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Leadership & Organisations

Coming to terms with your dark side

Angela Garvey Hammond |

Are you an Anakin Skywalker or a Darth Vader? INSEAD Professor Michael Jarrett explores some ugly traits of leadership behaviour and dares you to accompany him.

The galactic struggle between good and evil in the Star Wars saga seems worlds apart from the boardroom. But in his latest research on leadership, INSEAD Professor Michael Jarrett suggests we all have a darker side - even if we don’t see it, or care to look. This, he says, is what stops us getting to the top.

Professor Jarrett’s research focuses on the Darth Vader in all of us. You begin as Anakin Skywalker, the iconic symbol of goodness. Your career flourishes, you’re on your way up and then the cracks begin to show, along with the “dark side of your personality”. Understanding and managing this, Jarrett says, is “a key skill to moving from executive management to leadership”.

His research is aptly timed. The business mogul, Rupert Murdoch, has dominated the media world for decades, but in the wake of a phone-hacking scandal he and his son, James, find themselves under intense pressure to defend their business conduct to save their multibillion-dollar empire. “Rupert Murdoch must be doing a lot of hand wringing. There are a lot of questions about his leadership style,” Jarrett says.

Away from the media glare both Murdoch men may be asking themselves, how did it come to this? In the management theory terms of Jarrett, they may be encountering their “dark side“ and trying to avoid “derailment”. He explains: “The term executive derailment describes a person who has been very successful in his or her managerial career but has failed to live up to their full potential, as the organisation sees it. It is notable ... the very skills that were the original sources of success are often the fatal flaws of despair.”

Negative areas

Jarrett notes that the generally agreed negative areas include: “poor interpersonal relationships; being aloof or arrogant; an inability to build a team or cohesion; an inability to manage one’s context or differences with upper management or other stakeholders; over-used strength; and failure to meet business objectives due to betraying trust or being overly ambitious.”

Recognise yourself yet? “It’s like watching an episode of the award winning comedy, The Office, and seeing yourself rather than David Brent,” says Jarrett.

Or perhaps another Star Wars analogy. Jarrett returns to mythical Darth Vader, “who becomes an autocratic and despotic leader as a response to managing the chaos and incompetence of the universe. His intentions to create order and peace are laudable. However he definitely has poor judgement and a distorted sense of reality.”

Star Wars certainly makes thrilling viewing, but “it is quite different when you meet such characters in the corridors of your company or workplace”. Without the light saber and the black costume how can you tell if your chief executive or fellow directors harbour such dark tendencies? Or, if you suspect such traits lurking in yourself, are you willing to admit them? The research acknowledges “the problem is that these are not easily detected in a chance meeting... However, in the longer term, especially when people are working under pressure, they will then reveal the dark side of their personality”.

Case in point

Jarrett highlights his research examining the emotional behaviour of a director of human resources at a hospital in the UK. The director, David Larson*, was an expert in his field and known nationally for contributing to HR leadership and innovations. During the year of research he was closely monitored and undertook in-depth interviews. He was also observed in meetings and his colleagues gave feedback.

Although he made significant contributions to meetings, he didn’t come out well. Comments included Larson “has an aggressive style” and “is always in conflict with me”. Even though he helped the group make decisions, he was labelled a troublemaker. When he was asked why he evoked such reactions his reply was simply, “I never got feedback as a child”.

It’s this response which fascinates Jarrett. “This story stayed with me for a long time ... A casual observer, and even his colleagues, saw him as a pain in the butt. However, looking at his behaviour in terms of the Dark Side of personality, we might re-interpret behaviour in the form of moving away from others.”

Jarrett goes on to look at work on Attachment theory (by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby**) and their basic idea that adults develop attachment styles based on how they were treated as children themselves. “The implication for executives is that the fault lines for derailment are set a long time before people get to sit at the boardroom table. They occur in the roots of our childhood and in the early years we develop attachment that sit, waiting, in the dark shadows.”

Not easy reading

This may not come as much of a surprise and yet, while obvious to many aspiring executives, it still doesn’t make easy reading. One chief executive in the UK told me:“It’s a brave leader who voluntarily spends time looking at their darker side and how these aspects of their personalities might impact upon their management of others. In my decade as a chief executive I have seen many other leaders who seem ill-disposed to any type of reflection and who never let their guard down. And that is even within charities, which I assume are required to be less macho or gung-ho than other sectors. It strikes me that one of the real challenges when you get to the top of any organisation is finding a way to ensure someone somewhere speaks truth to power, and that the culture allows you to not just hear your own views echoed back at you from the yes-people. Very challenging.”

Jarrett says chief executives can rise to this challenge. “There is good news. If we understand these mental models then we can reframe them, as they are cognitive and emotional, and not just uncontrollable pathologies that erupt during periods of stress.”

For this to happen though you first have to look in the mirror and be honest. The question is, are you brave enough?



* The name of this participant has been changed to provide confidentiality. He was part of a research project funded by Social Science Research Council.

** Slater Ainsworth,MD and J.Bowlby (1991) ‘An Ethological Approach to Personality Development’, American Psychologist.

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