The Elephant in the Boardroom

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 19 July 2011



(2011), "The Elephant in the Boardroom", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 19 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The Elephant in the Boardroom

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 19, Issue 5

Adrian Furnham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, ISBN: 9780230229532

Not since Kets de Vries’s various works on the neurotic leader has the discipline of leadership seen a useful psychological profile and explanation of why certain dysfunctional personality types find themselves in, and largely fail in, roles of leadership. Adrian Furnham’s The Elephant in the Boardroom provides leadership scholars and practitioners with a useful guide to identifying and understanding why some leaders behave as they do.

The topic is complex, but Furnham, without diluting the message, has provided a useful, interesting and often enlightening treatment of individual differences and how they explain leadership derailment. One possible appeal of the book is that all readers, unless they have been hiding in Plato’s “psychic cave,” have experienced some of these phenomena first-hand.

The Elephant in the Boardroom has four main parts. In Part 1, the reader is provided with an overview of research on dysfunctional leadership that includes a chapter on various negative personality types. Part 2 contains three chapters, each of which profiles particular leadership pathologies such as the Machiavellian or narcissistic leader. In Part 3, Furnham drills the discussion of dysfunctional leader into five specific disorders and the leadership styles relevant to each. An example is “schizotypal” leader and a description of that leader’s social isolation and paranoid tendencies. Additionally, Part 3 contains a chapter on diagnosable personality disorders as a descriptive mechanism for leadership derailment. The book concludes with Part 4, in which the discussion turns to leaders who, perhaps, should not have been leaders in the first place because of cognitive shortcomings. The final chapter provides a prescription for mitigating leadership dysfunction and derailment.

The book is well indexed and contains a table of contents, a list of figures and a bibliography. The format of the book allows for a fluid reading and easy reference to overlapping concepts presented elsewhere in the volume. The only criticism of its structure is that Chapter 9 (“The Cognitively Challenged Leader”) should have been included in Part 3 with the personality disorders, with the final chapter functioning as a conclusion. The way it is structured, Part 4 is a catch-all for Chapter 9 and the final, concluding chapter.

Even the dust jacket of this book is symbolically apt. It shows a boardroom filled with executives busily interacting with each other in an apparent effort at productivity. But in the background is a large elephant with long, deadly looking tusks. Why do none of the depicted executives appear to notice the behemoth behind them? Because to do so could be damaging, when the elephant is a paranoid leader with the power to devastate careers and lives.

Despite the apparent deluge of poor leader behavior and decision-making, dysfunctional leaders are not new to organizational environments. The Elephant in the Boardroom provides an interesting, and sometimes entertaining, view of why some leaders fail. Typically we attribute our failures to environmental factors, but Furnham offers evidence and an accessible description of how failure is sometimes in the psyche of those in charge.

This book is an excellent addition to the reading list of any leadership seminar. Despite the push in the organizational sciences to focus on the positive, the reality and potential detriment of the negative should never be ignored.

Reviewed by Larry W. Hughes, Assistant Professor of Management, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington, USA.

A longer version of this review was originally published in Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 32 No. 1, 2011.

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