Examine the DARK side of your leadership


I have been reflecting on my business experiences over the last 12 months. As with most of you, I found this to be a particularly challenging time. Happily our own business activity remained reasonably buoyant, but a key feature was the uncharacteristically difficult behaviour I encountered from some leaders in certain situations. In particular, their poor treatment of subordinates and colleagues seemed inconsistent with what I had observed in my previous experiences with them. Clearly, many of these atypical behaviours were the product of stress and the need to make tough decisions. Knowing this helped a little in dealing with them. Nonetheless, I got to wondering if there were any noteworthy patterns that might be worth further reflection.


The research into leadership effectiveness is noted for the fact that the findings are often inconclusive and divergent. Large numbers of studies have produced many different results and the field remains dynamic and there is much we don’t yet understand. Research into leadership failure, on the other hand, produces quite conclusive and consistent findings (1). It seems that bosses who undermine the loyalty and commitment of their team quickly find that there is no team to lead. The Achilles heel that ends many leadership careers seems to be the poor treatment of others (2).

In discussing this phenomenon with organisational psychologists, they pointed out that most personality characteristics have a “shadow” side. Initially observed by the eminent psychologist Carl Jung, this darker side of one’s personality is most often the result of excessive amounts of some of your key personality traits – themselves often identified as your major strengths.

Put another way, it seems that your key strengths may well have a mirror image that produce major flaws in your style of leadership. I may well have been observing examples of the shadow side of these leaders as I noticed their uncharacteristic behaviour!


Being fascinated by this notion, I came upon some interesting research that seeks to uncover leaders’ dark sides by analysing what derails them under pressure. The research, conducted amongst 11,000 leaders in the UK, identified 11 “derailers” — strengths which turned into flaws under pressure (3).

In reality, each of these so‐called derailers was actually a potential leadership strength. The derailment occurs when the strength is overused, or used too enthusiastically. This is likely to happen when leader’s confidence is too high, when they are inexperienced, or when they are under extreme pressure and find themselves “pushing too hard”.

It is interesting to note that these strengths exist within you as complete dimensions, ie you possess the ability to display both sides of the coin – both the strength and the shadow side. We learn to manage the shadow side as we gain experience and stay grounded. Quite literally, we become skilled at mastering and controlling some of our less effective (and less attractive) impulses.

However, as we become stressed or over‐enthusiastic, so we run the risk of manifesting our shadow side behaviours. Our strengths can literally derail us!

This illustrates the potential hazards associated with rapid promotion into positions of power and leadership or when a leader is overcome with his/her sense of power and ability. When this occurs, previously mastered and controlled impulses can re‐emerge to detrimental effect as restraint falls away. Interestingly, significant stress produces a similar effect on the leader.

The paradox here is that these self‐defeating aspects of personality will often be favoured, even cherished, by those that possess them. Quite naturally, the more benefit we reap from a particular strategy, the more we will exploit it. From this perspective, the problem for leaders is often their success, and especially extreme success.(5)


So, what are the implications of the shadow side characteristics of leadership? Three key issues seem to jump out of this:

  1. Maintain an awareness of your personal strengths and potential shadow side behaviours. Be aware of the predominant style of your team as well, as this could produce difficulties when the pressure is on
  2. Try and remain “grounded” and humble about your strengths. In particular, beware of getting the “hots” (I simply must do this!) about a particular course of action. This may be an early warning signal that you are losing perspective and crossing over to the darker side of your strength
  3. Be careful of rapidly promoting individuals and simply assuming they will go from strength to strength. They are likely to take this as a cue that their personal strengths are valuable to the organisation and that they should use them more forcefully.

I hope that these reflections are useful as you take on the rigours of 2018.


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1) Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2) Dotlich, K. & Cairo, P. (2003). Why CEOs Fail. John Wiley & Sons.
3) Corkindale, Don’t let your strength become your weakness, Harvard Business Publishing, 2009
4) Trickey and Hyde, A decade of the Dark Side: Fighting the demons at work, 2009
5) Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 6) Hogan, R. & Hogan, J. (1997). The Hogan Development Survey Manual, UK Edition. Psychological Consultancy Ltd.

List of Strengths and potential De-railers (6)



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