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Erik de Haan

Ashridge Centre for Coaching


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The shadow side of leadership – hubris, derailment and overdrive

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Dark side characteristics are found in almost everybody’s make up. Anyone working with executives will be aware of how a tough focus can lead to unhelpful behavioural features that strains relationships.

There are, of course, steps that leaders can take to minimise the risks resulting from the dark side of leadership. Ashridge’s latest research, The Leadership Shadowco-authored by Anthony Kasozi and myself, shows that the shadow side and the bright side of a leader’s personality are intimately connected, but can drift apart upon taking up a pressurised leadership role. These leadership shadows or ‘gremlins’ have the potential to send what’s best about an executive’s leadership over to the dark side.

HR departments and the shadow side

Human Resource departments have a key role to play in ensuring managers throughout their organisation are effective. Past research studies have shown that ‘effective’ managers (as defined by business-unit performance, subordinate satisfaction and subordinate organisational commitment) spend 50 per cent more time on routine communication and 30 per cent more time on Human Resource Management, such as developing and motivating staff and managing conflict, than average managers. There is also a strong case for being able to work with ‘upward feedback’, in other words being open to and taking on board criticism and leadership suggestions from staff.

It is also important for HR professionals to play a key role in the recruitment, promotion and development of leaders and in assessing the traits and qualities senior managers should possess.

Human Resource departments are at risk of focusing on a candidate’s best characteristics – their “bright side” and on their social skills. But when recruiting or assessing candidates HR professionals would do well to also examine a candidate’s shadow side or propensity for derailment.

Evaluating the dark side of personality (e.g. with the Hogan Development Survey) is important in identifying and promoting leaders and managers. Being aware of how leaders perform under pressure and putting in place tailored development such as executive coaching can reduce the costly turnover that comes with derailment, as well as the detrimental impact on teams and organisations.

Leadership types

In the book we identify 11 patterns or ‘strands’ of personality that emerge at different times and in many shades of intensity, from the slightly neurotic to the full-blown deranged.

These include ‘The charming manipulator,’ ‘The brilliant sceptic’ and ‘The responsible workaholic’ and provide an overview of the possibilities of developing into overdrive, provide new insights for executives’ circumstances and encourage reflection on behaviours. The strands also help leaders and executive coaches identify when traits are constructive and productive and when they are problematic and counterproductive.

The personality strands identified are based on the assertion that each of us has a personal leadership profile, with its own highly personal derailer behaviour.

Leadership types – are you Obsessive-compulsive? Paranoid? Passive-aggressive?
Below are four leadership types and, their associated counterproductive ‘overdrive’ patterns.

  • The charming manipulators, whose actions may brush up against the rules and mould them to their own design. In this leadership style, strict accountability may go out of the window, because their own accountability may be relegated to the ‘shadow’. Antisocial patterns linked with the charming manipulator: you believe the rules are made to be broken. Do you find it hard to be held accountable for your actions?
  • The playful encouragers, whose influence is felt mainly indirectly. In this leadership style full responsibility for taking for one’s actions may be difficult, as their responsibility may be relegated to the ‘shadow’. Passive-aggressive patterns linked with the playful encourager: what you say is not what you really believe. Do you find it hard to take responsibility for your views and actions?
  • Glowing Gatsbies, who influence from the front and bask in their successes. In this leadership style it may be easier to criticise others but harder to look at oneself in a similar way, as their humility may have been relegated to the ‘shadow’. Narcissistic patterns linked with the glowing Gatsby: you think that you’re right, and everyone else is wrong. Do you as a leader often think that others are wrong and not up to their jobs?
  • Detached diplomats, whose actions remain largely in their own world, disengaged and disconnected from those around them. In this leadership style it may be hard to keep the organisation’s issues and people into focus, as their ability to reach out may be relegated to the ‘shadow’. In fact, when this pattern is highly developed, leadership interventions themselves may go under and the leader seems very absent. Schizoid patterns linked with the detached diplomat: you’re disengaged and disconnected. Do you often distance yourself from the everyday running of the business?

Don’t let the shadow side derail you

Failure to restrain the demons within can result in a toxic organisation. Appreciating the benefits of certain attributes, while understanding when they tip into shadow side characteristics provides the key to actively managing them, reducing the risk to the organisation as well as the risk of leadership derailment. Executives must balance their leadership, and coaches, L&D professionals and HRs have a crucial role to play in working with leaders to provide solutions for dealing with different shadows. In fact, upon reflection, shadows generally turn out to provide fresh and much-needed insight into leadership and the requisite balance to a leader’s drive and success.

Advice in The Leadership Shadow for executives includes:

  • Keep the process of leading fluid, and be open to (sometimes painful) upwards feedback from within the organisation.
  • Keep leadership practice healthy and balanced, and be open to (sometimes painful) upwards feedback from their own shadows.
  • Be as relational as possible by nurturing relationships – leading not in the abstract and not just indirectly, but here and now with colleagues.
  • Engage in active and honest (self-) reflection.

In the midst of ever increasing complexity, speed and pressure in the business world, senior leaders and HR professionals need to learn to look beyond talent and success, even beyond the polarity of strengths and weaknesses, success and derailment patterns. HR leaders need to balance their assessment and development of social skills and outstanding talent with psychological insight into derailment patterns and how to overcome these. In a very similar way do top leaders need to balance their leadership success with learning from their own highly personal shadow sides. They need to learn that all leadership creates a rift within oneself: a rift between one’s sunny, active, constructive, or aggressive side that has the ambition to contribute, create and demonstrate something; and one’s doubting, pessimistic, needy, vulnerable, cautious and concerned side, which craves for connection with oneself and others. The leadership shadow is therefore part and parcel of leadership.

4 Responses

  1. Combat derailers measure by measure

    Thank you  and you don't take in the new learning all at once Chris 😉

    Keep well, Erik

  2. Derailers

    Erik, thanks for the link – you have just sold one more book.  Don't spend the money all at once!  Looks really interesting, Best Chris

  3. Re: Derailers

    Dear Chris,


    Thank you very much for your comment. In fact the 'being more in control' that you refer to, in other words the 'being better prepared for our (roles') tendencies towards hubris, derailment, or overdrive', is exactly what this book is about.

    Here is the link to the book – enjoy!




  4. Derailers

    Hi Erik,

    Very good article.  I think the increasing interest in Hogan reflects people's increasing interest in the 'dark' side and leaders potential derailers.

    Openness to feedback at a personal and team level is an important step forward to managing our derailers – which we all have – and may just require 'turning the dial down' or being more able to control those parts of our personality which we may be over reliant on – because those aspects may also have got us to where we are,




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