Antagonistic vs. Conscientious: What Type of Leader Are You?

Arvind Mehrotra
9 min readMar 16, 2024

In 2024, the style of leadership you practice matters more than ever before. McKinsey’s recent State of Organisations report found that leadership accountability is among the top significant factors driving positive work-related outcomes.

During and after the pandemic, leadership skills were necessary. Now, in 2024, organisational leaders stand at an inflexion point. Recent trends in workplace expectations and productivity patterns have compelled many to rethink their leadership approach.

Questioning your existing leadership style and adapting it for future needs is vital, starting with the debate between antagonistic vs. conscientious leadership.

What Does Antagonistic Leadership Look Like?

An antagonistic leader is someone who is perceived to buck the trend, care little about employees’ perceptions and make high-risk, subjective decisions that may result in negative impacts in the short term.

The business world also has its share of antagonistic leaders who have caused significant issues. Here are a few examples, keeping in mind the same considerations of context and motivation as with historical or political leaders:

  • Jack Welch — While a successful figure, Welch’s aggressive cost-cutting measures at General Electric, including mass layoffs, are seen by some as prioritising short-term profits over long-term sustainability and employee well-being.
  • Travis Kalanick — Kalanick, the co-founder of Uber, fostered a culture known for aggression and hostility, leading to accusations of sexism and disregard for employee well-being. It eventually resulted in his ousting from the company.

It’s important to note that these are just a few examples, and the definition of “antagonistic” can be subjective. Some argue that these leaders were ruthless but effective, while others emphasise the negative consequences of their actions.

While labelling leaders as antagonistic, we carry the burden of bias since we do not fully understand the environment or have access to other critical information:

· Context Matters: Understanding the historical context of a leader’s actions is crucial. For instance, leaders during wartime may make difficult decisions with tragic consequences.

· Motivations Can Be Complex: Various factors drive antagonistic leaders, such as ideology, a thirst for power, or paranoia.

· Long-Term Impacts: The actions of antagonistic leaders can have devastating consequences that last for generations.

An antagonistic leader is typically not very collaborative or open to change. They are convinced of the efficacy of their approach and may display signs of entitlement. Interestingly, companies may thrive under antagonistic leadership, and often, shareholders turn to executives with these personality traits during difficult times. They can make and execute bold decisions — however, antagonistic leaders aren’t always a favourite with employees. It’s also important to acknowledge that leadership styles can be multifaceted. A leader might be seen as antagonistic in some aspects of their rule but achieve positive outcomes in others.

By understanding the negative impacts of antagonistic leadership, businesses can strive for ethical and sustainable practices. Some ways to identify will require to look at these options:

  • Whistleblowers Play a Role: Exposing unethical practices by leaders is crucial. In the Theranos case, whistleblowers brought the company’s failings to light.
  • Regulation and Oversight: Strong corporate governance and regulations are essential to prevent abusive leadership practices.
  • Long-Term Impact on Companies: Antagonistic leadership can damage a company’s reputation, employee morale, and, ultimately, its bottom line.

There’s always a risk that antagonistic leadership might lead to toxic workplaces, although that is not always the case, given the multiple variables that make up the average workplace experience. Another challenge is that antagonistic leaders don’t always create a psychologically safe work environment. Employees may struggle to get their ideas heard or implemented, holding innovation back.

An antagonistic leader can sometimes be highly effective during sudden organisational growth. However, the negative aspects of this style focus on recognising employee achievements, competitive pay, and a strong employer brand.

What strategies can be applied when working with antagonistic leaders?

Working with antagonistic leaders can be challenging, but there are strategies to navigate such situations effectively.

  • Pick Your Battles: Don’t fight every fight. Choose moments to engage the leader, focusing on issues impacting your work or the team.
  • Focus on Facts and Data: When presenting your ideas, back them up with data and evidence. This will make your arguments less susceptible to personal attacks.
  • Control What You Can Control: Focus on your work performance and how you can contribute to the team’s success. Manage your time effectively and document your accomplishments.
  • Document Everything: Keep a record of interactions with the leader, including emails, notes from meetings, etc. It can be helpful if you need to escalate issues or seek support.
  • Maintain Professional Distance: While respectful communication is critical, avoid unnecessary social interaction or emotional responses with the leader.
  • Seek Support: Talk to trusted colleagues, mentors, or HR representatives. Having an external source of support can be invaluable.

Working with antagonistic leaders requires resilience and adaptability. Prioritise your well-being and seek support when needed. Options you have:

  • Try to Influence the Leader: If you have a good working relationship with the leader, attempt to have a calm and respectful conversation about their behaviour and its impact.
  • Focus on Damage Control: If influencing the leader seems impossible, minimise the negative impact on yourself and your team. It might involve setting clear boundaries or delegating tasks differently.
  • Look for Transfer Opportunities: If the situation becomes unbearable, explore internal transfer options within the company.
  • Leave the Company: In extreme cases, leaving the company might be the best option for your well-being and career development.

In conclusion, don’t let a toxic work environment compromise your mental and physical health; you can also document records of events that can protect you if you leave the company, and you don’t have to be a hero.

It is essential to choose the approach that best suits your situation and personality. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and your safety and well-being should always be the top priority.

What Does Conscientious Leadership Look Like?

A conscientious leader behaves warmly and compassionately towards employees and factors their requirements into everyday workflows and decision-making. They have a robust value system and prioritise ethics as a critical part of their leadership style. Conscientious leaders are also likely to appear more agreeable to employees, which is sometimes counterintuitive to productivity and target-oriented growth.

Even conscientious leaders can face challenges. Balancing various interests and navigating complex situations requires careful consideration; here are some examples of principled business leaders who have made a positive impact through their actions:

  • Anita Roddick — Roddick championed ethical sourcing, environmental sustainability, and social activism within her cosmetics company, The Body Shop. She used her platform to advocate for human rights and fair trade practices.
  • Paul Polman — Polman, former CEO of Unilever, championed the concept of “Sustainable Living Brands.” Under his leadership, Unilever focused on environmental and social responsibility alongside profitability.

The above are just a few examples; conscientious leadership can manifest in various ways. In my analysis, here’s what these leaders often have in common:

  • Focus on Long-Term Sustainability: They prioritise the company’s future alongside short-term profits.
  • Commitment to Stakeholders: They consider the well-being of employees, customers, communities, and the environment.
  • Transparency and Ethics: They operate with transparency and ethical principles in decision-making.
  • Social Responsibility: They actively address social and environmental issues beyond profit generation.

Collaboration and the ability to empower others are critical characteristics of a conscientious leader. They frequently create conditions by priming employees to thrive. However, due to the democratic approach, this may occasionally result in longer timelines and slower delivery. One of the challenges of conscientious leadership is that it doesn’t always align with profitability, which makes it challenging to obtain leadership buy-in for HR decisions linked to conscientious leaders.

Conversely, this type of leader puts mental health first and may go out of their way to engage with employees. It creates highly sustainable, employee-centric work environments with low turnover and steady output.

What strategies can be applied to leverage growth when working with conscientious leaders?

Working with conscientious leaders can be a rewarding experience as they often prioritise collaboration, transparency, and ethical practices. Here’s how you can thrive in such an environment, along with some additional options to consider:

  • Proactive Communication: Keep your leader informed about progress, challenges, and ideas. They value open communication and feedback.
  • Focus on Solutions: When encountering problems, present potential solutions alongside any issues you raise. It demonstrates initiative and problem-solving skills.
  • Embrace New Challenges: Conscientious leaders value growth. They should be open to taking on new responsibilities and learning new skills.
  • Alignment with Values: Showcase your commitment to the company’s mission. It fosters trust and strengthens working relationships.
  • Seek Guidance and Mentorship: Don’t hesitate to ask for guidance or mentorship. These leaders invest in employee development and religiously drive DEI training programs.

It is also essential to avoid springing surprises or last-minute changes to such leaders, as such sudden changes or unpredictability can be unsettling for “Conscientious” individuals. It is critical to prevent springing surprises or making last-minute changes without prior discussion. Please provide them with advance notice of changes whenever possible. Another crucial insight would be not to disregard rules or procedures; such leaders have a strong preference for following rules and procedures. Avoid taking shortcuts or disregarding established protocols, which can cause tension and undermine trust. I have noticed that such “Conscientious” leaders often take time to analyse information before making decisions. Thus, avoid putting pressure on them to make quick, on-the-spot decisions, especially in complex or unfamiliar situations.

Understanding and respecting the preferences of a “Conscientious”-oriented individual can lead to more effective collaboration and a more productive working relationship.

  • Fast-Track Your Career: The focus on long-term sustainability and ethical practices in conscientious companies can create a stable and supportive environment for career advancement.
  • Contribute to Positive Change: You can contribute to a company by making a positive impact, which can be highly motivating.
  • Network and Learn: Conscientious leaders often attract other talented and ethical individuals. It creates a valuable network for learning and development.
  • Become a Leader Yourself: Working with conscientious leaders can significantly develop your leadership skills, preparing you for future opportunities.

By aligning yourself with the values and goals of a conscientious leader, you can build a rewarding and successful career path. It’s about appreciating their need for structure and detail and leveraging these qualities for the team’s advantage.

Which Leadership Style Should You Choose, Antagonistic or Conscientious?

It is important to remember that neither leadership style is intrinsically “bad.” Antagonistic leaders tend to prioritise positive organisational outcomes, while conscientious leaders will typically prioritise employee outcomes and well-being. Both styles are necessary and relevant under different conditions, depending on the organisation’s growth stage, ongoing projects, and the nature of the talent.

Some employees may benefit from antagonistic leaders’ “iron fist” approach, especially if they have a self-starter personality. They can handle the pressure and receive compensation best in class. On the other hand, another employee set may thrive under conscientious leaders who are less disruptive, unchallenging, and unpredictable.

In other words, there is no good or bad leadership style per se, and successful executives must be able to adapt their leadership styles to changing business circumstances. Ideally, elements of antagonistic leadership are necessary in urgent situations with a clear, well-defined target nearby. Conscientious leadership skills shine the most during business as usual, where there’s no sense of urgency or impending pressure on employees.

Regardless of your style, data-driven decisions are the ability to delegate rather than practise micro-management, which has to be at the top of your priority list. Executive coaching and mentoring can also help you develop a flexible, objective approach to leadership.

If you enjoyed this read or want more about leadership techniques, email me at



Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Strategy, Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor