Beware of the Dark Side of Leadership: 11 Tragic Flaw Behaviors

Many leaders have what Aristotle would have called a “tragic flaw”. Othello’s jealousy and Hamlet’s failure to act are two well known literary examples. This weak spot that can lead to a leader’s downfall is often one of the leader’s greatest strengths, which when stressed and overused, turns into destructive behavior.

I’ve always believed that most, if not all, leadership behavioral problems are a result of strengths that are over-used. I see it over and over when I review 360 assessments with managers. I can usually connect low scores for a problem behavior back to 1-2 high scores for overused skills. It’s one of the reasons I’m so concerned about the potential for misunderstanding and misuse of the whole “strength-based” leadership development movement. Only developing your strengths and not your weaknesses is a surefire recipe for leadership derailment.

I’ve recently been looking into leadership assessments and am intrigued by the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) assessment. There are a lot of leadership assessments out there. Being a leadership development geek forces me to take a lot of them, more than any normal human being should have to endure.

The thing that makes this assessment so interesting is that it measures the behavioral tendencies that if overused have proven to lead to leadership failure. Hogan refers to them as “the dark side” of leadership. It’s based on years of research and has been extensively normed and validated.

Have you ever been told by someone that you’re “enthusiastic”? They may be telling you you’re too volatile. Or perhaps someone told you they admired your “confidence”? Perhaps a bit of arrogance has seeped out as well.
Unfortunately, sensitive behavioral feedback is often disguised as positive traits gone bad. That’s why reading between the lines of performance reviews or references is such an art. My favorite has always been “has very high standards of others”. Translation: “is always ticked off about coworkers”.

See the full Hogan HDS list below.

Again, these characteristics on the left can all serve us well – in moderation- just don’t get too carrier away with any of them, or your dark side just may show up and bite you in the rear.

1. Excitable: moody, easily annoyed, hard to please, and emotionally volatile

2. Skeptical: distrustful, cynical, sensitive to criticism, and focused on the negative

3. Cautious: unassertive, resistant to change, risk-averse, and slow to make decisions

4. Reserved: aloof, indifferent to the feelings of others, and uncommunicative

5. Leisurely: overtly cooperative, but privately irritable, stubborn, and uncooperative

6. Bold: overly self-confident, arrogant, with inflated feelings of self-worth

7. Mischievous: charming, risk-taking, limit-testing and excitement-seeking

8. Colorful: dramatic, attention-seeking, interruptive, and poor listening skills

9. Imaginative: creative, but thinking and acting in unusual or eccentric ways

10. Diligent: meticulous, precise, hard to please, and tends to micromanage

11. Dutiful: eager to please and reluctant to act independently or against popular opinion

I’m sure there must be more. Can you think of other strengths that when overused, can flip to the dark side and turn into a “tragic flaw”?