Nutshell: Tame your dark traits to become a better leader

Written by
Alan Bourne, CEO and founder, Sova Assessment

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Alan Bourne, CEO and founder, Sova Assessment

How seemingly positive elements of your personality could derail your performance and leadership – and what to do about it.

Despite years of scientific focus and an estimated $366bn annual investment in effective leadership, up to half of leaders still fall short. Why is this?

Psychologists believe that part of the answer can be found in our personality, which lies at the heart of interpersonal competence, and influences our success as a leader in different situations. After all, leadership is an interaction, rather than an action.

While innate strengths such as self-confidence, diligence and energy can enhance our performance, they have a flip – or dark – side that can also derail it. At times of pressure, when we are in the grip of stress, aspects of our personality that otherwise serve us well can be the very traits that make us ineffective – and potentially toxic – leaders. 

Leading mindfully through disruption

In today’s complex and ever-evolving marketplace, it has never been more important to guard against our derailers. Leaders face unprecedented challenges, from the need to pivot business strategy time and again, to managing a diverse and increasingly remote workforce – all while protecting their own emotional wellbeing.

Building self-awareness is the starting point for overcoming our dark traits. When we understand how our personality might influence our behaviour, decision-making and approaches to leadership, particularly during times of stress, we have a chance of avoiding leadership derailment.

In psychological terms, leadership derailment refers to a pattern of behaviour which, if overplayed, can start to work against an individual so that their performance flattens or declines. Ironically, these qualities are often the same characteristics that initially helped the person to progress. 

With leadership derailment, the lines between strengths and weaknesses become blurred. Consider the bold, assertive and confident leader who begins to underestimate levels of risk, or the sensitive, emotional leader who can be pessimistic and volatile when things aren’t going well. The derailed leader is not necessarily lacking in competence, yet somehow, untamed elements of their personality limit their performance. 

Sova’s Leadership Derailment Model outlines 14 potential derailed characteristics.

Sova’s Leadership Derailment Model

For example:

  • Dramatic leaders have a tendency to occupy the spotlight. Their “it’s all about me” approach can become problematic if it results in resistance to critical feedback which may be vital in formulating the right response.
  • Rigid leaders may lack the agility to adjust course in turbulent times. Often the capacity to stick to one’s guns is helpful, enabling a leader to follow through on difficult decisions. However, in highly volatile, uncertain and ambiguous periods, greater flexibility is needed.  
  • Unpredictable leaders can be mercurial as emotional pressures pile up, throwing their people off-balance and leaving them frightened to share difficult or challenging information. This may lead to the organisation’s poor response to challenges.

Have you worked with anyone with similar personality flaws, or can you identify any such traits in yourself – particularly in times of pressure and stress? 

How can we reduce the risk of leadership derailment?

Tackling leadership derailment starts with building individual self-awareness, but also extends more widely into the policies, practices and values of an organisation. Organisations with a developmental perspective recognise the importance of investing in future leaders, as well as continuing to develop their existing leaders, integrating learning and challenge into business strategy. 

Building self-awareness, using a robust assessment measure as part of a development initiative, provides detailed insight for an individual about how their personality preferences can become overplayed during times of stress and pressure. Based on the insight, goal and development activities can be targeted more effectively. While it is very difficult to change our personality, through self-awareness and development, we can learn how to mitigate unhelpful behaviour.

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