Article: Turning Snakes into Ladders – How do you deal with negative leadership traits?

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Turning Snakes into Ladders – How do you deal with negative leadership traits?

Great leaders are known to have a leadership both positive and negative traits. Here's what you can do about the negative traits
Turning Snakes into Ladders – How do you deal with negative leadership traits?

“Vani is known to be extremely diligent, hard-working, has high standards and very high degree of ownership. She is offered the responsibility for managing an existing stable business due to her credibility built by delivering high quality work consistently.”

“Kevin joined the organization directly from college. He is ambitious, confident, charismatic which has helped him rise quickly. He now leads a large team of people working on emerging important business. He creates a vision and inspires his team with a sense of excitement about the future”

So far positive, right?

Vani is a diligent, dutiful leader who will go beyond the call of duty to meet the goals of the company and contribute. However, when under stress, she rarely challenges upper management, has trouble making independent decisions and shows over-controlling behavior with the team.

Kevin is someone a venture capitalist would love – he is charming and visionary. However, under stress he tends to ignore processes, doesn’t admit mistakes, can go on an eccentric flight of ideas.

The Dark Side of Leadership – Is there such a thing?

The term ‘Dark Side of Leadership’ makes many people uncomfortable. However, it is not a new concept and has been examined by researchers and scholars. ‘Petty tyrants,’ ‘Toxic leadership,’ ‘destructive leadership,’ ‘leadership derailment’ and ‘aversive leadership’ have been used to describe this side of leadership. Derailers don’t mean psychological disorders or ‘criminal’ behavior. These are merely flawed behaviors which hinder the effectiveness of leaders.

The basic concept emerges from Carl Jung who formulated the concept of Shadow. Every human has a wide range of traits, emotions, impulses and some of them get hidden (from himself as well as others). As a child grows up, when he receives negative feedback from people regarding certain traits and impulses, he represses them. This repression helps a person go through life believing he is ‘good’ and helps them become socially aware.

Carl Jung also observed that this darker side of personality is not always destructive or evil, but has the potential for great creativity and capability. The shadow is often connected with a person’s strength – it's like a mirror image. 

The dark side usually comes to light when a person is not concerned about the impression he is going to make on others, maybe when he is tired or under stress, e.g., the charming, confident and self-assured person you interviewed may turn out to be arrogant and authoritarian who refuses to listen to others around him. 

Other scholars argue that the dark side of leadership is associated with personality disorders such as narcissism, failure of vision, and corruption of charisma, lack of emotional and socio-political intelligence or non-leadership.

Are Leadership Derailers connected with the Dark Triad?

Narcissism (seek admiration and special treatment), Machiavellianism (manipulate others), and Psychopathy (Callous and insensitive) are known as the Dark Triad in Personality Psychology. “Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom,” Robert Hare famously said during his aptly titled lecture, The Predators Among Us.

According to HBR, in a study, narcissism was found to be positively linked to salary, and Machiavellianism positively linked to leadership level and career satisfaction. Previously, a 15-year longitudinal study found that individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics moved towards the top of the organizational and had higher levels of financial achievement. In line with those findings, some research estimates that the base rate for clinical levels of psychopathy is three times higher among corporate boards than in the overall population. 

Are you saying that bad guys win?

As individuals – yes bad guys often win, but this success comes at the cost of the organization and people and may be short-lived. 

These tendencies are good in moderation for individual success but will become destructive especially if one is not aware of them.

Also, most leadership derailers will not cause the entire organization to fail but can lead to career failure.

Leadership – The Bright Side

Leadership failure is often associated with the same behaviors that made the leader successful. It is typically certain strengths which make the individual successful, thereby reinforcing these behaviors. As they grow in their career, there is a tendency to over-leverage these strengths which can cause a derailment.

So how can leaders turn their snakes into ladders, and ensure that their ladders don’t turn back into snakes?

  1. Self -Awareness: Building your awareness of strengths as well as potential risks of overused strengths is critical. The Hogan Development Survey has identified 11 behavioral tendencies which could lead to executive derailment. Each of these 11 would count as 'strength' under normal circumstances. E.g., On the HDS Scale ‘Reserved’ – the strength of this person is strong, independent, and comfortable working alone, while the derailer may be aloof, detached, and disinterested in the feelings of others.

    Similarly, there are various other well-researched tools for understanding personality and potential leadership derailers.

    Another great way is to self-reflect on situations in which the leader may be an ‘Accidental Diminisher’. E.g., an Optimist leader may want to create a belief that the team can do it, but have people wonder about whether they appreciate the struggle and possibility of failure. 

    Self-awareness is an ongoing process, and a leader must continue to seek feedback, understand themselves, and work towards discovering their blind spots.

    But merely identifying strengths or derailers does not help. The leader must find a way to challenge their existing behavior and change. A leadership coach who can hold up the mirror and support in this change can be quite impactful.


  2. Hire people who create discomfort: Leaders should surround themselves deliberately with people who create some discomfort, ask questions and are not afraid. 

    Leaders also need to learn to lead with trust. They need to trust first and ask questions later, give up some control and let people bring their best while the leader plays the role of a coach.

  3. Inclusive Culture: Leadership is a collaborative process. A leader needs to build an inclusive and open culture where people feel they can be their authentic selves. So, only surrounding oneself with people who bring a different perspective will not help, but they need to create an environment of psychological safety where people can express themselves without any inhibitions.

Leverage Organization Systems & Support

Leaders must learn to leverage the organization support systems, whether its development opportunities or feedback mechanisms. Leadership doesn’t have to be a lonely journey. Leaders should continue to stay connected with peers and leverage those organizational networks and relationships where they can learn without being judged. 

Organizations can also provide support during critical career transitions like a change in strategy, re-organization, culture change, etc. 

To summarize, Leadership is a journey of discovery, and there is no perfect way to lead. It is a role with many demands & challenges, not a lot of people to give honest and transparent feedback, and often not knowing the right answer. At the same time, it is also an opportunity to create an incredible degree of impact on business and people - at both professional and personal level. 

The leader must embrace the ‘honor’ to lead and embark on this journey of self-discovery. At the same time, it’s necessary to build awareness of their impact on people and the organization. Leadership is a privilege, and the leader has a responsibility to invest in his/her self and evolve. The most important thing to remember is to stay humble, lead with the right intent and continue to learn.

Topics: Leadership, Leadership Assessments

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