“We need someone charismatic to lead and inspire us through the next 3 years, times are going to be tough, and we need to bring people with us.”
We hear this in many boardrooms when the CEO succession conversation takes place. But the traits so eloquently described in the CEO job description; charismatic, charming, focused, confident, and influential can to the untrained eye be actually ruthlessness, manipulation, and lacking in empathy. These traits often reveal a narcissistic, machiavellian, and psychopathic personality that together are characterised as the ‘dark triad’. Leaders with dark triad (DT) characteristics are usually very good at pretending to be something they are not; they have after all spent a lifetime perfecting a careful image and narrative. But allow these leaders to continue at your peril as there is often no faster path to value destruction.
Psychopathy is often associated with being impulsive, emotionally cold, and remorseless. Leaders with these traits lack genuine emotions, often indulge in illegal and immoral behaviour and, when confronted, can’t seemingly accept responsibility. Narcissists on the other hand are grandiose, have perceived superiority and entitlement, focus on themselves in conversations and can be interpersonally exploitative – they will find out information about you to then use against you. While, machiavellian traits are manipulation, self-interest, and a domineering approach. Initially, leaders with all these traits present as charismatic, charming, and even friendly to gain your buy-in and support. There are estimates that some element of psychopathy is prevalent in up to 12% of the leadership population, but studies into the DT have not yet been conclusive.
Think of a leader, with whom you had an association, who you feel had truly toxic behaviour and what was the outcome?
Chances are it was not positive for anyone involved. If a leader with DT traits is allowed to continue, they will leave a trail of destruction, with the company finding it difficult, sometimes impossible to recover. In times of turbulence, this is even more prevalent as people may turn to charismatic leaders to provide a vision for the future and turn around performance. The DT leaders’ initial charm, ability to remain calm and extreme self-confidence make them appear to be an ideal leadership candidate in uncertain times.
So how can boards be attuned to spotting these behaviours if leaders are adept at covering them up? The good news is whilst individuals with DT traits can be hard to spot there are some signs to tune into:
- DT leaders are often not that good at delivering shareholder value – it is often all style and no underlying substance. Whilst they are good at communicating and influencing, they are often not good at surrounding themselves with the right people and building and retaining talent to deliver results.
- When you are working with a DT leader you jump from one crisis to the next. They are experts at creating chaos and actively thrive in it. They impact the reputation of the company often irrevocably as they are highly likely to engage in less desirable behaviour. Not at our company, I hear you cry but I have seen fraud, discrimination, victimisation, stalking and cyber-crimes all happen. Leaders with DT traits make more risky and unethical decisions, which can impact the reputation of the organisation. During Covid, these were likely leaders who dismissed covid rules and demanded their teams do the same.
- The culture they create is highly toxic. Employing individuals with DT traits in leadership roles may result in undesirable traits being transferred to the wider culture of the organisation, which in turn encourages the replication of negative behaviours. They often put more emphasis on trophies and awards, ordering cabinets to house these, or moving to a swanky new office as symbols to mask underlying issues.
- Succession to them is a dirty word and they don’t ever want to discuss who will replace them, claiming it’s a waste of time. In reality, they don’t believe anyone could do the job like them and can’t entertain a world where they are not the boss.
- In high emotional stakes situations, they don’t react as you would expect and are often unpredictable. They look to others for emotional cues as they lack any genuine empathy. Watch out for the use of non-threatening language that might mask more sinister behaviour. For example, I recall a leader who often described themselves as a dinosaur, seemingly harmless but, in reality, was behaving in the most unethical and criminal ways.
- They create an organisational system that works for them and surround themselves with enablers who allow their poor behaviour to go unchallenged. These people protect the leader, knowing the behaviour is unacceptable but choose to turn a blind eye. They further gain power and control by playing people off against one another, often isolating members by creating rifts between people to strengthen their own power base.
- Finally, the board or executive team only ever hears good news with the leader trying to control any direct interaction between board members and their executive team.
So, what do you do when you’ve identified a potential problem leader?
Firstly, learn all you can about the DT and become attuned to spotting the behaviours. That way you’re in a good position to diagnose the issue and address it before it becomes a crisis. The good news is this is increasingly appearing on the syllabus of NED and Chair training programmes.
Protect yourself and know it isn’t your responsibility to change the leader’s behaviour. These are deep-rooted psychological disorders that need proper diagnosis and are mostly untreatable. The risks of challenging the DT leader are clear whilst the rewards are very uncertain so tread carefully. Learn all you can about yourself, manage your own behaviour and set clear and firm boundaries.
Managing DT Leaders out of their roles with help. By definition, a board that acts at the right time will have averted a disaster and never avoided effective succession planning. The board needs to be continually focused on effective succession planning and to have a clear sense of how it would replace its leaders.
Finally, set and stick to clear ground rules. The board needs to establish clear expectations about behavioural norms and values and what will be regarded as unacceptable. Manage behavioural risks like you would any other risk.
Over time DT leaders tend to lose favour as their façade drops as colleagues do ultimately detect their inauthenticity and support falls away. The challenge is ensuring this happens soon enough to prevent irrevocable damage from being done.
About the author: Karen Thomas-Bland is a Global Board Advisor, Management Consultant and Non-Executive Director with over 24 years of experience leading complex enterprise-wide transformations and M&A integrations to $105bn turnover. Her clients include Accenture, EY, WPP, RELX Group and Private Equity Funds. With an excellent track record in creating sustainable long-term value, she is a trusted advisor to many boards, executive teams, and investors and has been a NED on several private equity boards. Before founding Seven Transformation, Karen was an executive in IBM, KPMG, and several boutique consultancies, based out of New York, Dubai, and Sao Paulo.
Karen is also a Chartered Organisational Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and is an INSEAD accredited Board Director.