Will your leadership strengths derail you?
By The Army Leader
There is a leader that I think we all know. They are intelligent; much more so than their peers and subordinates. They are an action person and get things done; in fact, they are the unit’s highest performer. And they are a detail person; nothing gets past them and they are great with analysis.
And yet… everyone fears the day they get promoted. They have integrity. Their work is faultless. They tick all the boxes and yet, for all those ‘competencies’ we expect in a leader, this person isn’t the leader we actually want. How could this be? If they have a characteristic we admire and value, how they be anything other than a great leader?
Poor Leadership: Derailment vs incompetence
Prof Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology and leadership author has a view on why this is. He explains it in his books The Elephant in the Boardroom: The Causes of Leadership Derailment and High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work. Having heard him speak I think he may be onto something.
He believes it is in the difference between leaders who fail through incompetence and leaders who fail through derailment.
It is worth knowing the difference because, when we look at our subordinates and when we think about ourselves, we often look out for signs of incompetence rather than signs of derailment.
Derailment is when a leader has too much of a generally-positive personality trait – too much of a good thing. We accept you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to food, or drink or fine living. Furnham’s view is that too much of a good personality characteristic could also be a bad thing.
If you took a large group of people – take your battalion perhaps – and stood everyone into a line according to height, you’d have a normal distribution. A bell-shaped curve with most people in the middle and fewer at either extreme. If you did the same with intelligence, strength – almost any human characteristic, in fact – you would find the same thing. The distribution would look something like this:
Personality traits are the same. The key difference between personality traits and, say, intelligence, is that there is not necessarily a ‘good’ end and a ‘bad’ end.
We want high intelligence, we do not want low intelligence. We want high strength, we do not want low strength. But with some of the personality characteristics we select against, it is possible that both extremes are bad.
We don’t want low self-esteem; nor do we want a sub-clinical narcissist.
Our perfect leader?
Go back to our earlier example. What might be wrong with them that make them less than ideal?
Extremely intelligent? Perhaps none of their subordinates are allowed to exercise judgement because they see subordinates as less intellectually capable than they are. Action-orientated? Too much action-bias might lead to recklessness and unnecessary risks. An eye for detail? A detail obsessive can get paralysed in the detail and miss the bigger picture, something that will derail them as they promote.
Many of the bright characteristics we look for actually have dark sides. I reflected on this theory by thinking of people I know – including me. It makes sense. Sometimes we can be so proud of our greatest strengths that we become blind to the negative consequences of them.
Beware the Dark Side
Here are eight ‘bright side’ characteristics and their corresponding ‘dark sides’ that Professor Furnham offers. Have a think of people you know, perhaps your peers or subordinates, and try and identify those for whom one of these major ‘bright sides’ might also have a negative ‘dark side’. Then have a think about yourself.
- A team player: But they are not a risk taker. They are too indecisive. They lack independent judgment and get too easily led by the crowd.
- A perfectionist: But cannot control their resources. They cannot control costs, are unrealistic and too conservative. In waiting for the 100% solution they miss opportunities.
- Is biased toward action: But at the extremes they are reckless. The need for action makes them restless and sometimes dictatorial.
- An analytic thinker: But analysis requires data and seeks solid answers. They can suffer analysis paralysis and are afraid to act. At a senior level, the need for analysis makes them create large staffs in their HQs.
- Has integrity: But can be ‘holier than thou’. With a rigid ethic standard, they impose personal standards on others. In pursuit of their principles they can be zealots.
- An innovator: And yet unrealistic and impractical, shooting too often for the stars when the situation requires simplicity. Extreme innovators waste time and resources on pet innovation projects that other are ‘too conservative to understand’
- Can see the big picture: But misses the smaller picture. In pursuit of the long-term goal they miss the intermediate steps, become over-extended and unfocused
- Good with people: But soft on failure. They are empathetic but can’t make tough decisions and are too easy on people.
What should you look out for?
If you are looking at a leader there are a few warning signs that a person might be due to derail as they promote. Furnham believes there are three fool-proof indicators of derailment:
- Have troubled relationships: Leaders who are due to derail are unable to establish and maintain healthy, functional relationships with peers, subordinates and their chain of command. ‘Leadership is a contact sport’, Furnham tells us. You can only lead if you can contact and engage with people.
- Lack self-awareness: Leaders who might fail as they progress have a defective or unstable sense of themselves.
- Unable to adapt, learn and transition: As leaders promote and progress they have to change their leadership between team, organisational and strategic leadership levels. Versatile leaders will rise to the challenge but a derailer won’t. Unadaptable leaders get stressed, rigid and defensive.
Each is due to having too much of some characteristics that we assume are ‘good’.
Furnham recommends using those three bullets as a checklist to identify a future derailer.
Your initial assessment might lead you to conclude that they are your highest-potential subordinate. A cross-check against the list will warn you that the bright side you see is masking a dark side shadow. Look at those below you. Who is your wunderkind, your best? Check them against those characteristics and do what a leader should: develop their weaknesses, even if they think they are their strengths.
But then look at yourself. Turn the lens inward. Or, better still, get someone else to look at you.
What are the areas you see as your particular strengths? What are you best at, better than everyone else? Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Are your extremely high attributes actually weaknesses rather than strengths? If so, what are you going to do about it?
Prof Furnham thinks self-awareness is the key. If you have an abnormally high extreme of a characteristic it is only bad if you don’t identify it as a weakness or aren’t able to control it.
If you are a super-high performer, perhaps the weaknesses you should be worrying about are actually your strengths.
If you are interested in learning more about why traits we think of a ‘leadership traits’ are not always the way to succeed then check out Stan McCrystal’s thoughts in his book Leaders: Myth and Reality. In it he explains why everything we thought about good leadership is not quite right.