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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Two Sides Of Leadership: What Goes On Behind Closed Doors?

We heard it all before: leaders behaving one way in public, but then very differently behind closed doors.

Right now in the UK, ex Labour chancellor Alistair Darling is spilling the beans over the leadership style (and accompanying behaviour) of former prime minister and ex-colleague Gordon Brown. But these revelations are hardly shocking. Seemingly placid, timid and shy on the surface, rumours of an explosive, temperamental and potentially bullying Brown gradually started emerging from Number 10 in the final months of his presidency. These allegations were quickly dismissed by government officials and no further action was taken, but as we know, there is no smoke without fire. Mr Darling is now telling the world about the “hellish” behaviour he experienced and the “brutal regime” he suffered at the hands of Mr Brown, and clearly this is only a taste of what has yet to come in his upcoming book. And while, admittedly, we have only heard one side of the story (Brown has yet to comment), Darling painfully refers to this period as "hellish... very personal. It left a scar on me... you just can't get over it." Once again, a leader’s personality is on the front cover of all newspapers.

Dealing With Conflict

It is not hard to see why Brown’s personality has captured the attention of the media. With an almost black-and-white/Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde reputation (remember when he was caught cordially greeting and talking to a labour supporter, only to call her a “bigoted woman” shortly after), reports of Brown’s behaviour away from the public eye appeared like two inexplicable sides of the same coin – and the difficulty in the reconciliation of the two once again highlighted our inner challenges with ambiguity and conflicts.

This is not surprising; human beings do not like to consider themselves as “conflicted” and it is known that most of us find inconsistencies in behaviour – and ambiguity – deeply unsettling. In the history of personality research, these conflicts were once considered “discrepancies” and thus wrongly attributed to assessment and measurement errors. Today, consultants specialising in the assessment of the bright and dark side of personality are aware that conflicting behaviours can be exhibited in different circumstances or even days (e.g. emotionally composed and mature one day, volatile and abusive the next). In fact, we often encounter these conflicts when interpreting psychometric reports and delivering feedback to organisational leaders. Addressing intrapersonal conflicts is a complex task that requires careful analysis, introspection and a desire to change.

Guess The Disorder

As a prime minister, Mr Brown has always been an enigmatic figure; many articles have been written describing his awkward behaviours and noticeable lack of social skills, with some also going as far as “guessing” the diagnosis of his personality disorders. However, leadership derailment consultants know too well that you do no need a personality disorder in order to exhibit these behaviours.

Years of research conducted by the Centre for Creative Leadership and Hogan Assessment Systems, as well as an increasing number of publications (see Dotlich and Cairo’s “Why CEOs Fail”), have demonstrated that leadership derailment can be attributed to recurrent, measurable and most importantly, manageable 11 “themes” (or derailing tendencies). Indeed, attempting to guess (and address) Brown’s derailers, rather than his alleged personality disorders, may have been a much more fruitful exercise in this case.

Darling’s testimony is also a stark reminder that these derailers do not only represent barriers to leadership effectiveness and well-being at work, but also constitute significant barriers to individual, team and organisational performance (in this instance coming in the way of something as important as tackling the country’s financial crisis). These destructive tendencies affect the ability of leaders to gain trust from subordinates and form coalitions at work, which in turn negatively affect a range of executive functions, such as decision-making and the objective analysis of crucial facts and figures.

The “Displacing” Leader

I will admit to being very passionate about leadership derailment, and while I do not want to necessarily pigeon-hole complex leadership behaviours, I can’t help thinking that Mr Brown seems to fall in what I define (to borrow the Freudian term of displacement) as the “displacing leader” box.

This is a leadership style characterised by an excessive focus on managing relationships publicly with external customers and stakeholders, while ignoring the quality of the interactions with internal ones: our colleagues, peers and subordinates. A leader adopting this style has a tendency to release their frustration upon team members, disregarding the consequences of his/her behaviour, either because he/she thinks that the behaviour is acceptable (it’s between us) or simply because he/she can get away with it (no one will know).

But if we define leadership as the “ability to build and maintain a high performing team”, then we can obviously see how this approach is ultimately flawed from the start and destined to fail. At best, this is fake and ineffective leadership. At worst, this can turn into bullying and violate the true essence of what it means to be a leader.

We never fully know what goes on behind the closed doors of an organisation. But leaders who keep smiling in public, only to behave carelessly towards their team members, have an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson from this story.

After all, reputations are powerful and enduring things; they can be buried, but they never fully go away.

Andrea Facchini, MSc.
Managing Director
Facchini Consulting Limited

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