The dark side of leadership

Leadership is a trait. And like all traits, it has a “light side” and a “dark side” with it. If you thought the force-talk was just limited to the Star Wars franchise. You’d be so wrong!

Speaking of which… in Star Wars

The light side of the Force was an aspect of the Force aligned with calmness and was used for knowledge and defense.

The dark side of the Force was also an aspect of the Force that drew their power from more intense, raw and darker emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, passion, and aggression.

All leaders have a light side (or the bright side) and dark side with them (unless you’re Jesus… and if you are — you probably won’t be reading this post)! And guess what, I could tell this even before I dove into this topic because there have been times when I would be disgusted with myself.

You’ll know why once you know the key differences between the two sides:

Bright Side

  • The bright side of personality describes people’s performance when they are paying attention to the normal rules of self-presentation, when they are controlling the way others perceive them and, therefore, trying to create a good impression.
  • The bright side represents maximal performance whereas the dark side represents typical performance.

Dark Side

  • The dark side describes people’s behavior when they are not paying attention and/or don’t care about creating a good impression; this happens when they are emotionally upset when they are stressed or ill, when they are under the influence of chemical substances, or when they are simply being themselves.
  • The dark side often emerges when individuals are dealing with someone whom they perceive as having a lesser status than they do – such as subordinate employees.

In general

  • People move continuously and unconsciously back and forth between the two sides of personality.
  • In essence, the bright side reflects faking and the dark side represents the real person. As Freud would say, however, the real person is usually something to be avoided.

Read Reflections on the Dark Side for the whole scoop.

Now that you know the difference, you should know that it’s alright to go back and forth as long as your heart is in the right place. This is one of the reasons why I find journaling so powerful. It forces me to reflect (and get disgusted at myself!) and be mindful of my behavior as a leader of (wo)men and myself.

In my opinion, what gets reflected gets better over time. Afterall, you can’t teach someone to lead in a seminar. It takes practice. For some like me, it’s a lifelong practice. Which makes it even more important to be mindful of the key traits of a leader with the dark side.

Machiavellianism: Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulative tactics, a pessimistic view of humanity and an emphasis on efficiency over moral principles. These principles were outlined in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and are often referenced for how to get ahead and get things done, even if that means using immoral or deceptive methods. Therefore, individuals who exhibit Machiavellianism will lie, manipulate and exploit others to get their way.

Psychopathy: Psychopathy is not just a characteristic of serial killers. Individuals high on psychopathy have poor impulse control, show little remorse for others, including individuals they harm, and lack concern for the morality of their actions. They use threats and hard tactics in the workplace to gain status and get ahead. Industrial psychologist Paul Babiak and psychopathy expert Robert D. Hare in their book Snakes in Suits state that 3.5 per cent of top executives score highly on measures of psychopathy, which is larger than the 1 per cent found in the general population. These “snakes in suits” may thrive in organizations because society often promotes self-interest and risk-taking over other values.

Narcissism: Narcissists have extremely inflated views of themselves, with grandiose plans for their future. They feel they are more special than others and more deserving of attention and praise. The spotlight of life is always on the narcissist. Not only do they love themselves, they need others to love them and are constantly seeking admiration. “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” Oscar Wilde proclaimed. However, Wilde was wrong. For a narcissist, one lover will never be enough.

Overconfidence: “Act as if you have unmatched confidence and then people will surely have confidence in you,” says Jordan Belfort in his book The Wolf of Wall Street. This is sad but true. Individuals who exemplify overconfidence are better able to influence others and gain their trust. In a study for the University of California, Berkeley, Cameron Anderson and Sebastien Brion show that overconfident people are considered more competent and attain greater status and leadership positions through the illusion that they are competent. Even more shocking, Georgetown University professor Sunita Sah and colleagues have shown that when reliable information about individuals is unavoidable difficult to obtain – overconfident individuals hold influence regardless of their performance.

Exploring the dark side of leadership, The Globe and Mail

That’s a deep dive into the mind of a leader with the dark side, but if you were to identify common traits… here’s what they’ll look like.

1. Insecurities: As a leader we may be loathe to share any chink in the armor. We don’t want someone using it against us, so we gloss over our flaws, our lesser skills, our fear and pretend it doesn’t exist. This leads to stress, depression, anxiety, and can interrupt all parts of our lives. All human beings have insecurities, the key is to own them, not hide them, because they are part of what forms true confidence.

2. Perfectionism: Most don’t want to admit that their biggest fear is criticism of a job failed in some capacity. Many leaders go to great lengths to ensure mistakes don’t happen, even to the point of micro-managing. When leaders don’t trust their people, it’s not about the people, it’s about the leader and their inner critic who judges ‘everything’ and accepts nothing less than perfect. The key here is to understand ‘why’ the belief within says we’re not good enough (our unworthiness will be found out by others), and then become emotionally resilient to disappointment and allow help in moving toward empowerment.

3. Loneliness: Isolation, not feeling we can share any of our troubles, hours spent in mind-numbing contemplation, and activities built to relieve stress, but keep our walls intact. This self-imposed way of leading and managing our emotions doesn’t serve us mentally or physically and it doesn’t make us authentic in how we deal with others. When we’re being starved, holding in feelings—compartmentalizing, spending countless hours working, striving, strategizing and still not pleased with our outcome—it makes for a pretty angry individual. As difficult as it may be, the key is to not only allow others into our world, but to engage in their world. Becoming emotionally present all of the time will lead us out of the darkness.

4. People Pleasing: How often do we give to get? Nothing authentic there. The desire for approval, validation or to manipulate others to live up to our expectations causes us to offer reward and/or perfection for the audience. If we give to get, we feel owed. It’s not altruistic nor is it genuine. There is expectation. Start seeking validation from within for just breathing, not for the accomplishments. Let others live to appropriate goals, not ones which feed an ego.

5. Victimization: Unfortunately, our society is built on the drama triangle. Persecutor, rescuer and victim. We switch roles depending on the situation and what we’re trying to manipulate from another. It’s disempowering, inauthentic and without awareness, we never get off. We accuse or hold the victim accountable as persecutor, then we may rescue them from being a victim and they may turnaround to become persecutor, as we slide into the victim role of perceived helplessness or pity. Everyone feels bad on this triangle, it’s unfulfilling, resentment building and keeps us identifying with external circumstances we never really resolve.

6. Disempowerment: Dictatorship, unabridged criticism, taking others’ personal power away or anything, which leads to ill will, resentment, disenfranchisement and a huge lack of creativity is not good for business. The environment of disempowerment internally and externally is dismal. Loyalty is hard won and back-stabbing rules. There is competition, comparison, and contradiction as the guidelines for employees and it starts from within the emotional state of the leader. The first step is for the leader to look at how disempowered he or she feels daily and the ‘why’ behind it. It starts at the top and then moves to the rest of the company.

7. Manipulation: Innocent or guilty, some of us think we’re not purposely manipulating others, but at the base of most strategies is a way to get others to do our bidding. Period. Instead, of a more collaborative or organic approach, we think we’re smarter than the rest. Having compliance is quite different than teamwork. There’s no originality in manipulation and this again comes from ‘not good enough’ or some other false core belief within a leader. We have to believe in our vision, and creating, building and allowing it to expand. Manipulation contracts and constricts, there’s no originality, expression or sustained growth, which comes from this inauthentic control.

8. Driven to prove: This is not passion, creativity or anything, which feels good. This comes from a state of lack. If we want to prove something to anyone (even if its an ideal), we’re looking for validation and approval from another source. When we achieve things in this state we’re never fulfilled, satisfied or happy (for more than a minute or two) and are constantly looking for the next thing, hoping it’ll fill us up this time. It’s a vicious cycle, whose roots are deeply embedded in our formative years. We can’t handle disapproval. It’s a disconnect from who we are, because we aren’t thriving and may be doing something strictly for the validation of it, rather than the true desire to live on our terms—doing what we really want at anytime.

9. Lack of Trust: It starts with us, we don’t trust ourselves. We second-guess our decisions or we over-think every possible outcome, we don’t trust life or others to cooperate. Again, we don’t actually believe deep down inside that we’re capable and we will be found out. We may set others up to take the fall, and never really gain belief that we can handle our involvement in disappointment. Trust is not about others, when we trust ourselves, we make good decisions, including people we choose to surround ourselves with in any circumstance.

10. Arrogance: This is truly boring, because confident people do not need validation from others. Arrogance needs to be fed, told it’s okay, let’s everyone know what it does to deserve accolades and quickly tells others what they need to do to arrive on the doorstep of success. Arrogance breeds contempt. True confidence comes from self-awareness, understanding and managing our emotional state, managing others’ emotional state positively and really owning our insecurities. It’s to be completely present as often as possible and allow others a voice. When we’re comfortable in our own skin, we’re a magnet for success.

11. Inauthenticity: See numbers 1-10

The dark side of leadership, Huffington Post

If you can relate any of the above points be assured that you’re not alone. Like I mentioned, we often switch between the light and dark sides. And it’s totally normal for us to do so. The key, however, is to be able to reflect on your behaviors and be mindful of your responses. And even then, you can’t eliminate the dark side. It’s part of who you are.

Choose wisely. May the force be with you!