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Dealing with the dark side of leadership

Every silver lining has a dark cloud. That is the theory of Erik de Haan and Anthony Kasozi from Ashridge Business School. Haan, the director of Ashridge’s Centre for Coaching and Professor of Organisation Development at the VU University Amsterdam, writes: “Senior executives need exceptional drive and excellent interpersonal skills to push themselves and others to succeed – but under pressure, these skills and qualities can go into overdrive, and lead to catastrophe.


Picture: Erik de Haan

So what makes managers act out the darker side of their leadership? Haan and Kasozi dedicated a whole book - ”The Leadership Shadow: How to Recognize and Avoid Derailment, Hubris and Oberdrive” - to the question of how professionals can identify and challenge self-defeating behaviours to ensure that leadership shadows are disciplined? After all, research 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 have the potential to send what’s best about an executive’s leadership over to the dark side.

The book identifies eleven ‘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”, writes Haan.

Based on research and many years of coaching executives and supporting leadership development, the book draws on insights from psychiatry and psychotherapy to reveal how derailment occurs when managers’ strengths are overused - and how to avoid downfalls:

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.

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