Wednesday, July 7, 2010

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"?


Mary Jo Asmus said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for highlighting the Hogan; I'm hearing a lot about it. I use an instrument called LEA 360 which, when well interpreted, can highlight the light and dark sides too.

One of my favorite on that list is "Restraint" - its a good thing to be restrained, cool and serious-minded. Except when it prevents a leader from being seen, developing relationships, or unable to move quickly in a crisis.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! But I think Darth Vader should get his own tag. I would describe him as "mischevious".

Greg Strosaker said...

Really insightful post Dan. There are a lot of leadership blogs out there but yours always seems to provide original and useful thoughts.

I know what the "tragic flaw" I have to watch for is already - it is intelligence. I have always been bright, but that makes me too quick to think I know how to address a problem even in a new situation. I have to be willing to step back and be "dumb" about a situation once in a while to keep learning and gaining new insights. It is something I've practiced for years but have to keep focusing on.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
Thanks. That sounds like "reserved", something for us introverts to be aware of.

Dan McCarthy said...

Good suggestion, thanks.

Greg -
Thanks, I try to.
Sounds like a good strategy.
People sometimes think I'm doing that - only difference is, I'm not trying. (-:

Steve Laswell said...

It is often said, strengths over-extended become weaknesses.

You write, "Only developing your strengths and not your weaknesses is a surefire recipe for leadership derailment." I totally agree.

It seems to me there is a difference between hiring someone to cover a skill weaknesses and addressing a behavior weaknesses.

People problems come from ignoring limiting behavior. Strenths properly used lead to high performance and results.

Thanks, Dan, another great post!

Anonymous said...

The "Dark Side" of leadership is vern insightful. I watched two CEOs of Compaq take their greatest strengths and turn them into their downfalls. One's passion turned to anger and people stopped giving him bad news. The other was a very popular CEO loved by his employees but he wouldn't have layoffs even in the face of stiff competition and lower sales. Both were replaced and neither ever had high profile jobs again.

Heath Davis Havlick said...

I agree with you, and with Steve: "Only developing your strengths and not your weaknesses is a surefire recipe for leadership derailment." Just because you're really great in one area doesn't mean you're great across the board. Someone with awesome business smarts could lead the company to greatness, only to take it down in flames due to terrible interpersonal skills. I say, identify and use your strengths AND concurrently work on improving your weaknesses.

Sara Canaday said...

Hello Dan,

Your post resonated with me on so many levels. Even the best of self and 360 assessments don't always reveal the nuanced behaviors that can sabatoge or hamper one's success. Having the spine and self-confidence to accept and even seek out feedback is hard. However, doing so far outweighs the short-term discomfort associated with confronting these "dark" or "blind" sides.

Rosaria Hawkins, Take Charge Consultants said...

Hi, Dan. I enjoyed your post. I've been intrigued by the dark side of leadership as well. I believe that 360s and other assessments lead us to believe that we can pinpoint behaviors or traits that lead to leadesrhip success or failure. While those tools may provide insight, the true key to being a leader who projects light rather than darkness is the capacity to look inside. Leadership monsters typically don't ask for feedback, don't care about the havoc they create, and don't care to look inside to understand what drives their behavior and understand the impact it has on self or others. The capacity to be mindful is what sets great leaders apart. I've studied mindful leaders and am convinced that the capabity for self reflection, humility, and genuine care are a couple of the key differentiators. If you're interested in learning more about mindful leaders, please visit my blog at

Wigarse said...

Great post.

I'd add "Sensitive" to the list. If you listen well to your team's troubles, you're more likely to catch them early and find solutions, but it is easy to become hooked on being the person people come to for support and to start making it all about you.

That may be more of an issue for female managers than male, but I think it's real!

Dan McCarthy said...

Steve –

Anon –
Thanks for those examples.

Heath –
Right, it’s both.

Sara –
Thanks. Right, I’ve taken plenty of 360s, and they don’t always get at deeper personality causes that drive behaviors. I do like CCL’s Benchmarks because it does a nice job uncovering potential derailers.

Rosaria –
Thanks, I will.

Wigarse –
Good add. Or caring, compassionate.

Anonymous said...

Dan -- love your blog.

I have a host of positive/negative leadership terms.

Energetic -- brings energy and life, can't focus on one thing very long.

Determined -- willing to do what it takes to get the job done. Steamrolls people in the way.

Focused -- headed toward the goal. Forgets that there are other people and projects around them.

Brilliant -- great thinker and idea person. Thinks only, no basis in reality of implementation. Can be a "plant and run" kind of person.

Team player -- works well with others. Tolerates weaknesses for the sake of the team.


Leadership Skill Training said...

Excellent post. It's a great guide for leaders to read so they can assess themselves.

Dan McCarthy said...

Sure, although it's often so hard to see these "dark side" behaviors in ourselves, isn't it?

Harris Silverman said...

Part of the problem is the tendency to smooth over negatives when giving feedback and conducting performance reviews. There's no point in doing a performance review if a sincere and well-intentioned effort is not made to develop a person in his areas of weakness.

Harris Silverman

Dan McCarthy said...

Harris -
Yes, for sure. I've also found that when you position a negative as a strenght over used, people are more receptive and willing to change.

Paul Kaptein said...

Love checking in on your blog. Always consistently interesting and useful content. Dale Canegie, in his book, "Winning Friends and Influencing People", included the name of dog, "Tippi". Visitors to your blog might benefit from learning the name, -is s/he a golden retriever?

Thanks, Paul

Dan McCarthy said...

Paul -
Annie's was a lab - I've written about her here:

Young HR Manager said...

Are leaders born or made?
No doubt some people come with some tendencies to be leaders. But in my opinion, most people develop a sense of leadership. I don't believe anybody is born a leader since becoming a leader depends on the interaction with the environment. If the environment is not favorable for a person, he will not develop those abilities, even if he has some innate ones.
I will be writing more on this on my blogs.
Young HR Manager

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