly turns “feeling of guilt” into an ordinary expectation. This is noticeable, since most of contemporary psychology literature attempts to make guilt go away.

In the third section, the chapter presents the theological notion of guilt. Guilt is ontological; however, the social side of guilt is intrinsic: Guilt is part of relationships with others. The chapter looks at the theological concept of guilt when connected to responsibility. After this, the chapter views the concept of responsibility and guilt in the light of John Keynes’ ideas of a common responsibility for restoration of war. Keynes argued for a common understanding of responsibility after war, i.e., that it was not only the losing party that should pay war reparations, but the winning party would also have obligations to take care of the living standard of the losing party. Finally, the chapter analyzes how gift economy by Marcel Mauss sees responsibility and guilt as restrained, containing the possibility of leaving the relationship, and thus the responsibility.

The fourth section sums up the aim of the chapter, i.e., how to understand what (1) responsibility is, (2) what responsibility is not, and (3) what the failure of responsibility means.

Section 1: Leadership with No Guilt

Burns was the first to define leadership in the way we know it today, i.e., as a relationship between leaders and followers (Burns 1998, 133). Viewing leadership as relational meant a new approach to seeing the leader as dependent on the followers: not as holding power only due to formal authority (Weber 1978). Bernard Bass took Burns’ ideas to another level in his book (1985) Leadership and Performance beyond Expectations which was dedicated to Burns. Bass here defined leadership as relational since he stated: “charisma is in the eye of the beholder” (1985, s.40; Bass og Stogdill 1990a, s.193). From now, leadership would never again be only referring to one’s position as leader. The understanding of leadership was turned into an intimate relationship between leader and followers. The characteristics of a genuine leader emphasizes this: The good transformational leader is (1) charismatic, (2) intellectually inspiring, (3) motivating, and (4) shows individual consideration (Bass 1990a; Bass and Riggio 2006).

Jackson (2008, s.792) has summed up the quintessence of transformational leadership like this:

Transformational leadership is the process whereby a leaders fosters group or organizational performance beyond expectation by virtue of the strong emotional attachment with his or her followers combined with the collective commitment to a higher moral cause.

Bass and his impact on leadership literature has been immense (see Leithwood, e.g., Leithwood 1996/2003; 2005; 2006a, b, 2008a, b). Though Burns is said to initially distinguish between transactional and transformational leadership, Bass wanted to draw to the fore is the transformational leader who motivates us to do more than we originally expected to do (Bass 1985, 20); this is the “good” transformational leader. Bass and Riggio are first of all interested in this type of leadership. However, Bass and Riggio depict two other types of leaders in order to emphasize the great leader:
  • Category 1: The disinterested transactional leader.

  • Category 2: The selfish, destructive transformational leader or power wielder.

Bass moves from the disinterested transactional type of leadership (category 1) to the difference between the good type and the poor type (category 2). How to detect the disinterested (category 1) or the selfish (category 2) is left to the organizations who have to deal with the consequences of “leadership gone wrong.” It is noticeable that the good leader simply does not fail. There is no reflection what so ever in their presentation of the transformational leader on good leaders that fall guilty, whether by pure chance or because they believed they were doing the right thing, but later found that others thought they had done wrong.

The lack of nuances in transformational leadership has led other researchers to intense studies on exactly this subject: What if leadership actually make for all the wrong decisions in organizations as well as political life? In critical management studies and psychological studies, e.g., we find that Zaleznik (1977) differentiates between psychologically “healthy” and “unhealthy” leaders. Howell (1988) preferred to differentiate between socialized and personalized leaders. Bass (1985) contrasted authentic with inauthentic or pseudotransformational leaders (see also Bass and Riggio 2006), but without leaving room for good leaders to fail.

The distinction between good leadership on the one hand and ‘dangerous leadership’ on the other, is often reconfigured as the Hitler problem. In other words, was Hitler a transformational leader? For Burns, leadership had to be morally uplifting, which is why Hitler could not have been a true leader. Bass initially considered transformation to be any fundamental social change without regard to moral values. However, he later (e.g., Bass and Steidlmeier 1999) stated that leadership should be reserved for the forces of good, and the other terms like tyrant and despot should serve as descriptors for other normative behaviors. In the end, Bass coined the concept pseudotransformational, bringing Burns and Bass into alignment concerning a long-standing conundrum: Hitler was not a transformational leader (Burns and Sorenson 2006, vii–viii). This, of course, generates a problem. It appears to be the ethical background of the analyst, rather than the analyzed, that decides whether a leader ends up in the transformational or pseudotransformational camp (see also Bass and Riggio 2006, 235).

This, of course, is an analytical nightmare. There are plenty of allegedly egalitarian leaders who are self-serving because the interests of the collective and the leader are construed as equivalent. And if socialized leaders use established channels then woe betide the socialized leader of a marginalized group without access to established channels. Indeed, the whole point of Weber’s seminal work on charisma was precisely the opposite of the assumption that charismatics use the established institutional procedures and noncharismatics do not (see, e.g., du Gay 2000).

The same issue occurs when they discuss transformational leadership, as the feature of transformational leadership that most often best distinguishes authentic from inauthentic leaders is individualized consideration. The authentic transformational leader is truly concerned with the desires and needs of followers and cares about their individual development. Followers are treated as ends not just means (Bass and Riggio 2006, 14), which is why authenticity does not appears to relate to being true to oneself but to be concerned for others. But one could easily configure a leader who has precisely this concern while simultaneously considered as immoral by those who are not followers. Both arguments are examples of the no-true-Scotsman logical fallacy – the ad hoc defense of an unreasoned argument: since leadership is essentially good, any leader who is perceived as being destructive to the greater good by antagonists cannot be a leader.

Bass and Riggio, however, have a get-out-of-jail-free card: “It is important to note that for most leaders it is not clear-cut. Being personalized or socialized is usually a matter of degree, being more or less selfless in one’s actions” (2006, 13). In sum, the whole edifice that separates good from bad, personalized from socialized, altruistic from authoritarian, is simply a matter of subjective interpretation. Boring or mundane leadership turns out to be transactional and wicked power wielders carry out dangerous leadership; in other words, they seduce their followers. Bass calls them power wielders, which allows him to claim that leadership is always good (and that poor leaders are actually not leaders).

Calas and Smircich’s (1991) even labelled leadership that has gone wrong as “seduction.” In their paper “Voicing seduction to silence leadership,” Calas and Smircich considers the way leadership – at least on the surface – has nothing to do with seduction; indeed their review of the literature implies that traditional authors perceive leadership as being the opposite of seduction but are actually able to conceal this relationship. Consequently, leadership is perceived as necessarily upright, noble, and just, but it only manages to achieve this by a sleight of hand that camouflages the necessary seduction of followers (1991, 569). Calas and Smircich propose that seduction, rather than leadership, is the dominant theme and that since leadership requires seduction, and seduction is necessarily negative, leadership bears the mark of seduction, rather like the mark of Cain: it is essentially negative and, as they state, “[a]s a form of seduction, there is nothing profound about leadership” (1991, 568). They show the juxtaposition of leadership and seduction by analyzing the sexualized, seductive effects of organizational writings, and note the poor reputation of seduction in relation to leadership (1991, 573). In effect, while researchers taking a traditional approach to leadership see it through rose-tinted glasses, where it is essentially positive, critical theorists see it through cataracts, where it is essentially negative. Researchers like Tourish (2013) and Kark (Kark and Chen 2003) has provided a coruscating critique of the dark side of transformational leadership in its potentially debilitating effects on followers. As Joanna Ciulla has pointed out (2013) there is a sad division between social sciences on the one side, and ethics of leadership on the other (see also Blodgett 1 2011; Rössner 2015). Thus, while the likes of Burns, Bass, and Zaleznik constitute leadership as necessarily productive and ethically sound (what Collinson calls “Prozac leadership” (Collinson 2012)), their opponents in the critical management school tend to suggest that leadership is equally inevitably associated with coercion and unethical authority.

Another category for leadership gone wrong is pathological, rather, psychopathy. The amount of literature on psychopath leaders in impressive. Particularly when we consider how few beings are actually psychopaths according to the statistics. In the following, the paper will describe this particular definition of leadership. After this section, the paper will investigate whether the theological definition of “guilt” is relevant for leadership gone wrong, rather than “psychopathy.”

Section 2: Lack of Guilt as Psychopathy

This section describes the discussions on psychopathy in general, and its implications when brought into leadership. This category of “the psychopath leader” has become one, if not the only way, for leadership to deal legitimately with guilt as lack of responsibility. That is, lack of guilt becomes a pathological symptom. However, this is interesting since most of the twentieth and twenty-first century debates were branding “guilt” as completely irrelevant for a modern person. The psychiatrist Elliott puts it like this:

“It is ironic, that psychiatry, which expends so much effort on the patient who feels guilty when most af us think he should not, should find itself occupied with the psychopath, who feels no guilt when most af us think he should”. (Elliott 1991, s. 89) (from Pethman and Erlandson 1997)

The quote shows the modern dilemma on guilt/not guilt. Nobody wants to openly express that others should be guilty. At least, psychology and psychiatry have done a great effort to liberate us all from such negative emotions. At the same time, what to do when people act deliberately mean towards others, or by their actions do harm, mentally, physically, financially towards others? We expect that the harm-doing person express some kind of remorse. Since leaders have enormous impact on others, why would not these leaders also once in a while find themselves in situations of having done wrong? Leadership literature in general does not help in these situations. On the contrary, Bass and Riggio ignores that the good leader can fail. These situations are straight-forward not existing in transformational leadership. What is left for the leaders and the surroundings is either to label failing leaders as “pseudo-transformational” or “inauthentic”. Another possibility when referring to contemporary literature is to view the leader as psychopath. The following describes the development of this category of the “psychopath leader.”

The History of Psychopathy

The concept of “psychopathy” rests in a new approach to criminals in the late eighteenth century. A debate started in the field of medicine and law whether some are “born criminals” (Holmes 1991, 78) when a medical doctor Benjamin Rush published his book “Lectures on the mind,” in 1793 (, taking the hitherto philosophical discussion on “evil” into a medical arena. To Rush, a “total absence of conscience” was a disease in the brain: an anomia (see Holmes 1991, p.77). From here three different strands of understanding of psychopathy as biological disorder took over (Werlinder 1978, see also Jensen 1978 and Whitlock 1987, p.653).

The three strands were the following in Europe and in the Anglo-Saxon world: (1) around 1800 as affective disorders in mental illness, by the physician, Prichard, who developed his idea from Pinell, and described “moral insanity” as “madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the interest or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucinations” (1835) (On Prichard:

(2) Around 1860 Morel’s idea of degeneration in a medical field started to take over the debate, defining psychopathy as a biological, hereditary aspects of psychiatric disorder included.

(3) The Anglo-Saxon medical scene, of American origin, discussed psychopathy as a syndrome characterized by inadequate control of impulses ( The characteristics of the latter defined disease was, e.g., remorselessness, egoism, aggressiveness, etc.

The features of psychopathy were viewed as “lack of conscience, remorse and guilt.” For example, Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), the father of criminal anthropology portrays the psychopath as “devoid of any sense of personal moral responsibility, and of the commonly associated emotions such as remorse and empathy” (Holmes 1991). Such a person is not predestined to commit crimes, but is simply having a mental flaw.

Eventually, the medical discussions had impact on law making and court decisions. Now, instead of viewing “wrongdoings” (crimes) as something that some people decide by free will to do, the debate focused on whether a biological determination might actually be the condition for some persons turning into criminals and while some persons did not. Holmes himself being a medical doctor summarizes the debate in medical, biological, ethical, legal, and moral fields; however, all of these fields discussing psychopathy were conflated, when medical and legal authorities collaborated on the American “Act of 1913,” turning psychopathy into an objective parameter for court decision (Holmes 1991, p.77f).

Psychiatrist Herley Cleckley in 1941 wrote about observe patients who lacked remorse and empathy, and hereby clinically describing psychopathy (Fritzon et al. 2020). Later Robert Hare was to influence the field of psychopathy and law indeed (Fritzon et al. 2020).

Robert Hare’s Influence on Contemporary American Debates on Psychopathy

Robert Hare (1970, 1985and 1991) continued Cleckley’s work and he made the discussion on psychopathy a general and practical issue. Hare formulated “Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist.”

Hare defined psychopathy as: impulsivity, thrill-seeking, low empathy, and anxiety. Those that present a psychopathic trait seek immediate gratification of their needs, lack guilt and conscience, being less prone to experience embarrassment, and failing to learn from punishment for misdeeds (Hare 1985).

Robert Hare initially studied prisoner, but according to Boddy 2011 (p. 256), “Hare would look for psychopaths in stock exchanges, if he did not already had his topic, psychopathy and prisoners.” Boddy says: “Recent newspaper headlines such as ‘Wall Street Shows No Remorse’ do nothing to suggest that his viewpoint is incorrect.”

Paulhus and Williams write that Hare’s Psychopathy Check List is viewed as “the gold standard in the measurement of psychopathy” (Paulhus and Williams 2002, p.557). Recent research by Williams and Paulhus (2002) confirmed that the SRP has the same four-factor solution as the Psychopathy Check List.

Considering the development within American court on the use of the Hare’s checklist (the PCL-R) (Walsh and Walsh 2006), Walsh and Walsh’s review of the Westlaw legal database shows that evidentiary introduction of PCL-R assessed psychopathy has increased considerably across state and federal jurisdictions (Walsh and Walsh 2006, page 493). Robert D. Hare had already predicted in his paper in 1996 “Psychopathy: A Clinical Construct Whose Time has Come” (The debate was not only a disciplinary debate. It was also a cultural debate between Europe and the US, ending with American medical research community holding the discussion the definition of psychopathy (Werlinder (1978), while the European medical debate on psychopathy refrained from this field.).

Though “psychopathy” today, particularly in an American law context, is a legal category, critique is still going on about the adequacy of this category. Pethman and Erlandsson (1997) pointed out, the question is scientifically and conceptually whether the concept of psychopathy is necessarily a clinical or categorical one. For example, Elliott (1991) and Holmes (1991) who state “that we should cease thinking of psychopathy as a category of psychiatric diagnosis, and think of it instead as a category of moral evaluation” (Elliott 1991 p.89). Also Harris et al. (2001, p.200) point to the lack of scientific adequacy: “<…> scholars still disagree somewhat about the fundamental properties of psychopathy”(2001, p.200). However, they continue writing that brain research has pointed to that psychopaths “have brain function abnormalities in the ventro-lateral, orbito-frontal cortex, and amygdala” (Blair 2001; Blair and Cipolotti 2000; Dolan 2008; Howard and Mccullagh 2007; Kiehl et al. 2004).

Recently the philosophers Hirstein et al. (2018) have investigated the field of neuroscience from a philosophical point of view, with a particular focus on “responsibility” and the effect of turning wrong behavior into brain defect, thereby diminishing the question of responsibility. The authors argue convincingly that from a point of view of agency, people suffering from the brain deficiency of psychopathic features are still to be held accountable, with reference to the brain’s capacity to plan and execute actions. Or to state it in other words: Brain deficiency does not withdraw responsibility from the agency of the person in question. Fritzon et al. (2020) as well challenge the way we understand psychopathy, when it comes to successful corporate managers. If we define psychopathy as “antisocial, criminal and predatory behavior,” how come that what we define as creative, visionary, and inspiring leaders also consists psychopathic traits, when measured in contemporary measure technologies? (Brooks et Fritzon 2020, p.)

They focus on the nature, behaviors, and consequences of psychopathy in executives and across the organization, offering an important contribution to the emerging body of research on psychopathy and other problematic personality constructs in the workplace.

The characteristics of psychopathy are still debated; however, lack of feelings of guilt is recurrent characteristics. Holmes states this the following way:

In fact, ”inability to experience guilt” has long been regarded by some researchers such as Maher (33) and the McCords (45) as the major single characteristic of psychopaths. Davies and Feldman (46) found that British psychiatrists demonstrated greater agreement over this than over any other of 22 key diagnostic signs, and in 1982, McCord (47) concluded after a lifetime of research that many conditions hitherto associated with psychopathy should be regarded as distinct and separate, and that once these are excised we should consider the true psychopath to be characterized by a lack or absence of conscience. Reid comes to a similar conclusion. (1991, 80). Also, in contemporary psychiatry, lack of guilt is a recurring feature of psychopathy. Thijssen and Kiehl (2017) write: “Psychopathy is a serious mental health disorder characterized by interpersonal, affective and behavioral traits such as lack of guilt and remorse, glibness, and impulsivity (Hare 2003).” We notice that once again Hare is referenced. Nübold et al. (2017), also referencing Hare, identify “guilt” as a main feature of psychopathy: “Those that present a psychopathic trait seek immediate gratification of their needs, lack guilt and conscience, being less prone to experience embarrassment and failing to learn from punishment for misdeeds (Hare 1985) (p.293).

Psychopathy in Leadership Literature

The emergence of psychopathy discussions in leadership literature takes place around the same time as Robert Hare’s list becomes well-known, leading to a far range of researchers commenting and referencing Hare (e.g., Thijssen and Kiehl 2017, Nübold et al. 2017; Boddy et al. 2011). Studies of the psychopathic personality has primarily been related to the criminal justice system and clinical assessment and treatment. Understanding psychopathic traits outside of a forensic context took off in beginning of the twenty-first century (e.g., Mullins-Nelson et al. 2006; Neumann and Hare 2008), and organizations (e.g., Babiak 1995; Babiak and Hare 2006). One of the main interest of this nonlegal approach to psychopathy was to define the “successful psychopath,” who would not necessarily get in contact with the legal system, but, however, still persist such psychopathic traits that he or she still could do harm to his or her surroundings. Also, Holmes were interested in successful psychopaths, who are not imprisoned, but succeeding in ordinary life (Holmes 79).

For leadership literature, the array of analyses of “psychopath leaders” has been huge: Not least after the financial crisis of 2008 and the common global reflections on what had gone wrong. The literature on “the leader is a psychopath” took its offspring when researchers started to study “dark” management as a subject of management research (Allio 2007; Batra 2007; Boddy 2006). Clements and Washbrush (1999) wrote: “Commentators are no longer willing to assume that all managers are working selflessly and entirely for the benefit of the organization.”

Boddy took this discussion a step further in Journal of Business Ethics, when Clive Boddy et al. (2011) in his paper “The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis” argued that psychopaths working in particularly financial corporations were causing the financial crisis. The subject of dysfunctional corporate management has become a topic of academic research and interest because it is increasingly recognized that dysfunctional and/or immoral leaders may cause harm to stakeholders (Allio 2007; Ferrari 2006; Lubit 2002). Within management psychology, it is widely recognized that leaders with personality disorders can have negative effects on employees and environment by means of the impact of their behavior of others in the organization (Goldman 2006; Siegel 1973, p.201). Boddy presented the idea that a particular type of leader, stating about these corporate psychopaths that: “In watching these events unfold often appears that the senior directors involved walk away with a clean conscience and huge amounts money. Further, they seem to be unaffected by corporate collapses they have created. They present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings, and investments, and as lacking regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened have no doubts about their own continued worth and value” (Boddy 2011, 256).

However, Clive R. Boddy, Richard K. Ladyshewsky, and Peter Galvin, authors of “The Influence of Corporate Psychopaths on Corporate Social Responsibility and Organizational Commitment to Employees” (Boddy et al. 2011) argued that the term “psychopathy” falls short off properly describing the problem we identify as “psychopathy.” Also Alasdair, Baden, and Guidi (2012) argue against the theory that corporate psychopathy played a significant role in causing the global financial crisis. They claim that Boddy paints a reductionist picture of what we present as the broader issue. They rather see this “psychopathic behavior” as a broader part of narcissism and Machiavellianism which engage with structures within global financial institutions. They argue that a “co-intensification” of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism across society and in corporations calls for an ethical approach. That is, an ethical revival of prudence within prudential regulation should be an intrinsic composite of solutions. Due to the role of language in framing thoughts and behaviors, they recommend that prudence is explicitly and normatively put forward. According to his corporate psychopathy theory, such behaviors as manipulative and exploitative leadership behaviors, geared towards short-term self-aggrandizement are increasingly present at the highest echelons of financial élites. This means that the ethical and moral discussions of psychopathy vanish in favor of ethical discussions.

The Dark Triad Replacing the Psychopath Leaders

Together with psychopathy in leadership literature, we find the attention towards the so-called The Dark Triad as a constellation of undesirable personality traits, i.e., Machiavellianism, narcissism, and Psychopathy (see Savard et al. 2017; Jonason et al. 2018; Tourish 2013; Nübold et al. 2017: Spain et al. 2014; Morf and Rhodewalt 2001; (Christie and Geis 1970; Jones and Paulhus 2014). The question on what is the difference between narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy was discussed already in 1998 by McHoskey, Worzel, and Szyarto, who claimed that the three are more or less interchangeable in most samples. However, Delroy L. Paulhus and Williams have argued that there is enough behavioral, personality, and cognitive differences between the three to distinguish them as different (Paulhus and Williams 2002). This has since then been disputed, e.g., Persson et al. (2017).

The discussion on the Dark Triad seems to have gradually taken over the former discussion on psychopathy alone. For example, we find in Web of Science in the search of Dark Triad a development from 60 papers in 2013 to 280 papers in 2019 (Nübold et al. 2017), while the amount of papers on psychopath∗ and leader∗ has not proliferated the same way. We see this explicitly in the following table:


Number of papers consisting of Boolean operators: dark∗ AND triad∗

Number of papers consisting of Boolean operators: psychopath∗ AND leader∗































It appears as if this concept “Dark Triad” has taken over the attention with regard to the dark side of human nature, and leaving psychopathy more unattended. While the Dark Triad seems to have replaced the concept of the psychopath leader, there is still no positive concept of guilt or how to perform guilt as a manager.

Section 3: A Theological Notion of Guilt

Guilt is semantically intertwined in the fields of law, moral, religion, and economy. For example, in Old English is said to mean “crime, defect, failure of duty, sin” (Online Etymology Dictionary: guilt). All of these words connect to economy, law, moral, and religion. It might actually be the case that it is guilt that makes Western society produce capitalism in the form Weber understood it in “The Protestant ethics and the spirit of society,” though Weber does not explicitly mention guilt as function in his definition of providence. However, as we will see in the following section, “guilt” is the intrinsic question when it comes to Luther’s (and Calvin’s) theological reflections on the role of providence. It is exactly “responsibility and guilt” that is the essential focus point in Luther’s critique of Erasmus’ stance on the free will. Luther critiques Erasmus for claiming that we are free to choose between good and bad. Luther says that this can’t be right: What is then the role of God? A free person who is responsible for all of his own actions do not need a God to turn to. He is his own God. Therefore, Luther says, guilt must be part of our ontological state as a fundament for all relationships. We owe others ourselves. Our responsibility towards others is therefore deeply embedded in the guilt we have to others; and they to us.

When we look at the social side of “guilt,” Smith (1978) refers “guild” to be related to the Teutonic “geld” which means “to pay.” Smith’s focus point is Oxford English Dictionary’s definition on guild as a brotherhood where the members promises mutual aid and protection of its member (206). This means that “guilt” is first of all a social glue in between brothers of a guild. If we look at the Christian epistemology, guilt is first of all related to sin. Sin, according to Schröder (1929) belongs to a chain of words such as “truth – being guilty – sin” (Schröder 1929, p.108). Schröder emphasizes that there is no one original meaning of the old Nordic word “synd” (see also Müller, Christliche Lehre von der Sünde: 1839–44, S.747ff). The wording of “sin” in a German and Nordic context arises from the meaning of the Latin word: sons-sontis which is etymologically in the same family as ens: Being (German: sein) (Schröder 112). The Christian meaning of sin as negative comes from the Latin translation in the so-called Septuagenta of the Greek original texts in medieval times. The Greek word for sin is “hamartia” and in biblical Hebrev chata’a. The meaning of the two words is “missing the goal,” or “mistake,” both in a literal and metaphorical meaning (Wikipedia: Sünde). When Greek stopped being an international language around 400 A.D., Latin took over as the international language across the various countries involved in and by the Roman Empire. In medieval time, Latin was the main international language, and any scholarly educated as well as any power holder in position would speak Latin besides another language. Latin was a lived language.

It the reformation, Martin Luther (1483–1546) takes “sin” from (1) its original Greek understanding of “mistake” and (2) the Latin meaning of being. Luther had read St Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly chapter 7, which states that it is the law that creates the sin. In this chapter, St Paul reflects over the paradox of law, that when “law” makes something forbidden, it at the same time constructs the object. This makes law a device that points to the human incapacity of being perfect. Thus, the law at the same time (1) asks for perfection and (2) creates the case of nonperfection. Luther uses St Paul’s reflection to his own theology on sin. Luther wants to point to the radicalness of sin, i.e., of being. When failing in life becomes part of being, what the human being requires is grace. Without sin, no grace. And without sin, no need of God. Such is Luther’s reckoning. Luther writes his theology as a response to Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1546). Erasmus and Martin Luther had a dispute in the year 1524, when Erasmus wrote: “On the free will” (De Libero Arbitrio), and 1525, when Luther wrote: “On the bondage of the will” (De Servo Arbitrio). The dispute in question was about whether the human being is born essentially (1) good by nature or (2) evil by nature. Erasmus sees the human being as good by nature and therefore responsible himself/herself to his actions. It is possible to choose between good and evil. Erasmus’ view on human nature inspired for the so-called humanism, among which we see spokesmen as Jacques Rousseau. Martin Luther on the contrary explains in this book “De Servo Arbitrio” as part of human nature. Luther defends the viewpoint that the human being cannot in and by itself choose to do good. If that was the case, God’s will would be obsolete. Only God has liberum arbitrium.

In a Lutheran context, justification of all human sins has been done through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (The Heideberg Disputation). This means that all human errors have now been made obsolete by God. Not only has the understanding of “guilt” been debated within theology, but also in twentieth century, economic discussions on war reparation do we find debates on “guilt” in the aftermath of war. Such discussions are present at the Versailles Treaty, particularly as represented by Keynes and Marcel Mauss.

J.F. Keynes and Marcel Mauss on Responsibility and Bondage

J.F. Keynes’ famous text “The economic consequences of the peace” from 1919 deals with responsibility and guilt with regard to war reparations. Keynes’ main point was that “guilt” in war concerns both the defeated as well as the victor. Keynes’ claim was that the negotiations on WW1 should lead to eliminate Inter-Allied indebtedness (Carabelli and Cedrini 1995 and Carabelli and Cedrini 2013). This implied the USA’ giving up upon the Great Britain’s war expenses to the USA (Carabelli and Cedrini 1995). If the Americans were to give up on the money GB owed the USA, GB would give up upon the money Germany owed them in war reparation. Such a logic would help GB and Germany have an economy that would allow them to buy ordinary goods for repairing of houses, streets, infrastructure, etc. from the USA.

Keynes labelled this “the shared responsibilities’ plan.” It was a gift with the risk of generosity: risking that the intended increase in peaceful economic exchange would not take place, instead of the ordinary risk of meanness; asking the looser to have one expenses paid by the other and thereby closing the others’ possibility of advancing (Carabelli and Cedrini 1995). Washington refused to take the risk of generosity, Keynes said: “by reason of their strong desire to clear out of European responsibility without however realizing what this will mean to Europe” (Carabelli and Cedrini 1995).

When viewing the WW2 in light of Keynes’ fears, it seems obvious that the conditions of poverty of the German nation in the 1920s and 1930s has been part of the reason for Hitler’s national socialism to take over the country, entering the WW2. The lack of a common responsibility and placing the guilt on Germany for WW1 had severe consequences for all of Europe and Russia, leading to WW2.

Marcel Mauss are in line with Keynes, but with an anthropological approach on WW1 when it comes to discussing responsibility and guilt. On the one side, any individual or nation is born with a social debt that they need to pay back in order to maintain their existence. These social debts are both broader and more restricted than economic debts. Broader in the sense that these kinds of debts need not to be explicated in legal contracts. On the other side, these social debts are more limited, since they can be cancelled when considered odious debts. This means that debts can be forced upon the individual, and in that case, a debt should be dealt with as if both parties had debated the conditions of the contract in total freedom. This means that the solidarist (and Maussian) understanding of debt presupposes freedom.

Keynes’ understanding of generosity towards the defeated rings true to a Lutheran understanding of grace. However, Mauss’ understanding that social bonds can be cancelled if these are too restrictive or maybe even wrong, is in opposition to Luther’s notion of sin as intrinsic part of human life. A Lutheran understanding takes social bondages, since embedded in a theological cosmology, to be unavoidable and uncancellable.

Section 4: Concluding Remarks

In this section, the chapter sums up what responsibility and guilt is in (1) leadership, (2) psychopathy, and (3) Lutheranism. It is seen how transformational leadership focuses on all the great deeds of wonderful leaders. It is noticeable how there is room for failures, whether deliberate (e.g., to one’s own advantage) or undeliberate (e.g., not-intended but still happening), if you are a great leader. Or to put it another way: Great leaders are recognized by not failing.

While leadership literature leaves little room for nuances, critical management studies and literature on psychopathy can deal with situations of leadership that do not succeed. To critical management studies, leadership as such is under suspicion (Lopdrup-Hjorth and du Gay 2019). To the psychopathy literature in leadership, lack of feelings of guilt seems obvious. At the same time, we also find some uncertainty within the literature on whether “psychopathy” is the right category for leaders that do wrong.

While “the psychopath leader” seems epistemologically to have replaced the former understanding of guilt in leadership, there is still no consensus whether psychopathy is the right category for all the things that can go wrong for and due to leaders in organization. Particularly, when we consider the statistics of only 1% of corporate leaders being psychopaths in a clinical sense. What to do with the rest of leaders who still fail?

Historically we see a shift from an ontological understanding of human nature of wrongness (theological sin and guilt) to wrongness being a medical question (psychiatric disease). That a shift from a Protestant (Lutheran) understanding of leadership where responsibility and guilt has taken place is obvious to anyone concerned with the epistemology of leadership, as well as modern anthropology. What does all this mean for responsibility in leadership? If neither Bernard Bass’ influential theory on transformational leadership nor “psychopath leadership” literature explains the phenomenon of the common expectations of remorse when the leader has failed, or an outdated theological understanding of guilt as present all over and in all relationships. Historically, i.e., in Protestantism, “responsibility” was viewed as a dichotomy between responsibility AND guilt. Today, “guilt” has a negative branding, leaving responsibility solely positive, and the psychopath an innocent patient due to a brain deficiency.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Copenhagen Business SchoolFrederiksbergDenmark

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