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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Monday 22 Sep 2014
Dealing with the shadow side of leadership

Dealing with the shadow side of leadership

By Erik de Haan – director of Ashridge's Centre for Coaching 

Senior executives need exceptional drive and interpersonal skills to push themselves and others to succeed – but under pressure, these qualities can go into overdrive, and lead to catastrophe. So what makes managers act out the darker side of their leadership? How can professionals identify and challenge self-defeating behaviours to ensure that leadership shadows or ‘gremlins’ are disciplined?

There are steps that leaders can take to minimise the risks resulting from the dark side of leadership. One of the most surprising yet powerful resources that executives can muster in overcoming their ‘overdrive’, comes from the people that they are having most difficulty with. Their most troubling frustrations and irritations can become their most helpful resources in moving beyond patterns of derailment or overdrive.

Ashridge’s latest research, The Leadership Shadow: How to Recognise and Avoid Derailment, Hubris and Overdrive co-authored by Anthony Kasozi and myself, shows that the shadow side and the bright side of a leader’s personality are intimately connected, but can drift apart in a pressurised leadership role. These leadership shadows or ‘gremlins’ have the potential to send what’s best about an executive’s leadership over to the dark side.

Based on extensive research and many years of coaching executives and supporting leadership development, our new book draws on insights from psychiatry and psychotherapy to reveal how derailment occurs when managers’ strengths are overused, and how to avoid downfalls.

HR departments and the shadow side

Human Resource departments have a key role to play in ensuring managers throughout an organisation are effective. Past research studies have shown that ‘effective’ managers (as defined by business-unit performance, subordinate satisfaction and subordinate organisational commitment) spend 50 per cent more time on routine communication and 30 per cent more time on Human Resource management than average managers. There is also a strong case for being able to work with ‘upward feedback’ – being open to criticism and leadership suggestions from staff.

In short, to be effective leaders need to facilitate communication, inform and be open to upwards communication. Politics, networking and traditional management activities are less crucial.

It is important for HR professionals to play a key role in the recruitment, promotion and development of leaders.

Human Resource departments are at risk of focusing on a candidate’s best characteristics – their “bright side” and on their social skills. However, when recruiting, HR professionals would do well to also examine an applicant’s shadow side or propensity for derailment.

Evaluating the dark side of personality (e.g. with the Hogan Development Survey) helps when identifying and promoting leaders and managers. Being aware of how individuals perform under pressure and putting in place tailored development such as executive coaching can reduce turnover, as well as the detrimental impact on teams and organisations. Managing and learning from the shadow side of leadership requires a strategic and psychologically informed HR function.

Leadership types

In the book we identify 11 patterns or ‘strands’ of personality that emerge at different times and in varying intensity, from slightly neurotic to full-blown deranged.

These include ‘the charming manipulator’, ‘the brilliant sceptic’ and ‘the responsible workaholic’ and examine the possibilities of each developing into overdrive. The strands also help leaders and executive coaches identify when traits are constructive and productive and when they are problematic and counter-productive.

Don’t let the shadow side derail you – avoiding career disasters

Failure to restrain the demons within can result in a toxic organisation. Appreciating the benefits of certain attributes, while understanding when they tip into shadow side characteristics provides the key to actively managing them; reducing the risk to the organisation as well as leadership derailment.

Advice in The Leadership Shadow for executives includes:

Keep the process of leading fluid, and be open to (sometimes painful) upwards feedback.

Be as relational as possible by nurturing relationships – leading not in the abstract and not just indirectly, but here and now with colleagues

Engage in active and honest (self-) reflection.

In the midst of ever increasing complexity, speed and pressure in the business world, senior leaders and HR professionals need to learn to look beyond talent and success, even beyond the polarity of strengths and weaknesses.

HR leaders need to balance their assessment of social skills and talent with psychological insight into derailment patterns and how to overcome these.

In a very similar way top leaders need to balance their leadership success with learning from their own highly personal shadow sides. They need to understand that all leadership creates a rift within: between one’s active, constructive, or aggressive side that has the ambition to contribute, create and demonstrate something; and one’s doubting, pessimistic, needy, vulnerable side, which craves connection with oneself and others. The leadership shadow is therefore part and parcel of leadership.