Leadership - The dark side of leadership

How can our behaviour change when we are under pressure? Rob Yeung looks at the leadership blindspots that can threaten both popularity and effectiveness.

How do you react when you're tired or stressed and under pressure? Perhaps you get angry with yourself and others. Maybe you retreat into yourself and become quieter and more pensive. Or perhaps you become brasher, taking bigger-than-usual gambles in the hopes that things will come out right.

Most of us behave differently when we feel comfortable and in control from when we are under duress. Psychologists distinguish between these two sides of our behaviour. How we behave and come across to others when we are at our best is the 'bright side' of our behaviour. How we behave when we are worn-out or let our guard down is the 'dark side'. But the two are linked: our dark side is often an exaggeration of our bright side. When we feel out of our comfort zone, we do more of what we usually do; our greatest weaknesses are the overuse of our greatest strengths.

I once worked for a chairman who was great at expressing his positive emotions. At his best, he was incredibly inspirational and could make the people around him feel like the centre of the universe. However, he couldn't help but express his negative emotions too. He was quick to anger and told others very forcefully when he felt let down. I recently heard that, after a particularly bad set of quarterly results, he had fired most of his professional staff. In a single moment, he went from owning a business worth millions to one worth nearly nothing. His greatest strength - his emotional expressiveness - was also his greatest weakness. And the same is true for most leaders.

So what does your dark side look like?

Leadership blindspots

Research on several tens of thousands of executives has shown that there are 11 distinct dark side characteristics. A short article such as this cannot go into each in detail, but I have highlighted four of the 11 characteristics briefly.

The problem with discovering dark-side characteristics is that most people are blind to their own faults. Most leaders believe that they are confident, not arrogant; shrewd, not mistrustful; imaginative, not eccentric; meticulous rather than pernickety.

And if you think that you don't have a dark side, think again. Research with managerial populations shows that around 90% of leaders have at least one dark-side characteristic, a strength that can sometimes manifest as a weakness. Around 50% of managers - including myself - have two or three such characteristics, and some managers even more.

But having a dark side isn't a problem. It's only a lack of awareness of your dark side and how to manage it that causes complications.

The best way to find out about your dark side is to ask the people who work closely with you. In the same way that you can describe your colleagues' faults and how they react under pressure, they have a similar view of your flaws and how you react too. Your boss probably has little idea of your dark side - most of us make more of a conscious effort to manage our behaviour with our bosses than anyone else. Your peers may have some inkling of how you behave when you are stressed. But the people who understand you best - the ones who are on the receiving end of whatever your dark side might be - are your team.

Don't shoot the messenger

Simply asking your team what you could do better is unlikely to get you the answers you need to hear. Your employees are likely acutely aware that there's not much upside in telling you how awful you might be. Messengers do get shot. While you might not shoot them on the spot, they worry that if they tell you something that you didn't expect or want to hear, you could always gun them down at a later date. So make it doubly clear that you want the whole, unvarnished truth. That you won't get defensive or angry or sulky. That you only want to hear how you could be a better manager.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for many managers is to shut up, listen to the feedback and simply take it on the chin. Don't get defensive. Don't try to justify yourself or explain your behaviour. Just listen. If you react even slightly emotionally or try to rationalise the feedback, you cut off all chances of ever receiving any honest information about how you could change to become a more effective and successful person.

Hard habits to break

Once you have gathered enough feedback, you can distil themes and patterns from what you've heard. Sometimes one person's opinions may contradict those of another. So the important task is to synthesise the views and look at how you generally behave rather than get bogged down in precisely who said what.

Then set yourself goals as to how you will change. If you suffer from aloofness and tend to withdraw from others when you're stressed or busy, force yourself to get out of your office. Set yourself a daily goal to spend so many minutes or hours talking to the team, customers, or whoever you need to. If you tend to be careful at the best of times but excessively cautious under pressure, seek the counsel of a trusted colleague to ensure that opportunities do not slip by.

You can't change your dark side - it's part of your personality. But you can manage it. You can identify how you behave when you're under pressure and make a conscious effort to change your behaviour. Embrace your dark side and be more successful for it.

Dr Rob Yeung is a director and executive coach at leadership consulting firm Talentspace. He specialises in the selection and development of leaders in high-stakes situations. He is also the author of over a dozen books including Should I Tell the Truth? (Marshall Cavendish)


Confident individuals are courageous and able to focus on goals in a single-minded fashion even when others may be unsupportive or dismissive of their efforts.


Shrewd individuals have strong insight into other people's agendas and motives; they are good at uncovering hidden agendas and understanding organisational politics.


Imaginative people tend to think creatively and come up with 'out of the box' and occasionally even visionary ideas.


Meticulous individuals have high standards and tend to be very precise and careful in what they do.


But by ignoring the opinions of others, they sometimes ignore genuinely good advice. Overly confident people can come across as conceited or arrogant.


However, by looking for hidden agendas all the time, shrewd individuals sometimes find them even when there aren't any and end up coming across as mistrustful or even paranoid.


However, by focusing on the world of possibilities and ideas, imaginative individuals often come across as fanciful and insufficiently focused on turning their ideas into business reality.


But by being so precise and careful, they risk coming across as rigid, inflexible, and unnecessarily perfectionistic.

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