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The Dark Side of Leadership

by Dr Tuvia Melamed on Mar.16, 2010, under Articles

We are looking for People with the Potential to Fail…

 Dr Tuvia Melamed
ClearWater A&D
to download a pdf copy click here


The Dark Side of Leadership — On the route to become a major liability… 

Everyone is looking for people with the potential to be successful – but there are some roles, where the potential of getting it wrong, can outweigh the benefits of having a high potential, high performer in place. The reality is that in many cases, those who turn out to be a major liability, give an impressive impression of high potential and high capability. This paper looks at the HR² phonomenon – the High-Risk — High-Return individuals.

Remember Gerald Ratner, the entrepreneur who created the multi-million jewellery business, and in one statement (“People say. ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap”) wiped out an estimated £500m from the value of the company. How about Nick Lesson? – The golden boy of Bearing Bank, whose actions resulted in the sale of the 200-year establishment for £1.

It is not just the colourful characters that hit the news that can become a liability. In August 2007, British Airways was fined £270 million after it admitted that one of its senior managers tried to colluding with Virgin Atlantic over fuel surcharges and price-fixing on cargo flights.

So think about those high hitters who leave carnage behind them. It is a very difficult to challenge or argue against them; let alone stop them. As from performance perspective, they close major deals, lead complex projects to successful completion, create innovative products, attract clients, and deliver spectacular operational and financial results. Organisations try to learn to live with their shortfalls and justify it by saying that the business depends on them for its success. This is probably true, but only up to a certain point. In the long-term they can cause unacceptable collateral damage, and might bring the organisation to ‘its knees’. In safety-critical industries such as oil exploration, aviation, and medical care, there is plenty of evidence that such disruptive behaviour can cause life-threatening errors.

There are several reasons as to why do talented people derail in spite of their brilliance, and why they do not address their weaknesses before they cause havoc. One of the most common reasons is their lack of insight. They dismiss potential weaknesses as unimportant, redefine them as part of their ‘charm’, ‘style’ or even ‘secret of success’, and blame others for “overreacting”. What’s more, It is customary in many organisations to approve such actions by subscribing to cultural statements such as “I didn’t get where I am today by taking the soft approach or by being nice to people”; “we could do with a bit of backbone” or “It’s time we told it to people as it is – they need to know what is what”.

There is an organisational trap here – I call it HR² – it is an acronym for ‘High-Risk – High-Return’. The challenge for organisations with such high-risk high-return individuals is to retain their talents whilst minimising the damage they cause along the way.

The Center for Creative Leadership (McCall and Lombardo) researched executives who were viewed as technical gurus or tenacious problem solvers, but under demanding job pressures their strengths turned into liabilities that become costly and highly noticeable for the organisation. The study identified four sets of characteristics that can lead to such derailment – these were: (a) problems with interpersonal relationships (such as arrogance, aloofness, coldness and detachment); (b) problems with execution of business objectives (such as betraying trust, failure to follow through); (c) problems with inability to lead a team; and (d) problem with managing change or adapting to transition (such as limited strategic capacity; over-controlling). Likewise, Robert Hogan, one of the leading figures in the study of leadership derailment, used taxonomy of mental disorders that manifest themselves in a subtle way in organisational life and in the behaviour of derailed leaders. He categorised the characteristics that derail high flyers’ careers and cause negative consequences for their organisation into eleven derailing characteristics. He calls these the “dark side” of personality – the characteristics that are not normally apparent but which emerge when an individual is under great pressure (see the following table).

  Description On a Good Day Limitations
Excitable Inappropriate anger. Intense and unstable relationships, alternating between idealisation and devaluation. Clinical Term – Borderline Personality Passion; Empathy; Energy; Enthusiasm; Concern Volatility;  Emotional explosiveness; Emotional instability
Sceptical Distrustful and suspicious of others; Conspiracy theory oriented; Motives are interpreted as malevolent. Clinical  Term – Paranoia Shrewd; Insightful; Social and political insight; Critical analysis; Sharpness Cynicism; Negativity; Excessive suspicion; Blame; Draining energy from others
Cautious Social inhibition; Feeling of inadequacy; Hyper-sensitivity to criticism or rejection. Clinical Term – Avoidance Risk assessment; Voice of reason; Devil’s advocate Indecisiveness; Paralysis by analysis; Risk-averse;
Reserved Emotional coldness and detachment from social relationships; Indifference to praise and criticism. Clinical Term – Schizoid Emotional unflappability;  Focus; Concentration; Productivity Not gaining buy-in; Poor communication; Insensitive; Failing to get the best from others
Scheming Passive resistance to social and occupational performance; Irritation when asked to do something they do not want to do. Clinical  Term – Passive Aggressive Good social skills; Diplomatic; Political astuteness Passive aggression; Manipulation; Stubbornness; Killing initiatives
Bold Arrogance; Haughty behaviours or attitudes; Grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement.  Clinical Term – Narcissism Charisma; Conviction; confidence; Courage; Energy; Untouchable mentality Arrogance; Belief in own press; Overbearing; Lack of remorse; Inability to learn from mistakes
Mischievous Disregard for the truth; Impulsivity and failure to plan ahead; Failure to conform to social norms.  Clinical Term – Antisocial Risk taker; Challenging; Charming; Mission impossible; Reckless; Deceitful; Morally bankrupted; Uncontrolled impulsivity; Steals the glory
Colourful Excessive emotionality and attention Seeking; Self-dramatisation; Theatrical and excessive emotional expression. Clinical Term – Hysteria Risk taker; Pushes boundaries; Challenging; Engaging; Impactful Impulsive and distractable; Prima-donna
Imaginative Odd belief or magical thinking; Eccentricity; Behaviour or speech that are odd or peculiar. Clinical Term – Schizotypal Creativity; Vision; Radical  innovation; Step change Unrealistic ideas; No consolidation; dismissal of best practice; No continuous improvement
Diligent Obsessive occupation with structure, orderliness, process, rules, control and procedures; Perfectionism. Clinical Term – Obsessive Compulsive High standards; Reliability; Good role model Control freak;  Micro-managing; Pure operational; not strategic
Dutiful High maintenance. Difficulty making simple decisions without advice or excessive reassurance; Difficulty expressing disagreement out of fear of loss of support; Excessive need to please. Clinical Term – Dependent Loyalty; Organisational commitment; Hard worker; Customer service; Polite Spineless; Good No.2 – Not a No. 1; Pushover; Inability to challenge authority

An Illustrative Case Study

ClearWater has recently supported a professional services firm going through a major operational and cultural change. Key to this change was M – An equity holding Managing Partner in the firm. M was in charge of a Strategic Business Unit (SBU) that included several diverse businesses. M’s biggest challenge was to create a cohesive SBU with clear identity and well-defined ‘routes to market’ strategy that builds on leverages among the diverse business units within the larger SBU. This was a difficult challenge as the different business units had a long history of independent operation without a broad umbrella. This challenge was vital to the Professional Services firm as the recession and tough economic market, made it difficult for many of the business units to break-even, let alone, make profit.

M’s rise to the Head of SBU position was a combination of five factors – An earlier success in winning a massive three-year contract with a highly respectable client; a tough, uncompromising, honesty and integrity; a down-to-earth, practical and pragmatic, no-nonsense approach; strong drive and ambition to succeed; and extreme dedication and commitment to the firm. Clearly, M’s role was critical to the future of the firm as the driving force behind the relatively new SBU, but the results were not coming in, performance targets were not met. Not used to failure, M doubled his effort in doing what he knows best and what proved a success in the past – Pushing and challenging the business units and individuals within them, closely monitoring and measuring their performance, setting tough targets and re-visiting them regularly, demanding total dedication and high standards, forcing central rules and procedures to standardise operations… But the results still did not materialise. The SBU was operating as a random amalgamation of independent and diverse business units, there were no significant cross-selling or collaborative projects, no leverages were realised among the different business units, and the financial results were behind agreed targets. Furthermore, the cost to colleagues was becoming a concern – the common joke/complain regarding M was “working with you is killing me”. Resignations of senior players were common occurrence, morale was low, and the two waves of compulsory redundancies initiated by M, made the SBU a depressing place to work. Many spent their time, buying time, before jumping ship.

The CEO sought our advice. Our assessment was that M’s profile was not suitable for a strategic integrative role. His skills were more as an entrepreneurial sole operator. The tough uncompromising style that made M a success in the first place, was likely to do more harm than good. More specifically M displayed two extreme ‘dark-side’ personality traits – ‘Diligence’ and ‘Reserved’.  These made M highly focused, tough and uncompromising, yet, under pressure they also brought the worst out of him. The strong operational focus with limited strategic perspective associated with high ‘Diligence’, meant an inability to create a cohesive and coherent vision for the SBU as a whole. When results were not emerging, M revert to the typical ‘Diligence’ approach of ‘try harder’ rather than ‘try something different’; ‘micro-manage’ rather than ‘seek innovation’, and ‘enforce compliance’ rather than ‘learn from local practices’. Furthermore, the ‘Reserved’ style meant strong focus on targets, but failure to gain buy-in to overall operational strategy. It resulted in forcing top-down decisions, while failing to properly communicate the rationale for them. It demanded compliance, while being insensitive to localised specific issues.

At a series of feedback meetings involving the Managing Partner and the CEO – it become clear that M’s strengths are not fully utilised in this role. The SBU was re-structured, the senior roles were re-defined. An additional Managing Partner was brought in to manage an element of it, and M’s role was re-defined around his strengths.

The HR² Approach

The HR² approach is used both to inform selection decision into high-risk positions, and development of managers that show signs of derailment. From a selection perspective, it stops the High-Risk High-Return slip through the net. It prevents the case of finding how disruptive they could be when it is far too late… From a development perspective, it offers a clear framework to manage and develop such individuals.

The approach places great importance on three things—an accurate pin-pointed diagnosis, a buy-in and involvement of all key stakeholders, and pragmatism.

HR² is a sophisticated 1-day intensive 1-to-1 psychological assessment, that has been scientifically developed and designed to target and ensure, that the people who are totally wrong, potential liability, or potentially damaging to your organisation, cannot … and do not … slip the radar. The 1-day diagnosis involves an in-depth semi structured interview, the completion of psychometric questionnaires, a business simulation exploring the ability to handle complexity, psychological exploration. Additional input that informs the diagnosis and prognosis includes: (a) the contextual factors that have influence over the individual and the situation; and (b) the challenges the organisation is facing now and in the future.

The HR² assessment explores four inter-dependent building blocks:

  • THINKING – Cognitive biases generated by Thinking Style and limitations in managing complexity
  • BEHAVIOUR – Maladaptive habitual behavioural acts
  • PERSONALITY – The interface between the bright side of personality and the emerging dark side
  • EMOTION – The distorted defence mechanisms used to handle emotional dispositions

When used for development, the 1-day diagnosis is followed by a series of 1-to-1 feedback session and a 3-way session involving the individual and their line manager. These sessions are used to draw a practical and pragmatic action plan and a personal development plan. In many instances this involves a mixture of structural changes to the organisation, the contextual setting, or the manager’s role, with a personal development programme for the individual. The pragmatic development programme offers a blend of ‘damage limitation’ interventions focusing the prevention of damage caused by derailing tendencies, with ‘strengths enhancement’ interventions where the individual gains insight to the ways they can best utilise their profile and their unique strengths.

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Uncommon Sense

by Dr Tuvia Melamed on Jan.25, 2010, under Articles

Departure from Best Practice

 Dr Tuvia Melamed
ClearWater A&D
to download a pdf copy click here


 This paper marks a departure from contemporary thinking in employee resourcing. It rethinks the approach used for selecting employees, questions common sense, and dares to offer an approach that goes against perceived best practice. At the heart of it are four radical elements (see Table 1). 

TABLE #1: Uncommon Sense Principles in Resourcing

  Common Sense Uncommon Sense
Sifting Methodology  Reduce high volume of applicants to a manageable number Keep as many candidates as possible in the system for as long as possible
Success Criterion  Use a competency framework. Mark candidates against an OVERALL score across all competencies A variety of holistic profiles associated with either success or failure. Fit is assessed against each profile (not competencies)
Assessment Methodology  Candidates performance in a series of independent assessment activities is assessed by independent assessors against specific competencies Use one assessor to observe a group of candidates performing an extensive, long, and highly diverse activity
Decision Making Fill vacancies with successful candidates Identify small number (about 3) of key skills profiles in teams and recompose existing teams to have a balance of these key profiles.

We believe that organisations can benefit greatly from a more creative and thoughtful approach to resourcing and want to encourage our clients to think differently about their resourcing strategies. Below we suggest just four ways that we believe a more creative approach, or what we call an Uncommon Sense approach may benefit you and your organisation when recruiting people.

Uncommon Sense #1 – Keep as many candidates in the system for as long as possible

Common sourcing processes follow three key stages. They first identify potential candidates (e.g., recruitment advertising, databases), then proceed through sifting, and end up with some form of assessment (e.g., interviews, assessment centres). This approach requires attracting twenty to thirty applicants to fill a single vacancy.

Consider a common scenario. A company seeks to fill a single vacancy of a senior manager. It advertises in a national broadsheet and receives about sixty applications. The recruitment sponsor goes through the CVs and uses criteria such as experience, declared skills, declared achievements, qualifications, personal style, and overall impressions to reduce the number from sixty to a more manageable number of six. The short-listed candidates are invited to attend an interview or an assessment centre. Assuming that several applicants, from the original pool of sixty applicants, are potentially good Senior Managers, then the success of the whole recruitment exercise is dependent on the initial sifting that led to the short list. From reading the CVs, it will become quite clear that with the exception of the few people who do not meet the basic selection criteria, the majority of applicants’ declared skills, achievements, and level of experience are all rather similar. Typically, 10% are clearly not suitable, 20% have some of the required skills but are light on some of the other role requirements, and an additional 10% are what we call ‘wild-cards’ – They may be light in some areas, but compensate for it by unique and unmatchable experience in other areas. The remaining 60% are all looking good on paper. Thus, our recruitment sponsor has the task of short-listing six applicants out of a pool of about forty candidates. Their decision is likely to be biased by personal style, un-quantified overall impressions, and unjustifiable peripheral clues (e.g., “the CV is far too long”, “the layout is not neat”, “don’t think much Open University degrees, etc.”)

Let us stretch the proposed scenario a bit further. What if the advertising campaign was a success and generated 120 applications. The same short-listing process would be applied. The common sense principle of ‘reducing applications to a manageable number’ would mean a relatively random selection among candidates who look good on paper. It also means, rejecting quite early on candidates that are potentially good Senior Managers. There is no guarantee that those short-listed are the best candidates. All of a sudden, the obvious common sense seems flawed, and the uncommon sense of ‘keep as many in the system, for as long as possible’ starts to make sense.

Let me take you through a slightly different scenario – A company wishes to start a new 350-people call centre. The industry standard ratio for Call centres is  30:1 (applicants to appointees). This ratio suggests therefore that to get 350 quality employees the organisation would need to attract over 10,000 applications. But where are we going to find 10,000 people in the over-saturated market like call centres? With despair, the organisation decides to appoint a headhunter (or a body shop more likely) who guarantees them 350 ‘bums on seats’, plus a continuous influx of people to replace those who will leave. Body shops are about volume, the only way to get numbers in, is to put forward any person who meets the most basic criteria (e.g., no criminal record, willing to work shifts). No wonder that average turnover in UK call centres runs at up to 80% per year!

By applying the Uncommon Sense approach we discovered far more suitable candidates by looking harder and looking more broadly at each person. The result of this is that in order to recruit 340 call centre operators we actually only needed to attract 2,350 applicants not 10,000. In addition a year later, annual turnover was measured only at 8%.

TABLE #2: Recruitment Ratios

Respond to campaign 2,346 100% 100%
PASS 1st telephone interview 1,760 75% 75%
Psychometrics & 2nd telephone interview 1,672 95% 71%
PASS 2nd telephone interview 1,115 66% 48%
Attend assessment event 1,059 95% 45%
PASS assessment event 352 33% 16%
Accept appointment offer 348 98% 15%

Uncommon Sense #2 – Don’t use one agreed competency framework to recruit people

In the real world, different people with different attitudes, behaviours and values can all be successful at the same role. However, one of the most ingrained and widespread assumption about talent is a fundamental need to believe that a single list of generic qualities can be used to describe all high performing employees. After all, It is much more manageable to search for only one set of attributes than contend with the possibility that people with quite different set of attributes might be equally effective. This assumption is evident in the application of a competency framework. Organisations search for employees that meet all the competencies identified in their competency framework. This means that those appointed are relatively similar, as by definition they should score high on all the competencies identified in the competency framework.

Over the last two decades, most organisations have developed competency models with between about six to a dozen competencies. The key assumption is that candidates must be assessed as adequate against all these competencies. Consider the common scenario, a company specifies that an ideal candidate needs to be structured, methodical, detail-oriented, and logical, as well as flexible, adaptable, creative, strategic thinker, able to think on their feet, and respond well to ambiguity. However, in the real world it is very hard to find a person with these two extremes (apart from truly gifted individuals). Consequently, the company appoints someone who is a bit structured and organised and a bit flexible and adaptable. They justify it using the all-time winning statement ‘This is a well-rounded candidate.’

I view it differently. The appointed candidate is neither structured, nor adaptable. I propose that success requires being either very structured OR very flexible – a bit of this and a bit of that is what I would call a ‘B’ Player – an OK performer, but nothing exceptional – A relatively ‘bland’ or unexceptional individual who can do the role but not excel in it.

The uncommon sense approach focuses on multiple combinations of qualities – Something I term as ‘Success Profiles’. At its core is detailed profiling of what success looks like for a particular role in a particular organisation. The outcome is a series of distinct ‘A Player’ profiles that are linked to a multiplicity of success criteria (high performance, retention, organisational fit, and employee satisfaction). This approach seeks to identify individuals who match to a distinct success profile (out of several possible profiles). Such individuals do not typically fare well at traditional assessment methods because although they score extremely high on some competencies they typically have gaps in other areas – as they are less well rounded overall.

Naturally, the profiling activity also identifies an independent series of different profiles that are linked to failure(though these are not necessarily an opposite to the success profiles).

The following are examples of two Success profiles and two Failure profiles identified for an organisation within the air transport industry:

  • HARRIER: Does not need a long runway to lift itself of the ground. Takes a lot of energy to raise and get the perspective from above ground, but once airborne, it can move very fast and with great degree of agility – Strategic thinker, non-impulsive, yet decisive when enough information is gathered. Agile individual who can operate in all task and people-related environments
  • HERCULAS: May appear slow and cumbersome, but has enormous capacity to absorb and carry everything thrown at him. Takes on enormous responsibility, support everyone, and step-in for help. When airborne, carries the whole team with him. A dedicated and reliable ‘work-horse’ that does everything required, and much more. May not be elegant, but compensate through sheer power of dedication and outstanding productivity. The backbone of the team. Practical, solid and dependable within set operational parameters
  • HOT-AIR BALLOON: Does not have any controls or steering to allow direction determination. Highly dependent on external (weather) conditions. Moves slowly, but once airborne is colourful, a lot fun, and very impressive. Yet, if you look inside the colourful balloon, there is nothing but hot air. It really doesn’t take much to pop the balloon and cause it to drop from the sky. A fun loving, entertaining, but light-weight individual. All front, no core or essence.
  • TORNEDO: Fast, powerful, and decisive, but requires a lot of support from ground staff to keep in shape and be able to operate (high maintenance). Arrogantly powers ahead towards one identified solution, ignores others views and alternative approaches. Once a button is pressed to release a missile, there is no way back. Impulsive, does not reflect, and can be a liability when dealing with delicate issues. 

Uncommon Sense #3 – It is economical to use large-scale assessment centres

The Assessment Centre is a common methodology to select the successful candidates from a short-list. Typically, a small number of candidates (about 6 per centre) complete a variety of exercises. Each exercise is linked to small number of competencies, and each is observed by a different assessor. The final decision is based on consensus among the various assessors, and reflects the performance of the candidate across a whole raft of activities.

This all makes sense. Yet, this common sense approach is costly, as it requires on average a ratio of two assessors to three candidates. In our call centre example, where more than 1,000 candidates need to be assessed, the notion of an Assessment Centre appears exceptionally expensive, inefficient, and painfully slow. No wonder that many large recruitment campaigns opt for a body-shop solution – “Let the recruiters identify suitable people. We don’t need to assess, simply hold a brief interview with each proposed person”. 

The Uncommon Sense approach is very different. It uses an engaging half-day single activity event for a large volume of candidates (this can cater for over fifty candidates at a time). Candidates work in small teams who collaborate and compete, subjected to cleverly tailored interventions that test the identified success and failure profiles. The well-established assessment centre ratio of 2:3, is slashed here to one assessor per six candidates. Now that makes financial sense – the uncommon sense becomes even more attractive, when considering that the same assessment team can run two groups per day, enabling the assessment of over hundred candidates per day, and a thousand candidates over ten working days. Common sense argues that the assessment centre should be based on a work stimulation as a close to the real environment as possible.  However, such an approach has been shown (Justin Menkes: Executive Intelligence) to be a better test of previous job knowledge than of ability.

 An uncommon sense approach is the Art Event, a creative activity focused for a large candidates’ group, who works in small teams. The large group has to create a drawing on a massive scale, while each of the small teams has a specific contribution to make towards this overall group outcome (see Picture #1 as an example of a 15-panel drawing – 3.3m x 2.8). The event is staged to include tailor-made realistic interventions that test the specific success profiles and failure profiles. Picture #2 is a visual of a team working on the picture; whereas Picture #3 displays the final outcome (a different picture) – note the importance of team collaborating in order to ensure that different panels connect well.

Uncommon Sense #4 – Don’t appoint “A Team” players

Once assessed, it makes sense to appoint the strongest candidates. But this common sense has a built-in flaw. It demolishes diversity within the organisation, and diminishes the potential of the organisation to tackle future challenges. We end-up with a one-dimensional organisation, with a clearly defined, but rather narrow, set of skills, and limited capacity to develop complimentary skills to respond to changing demands.

Football teams provide a good analogy. In a football team there are three key roles – Defender, Midfield, and Forward. Any team must have a good balance of players in each of the roles. A team of only Forward players, regardless the fact that they are all world-class (‘A’ players), is imbalanced and ineffective.

The same applies to work. The team cannot have only one type of success profile to be effective. The number of success and failure profiles will vary, but for the purpose of team configurations, it is useful to identify a small number of core success profiles, and ensure that each team has a relatively balanced spread of the different profiles.

Uncommon sense advocates the assessment of all team members and classification of each member into one of the key success profiles. Then, examining the configuration of the team, and ensuring that teams have a good balance of the different profiles, or at minimum a representation of all the profiles within it. Hence, when recruiting new members, the team they fit into should be considered. Table #3 offers a hypothetical example of three 9-member groups with varied distribution of three success profiles (X, Y, & Z) and the actions required to balance these with minimal disruption.

An uncommon sense approach, we believe, can lead to faster, cheaper and more robust results for all resourcing strategies. An uncommon approach can therefore lead to uncommonly good results.

TABLE #3: Teams’ reconfiguration
  Before ACTION After
Team A X X XX X XX X X Transfer 3 ‘X’ profiles to Team C. Get 1 ‘Z’ profile and 2 ‘Y’ profiles in return X X XX X XZ Y Y
Team B X X XZ Z XY Y Y No Change X X XZ Z XY Y Y
Team C X Y YY Y YZ Z Z Exchange with Team A 2 ‘Y’ profiles and 1 ‘Z’ profile for 3 ‘X’ profiles X X XY Y YX Z Z

Validation Study

The data for this study was drawn from a series of over 20 recruitment campaigns using the Uncommon Sense approach. About 45% of the candidates short-listed for the various campaigns were rated ‘A Player’ on the Uncommon Sense process. About a third were rated ‘B-Players’ and just about 22 who were rated ‘C-Players’. Candidates success was measured on a 6-point scale based on Board Interview (client) and assessment centre findings: 5= Excellent; 4= Strong; 3= Above the line; 2= Below the line; 1= Poor; 0= Disaster. Table # 4 contrasts initial stages of the campaign with the final stage of an Assessment Centre.

TABLE #4: Validation Findings
Candidates’ Scores
  5 4 3 2 1 0  
A Player 25% 58% 17%       100%
B Player   12% 44% 44%     100%
C Player       50% 33% 17% 100%


  • Previous campaigns – One candidate in 6 short-listed was appointable (17%)
  • This campaign – about 75% of the  short-listed candidates were deemed appointable
  • When counting only recommended candidates (‘A’ players) the figure of appointable candidates reaches a staggering 93%.

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Leadership @ the Edge of the World

by Dr Tuvia Melamed on Jan.24, 2010, under Articles

Shipwreck Study 

 Dr Tuvia Melamed
ClearWater A&D
to download a pdf copy click here
“The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea”
“Below the 40th parallel south there is no law; below the 50th there is no God.”
— Ovid

Some credit for this blog goes to Robert Hogan who wrote a short piece about this extraordinary tale 

Auckland Island is a godforsaken place in the middle of the southern ocean, 285 miles south of New Zealand, with year-round freezing rain and howling winds, it is one of the most forbidding places in the world. To be shipwrecked there means almost certain death. The island was once home to an extraordinary coincidence that allows us today to make valuable observations about leadership. In 1864 two ships were wrecked there at about the same time, at opposite ends of the same island. Each crew was unaware of the other’s existence. One of the crews nearly all but perished, the other survived. What can account for this remarkeable difference of fortune? The true story of human nature at its best and worst, serves as the ground of what can be described as one of the most extraordinary natural social ‘experiments’

Elliot Jaques and, more recently, Justin Menkes both claim that leadership effectiveness is explained mainly in terms of intellectual or cognitive capacity. A leader, they argue, needs to think critically and judge maturely, grasping the subtle interplays between people, operations and overarching strategy. Both Jaques and Menkes are dismissive of personality and style, and claim that intellect and ability to handle complexity are far more important to overall effectiveness, and that the impact attributed to individual differences in personality or style is negligible in comparison.

In contrast Walter Michel, claims that it is fruitless to study individual differences when trying to explain leadership effectiveness, as situational differences account for most variance in leadership effectiveness. That is, different leaders in the same situation are likely to display far more similarity in their behaviour, than the same leader in a variety of different situations.

A third school of thinkers emphsise the crucial role played by  personality and style. This school is associated with scholars such as Bob Hogan, who regard personality as the key factor in explaining variance in leadership effectiveness.

With these competing theories in mind it is instructive to consider the story told by Joan Druett (2007), whose facinating  book ‘Island of the Lost – Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World’, recounts the shocking tale of two parties who were shipwrecked together 150 years ago at opposite ends of the same Island.

150 years ago, being stranded on the Auckland Islands equated with almost certain death. The howling sub-antarctic winds drove ships onto the shallow reefs, and most sailors quickly drowned. Those who made it to shore soon died of exposure and starvation. Those few who survived did so in dreadful conditions. Using the survivors’ diaries and journals and supported by historical records, Joan Druett describes the circumstances encountered by the two parties, who were both shipwrecked at the same island, at the same time, without being aware of each other. She explores the unique and different set of personality characteristics and leadership behaviours displayed by the two Captains, and uses these to draw a fine line between order and chaos, life and death.

In 3rd May 1864, the 888-ton Invercauld, had left Melbourne for South America with a crew of twenty-five, on the second leg of her maiden voyage. Most of the crew came from Aberdeen. The crew was led by Captain George Dalgarno, first Mate Andrew Smith, and the recently promoted second mate, the American James Mahoney. On May 10, the ship was running southeast before the northeast gale in horendous weather conditions. Dalgarno was barking orders to bring the ship about on the starboard tack, assuming that the sighting of land just reported was the southwestern end of Adams Island. Disastrously however, he was twenty miles out of his estimate, and without realising it, he had navigated the ship onto one of the most dangerous subantartic’s coasts. With a series of dull crashes the mighty Invercauld struck, breaking up fast.

The ship went aground, nineteen men made it safely to shore on the Northern part of Auckland Island. Almost immediately the ships captain began to show a failure of  leadership. Faced with the awful raelity of their situation, the diaries of one of the mariners records that;-

“Instead of demonstrating leadership, Captain Dalgarno seemed too paralysed to order a search for shelter and food. Instead the party stayed on the beach a total of five days and nights, of which the nights were perhaps the worst. The lean-to, which was built from the wreckage, measured only five by eight feet, and so nineteen men had to pack themselves on top of each other for them all to fit in, which led to fights and agonising cramp” (Druett, p. 111)

Dalgarno failed to cope with the dismal circumstances. Instead of rallying his men he is recorded as  depressed and apathic. As a result  his men gradually disintegrated into despair and anarchy. There were hardly any team-oriented coordinated efforts with the records showing that they “all lied down dying slowly”

The only ray of hope was a 23-year old seaman, Robert Holding. He went on several expeditions, all by himself, seeking food, help, and better shelter. He tried to encourage the others to act together to build shelter and find food, but as a young ordinary seaman he had no credibility. Even though he managed to provide food, identify shelter, and even lead the survivers to a deserted camp where they had some shelter, Captain Dalgarno refused to support him. Instead Dalgrano saw the young seaman as athreat and preferred to pull rank on him.To assert his rank both he and his First mate threatened the young Holding with a knife for defying their authority and forced him to fetch roots for them whilst they kept their own counsel in an “officers area”.

George Dalgarno was a poor leader who stood by helplessly as the survivors wandered aimlessly for weeks without any thought through survival plan. The captain is often at the receiving end of sentences such as this: “That Captain Dalgarno, who should have exhibited the leadership expected of a man of his rank, was so extremely apathetic boded badly for them all.” Lack of leadership resulted in the men fighting amongst themselves and spliting up. One by one, they died from exposure or starvation – but not before some of them turned to cannibalism. After three months, only three remained alive. On May 22 ,1865, a passing ship rescued the inept Dalgarno, first mate Andrew Smith and seaman Robert Holding.

Incredibly, on the same day the Invercauld wrecked, on the opposite end of the island – only twenty miles away, the five castawys of a different shipwrecked were sat around a roaring fire in the shelter they built in the four months since their schooner, the Grafton, had wrecked, enjoying a well roasted seal they caught earlier that day. But before delving into the fortune of the Grafton castaways, it is worthwhile exploring the background that led them to that shelter. The Grafton’s Captain, Thomas Musgrave, was a different character to Dalgarno. Although a master mariner with the reputation of a steady captain and a gifted navigator, he was an adventurer and a risk taker, an adaptable improviser. In 1863, when his luck had run out, along with his job, he put his savings (with some financial backing of two investors) towards pursuing a wild venture in making a fortune proposed by two men he knew well. He was led to believe that there was a rich mine of argentiferous tin on the remote Campbell Island, which had not been located yet, but was there for the findings. Seduced by the magic term argentiferous (which means “silver bearing”), he bought a schooner, and together with his French business Partner – an engineer named Raynal – he recruited three additional seamen, and set off on a dangerous and risky voyage to discover his fortunes in Campbell Island.

When arriving at their destination they went searching for the tin mine, but had not found a single trace of the precious metal. As their worst expectations were realised, all they had in mind was to find some way to retrieve the expedition. Killing seals for their pelts and oil was the best alternative, but as there was no sign of fur seals, Captain Musgrave made up his mind to return to Sydney. Fatefully, Musgrave had decided to call at Auckland Islands to assess the seal population there.

On January 3, 1864, the crew of five men, that was led by Captain Thomas Musgrave, sought shelter from hurricane-force winds in a natural harbour nested inside deserted Auckland Island. However, as the schooner Grafton lost its anchors, it wrecked on the southern end of the Island. From that moment, the story makes clear the critical importance of Musgrave’s leadership style. Wrecked somewhat far from the shore, one of the seamen managed to combat the extremely harsh rocky sea conditions, to create a line between the schooner and the shore. Seaman Raynal who was extremely ill, and too weak to hold on the line in order to drag himself to shore, was at risk of not surviving the wreck. Captain Musgrave tied him onto his back, and, seizing the pulley, he jumped. The double weight dragged the rope down so that Musgrave was forced to plow his way through the top of a surf, while Raynal desperately clung to him. This personal bravery and decisiveness brought Raynal to safety and inspired his men.

The conditions the castaways endured were relentlessly cold, wet and windy, with extremely low winter temperatures and snow or sleet much more common than sunshine. Utterly alone in the dense coastal forest, plagued by relentless rain and stinging blowflies, Captain Musgrave, rather than succumb to this dismal fate, inspired his crew to take action. Encouraged by their Captain, the men banded together in a common quest for survival. With nothing more than their bare hands, they salvaged material from the wrecked Grafton, built a cabin and a forge where they manufactured tools; they hunted for food, made shoes from sea lions’ skin, rotated cooking duties, and nursed one another. Under Musgrave’s leadership for over twenty months, they banded together and remained civilized through the most terrifying and dark days. In the end they planned and executed an astonshing escape by building their own boat that they used to sail to safety.

Both of these leaders one the same Island at the same time faced the same challenge. One of these leaders failed his men and fell apart, the other inspired his team, weathered remarkably harsh conditions and brought them all home safely..is there anything we can learn from this in the context of the schools of leadership we mentioned earlier?

Firstly I think we can conclude that it is not the situation that makes the leader, but rather the opposite. On Auckland Island in 1864 it was most definitely the case that it was the difference in leaders that made the situation. In Musgraves crew resources were shared (even  the private tobbacco of Captain Musgrave). There was no case of pulling rank. In contrast Dalgrano and his first mate c forced the junior deck boys to fetch them food and water, and were more content to drink water from the boys boots, than move themselves to go and get it themselves. Similarly, when the resourceful and ingenious Robert Holding had came up with a new way of catching fish and was able to seize a big catch, his request from the first mate to help him carry it to camp to share with others was refused. He was even threaten at a knife point by Andrew Smith, the first mate, when refusing to go outside and fetch him some roots to eat. The situation faced by the two crew, although not pefectly identical, was as similar as one could imagine. Thus, differences in their fates need to be expalined in another way.

Secondly we can conjecture, probably convincingly, that the situation on Auckland Island did not require any advanced cognitive abilities . It is likley that all that was required to survive on Auckland was to solve three simple problems, morale, shelter and food. ‘Executive Inteligence’ cannot accountfor these differences? Captain Dalgarno was capable seaman, otherwise, he would have not been put in charge of the mighty Invercauld. Survival on Auckland Island did not require complex decision making. It required effective coordination and motivation of  a team so that the team output is greater than the sum of the individual inputs – simple and basic leadership skills. Druett’s account of events makes it clear that what the test of leadership in the sub-antartic came down to was not intellect but character.

The conclusion then that we are drawn to I that since all other things are equal that the personal style of the two leaders was the deciding factor that made all the difference. Dalgrano stuck rigidly to his idea of rank and remoteness and failed to rally his men. Musgrave, on the other hand, shared his own tobacco, showed personal bravery and made a direct impact on morale. Dalgrano on the other hand preferred his private despair.

Dalgrano also failed to move swiftly, leaving his men at the mercy of the winds for 5 days with no plan and precious little shelter. Musgrave in complete contrast secured shelter and food and wrmth and clearly had a determined goal to survive from the very outset.

Classical experimental theory suggets that if two groups are exposed to the same conditions, then differences in groups’ outcomes can be attributed to differences between the groups – i.e., the group make-up. In experimental terms, this meant controlling for a situational differences. Thus, if the situational explanation is valid, we can expect similar outcomes or fate for these two stranded parties. As their fortunes were very different, we can only conclude that individual differences – i.e., personality and leadership style – are the key explanation to their differing fates.

As the fate of these shipwrecked mariners shows, much of the success and failure that we endure together hangs on the character of our leaders. When the winds around our organisations blow cold and harsh and our ship goes aground it is that character that may make the difference between building a new boat to sail to success or consuming ourselves in cannabalism.


Druett, J. (2007). Island of the lost: Shipwrecked at the edge of the world. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

From the Southland News 29th July 1865
Remarkable Escape from Shipwreck
It has seldom fallen to our lot as journalists to record a more remarkable instance of escape from the perils of shipwreck, and subsequent providential deliverance from the privations of a desolate island, after a two years’ sojourn, than that we have now to furnish. Captain Musgrave, formerly of the Grafton, brigantine, from Sydney, in November, 1863, has arrived in Invercargill, and has furnished us with the particulars of the wreck of his vessel in one of the inlets of the Auckland Islands on the 3rd January, 1864. He reports that having been unsuccessful in the sealing expedition – the object of his voyage – he left Campbell’s Island, with the intention of returning at once to Sydney, but subsequently determined to renew the attempt at the Auckland Islands, and entered into one of the sounds there on the last day of the year 1863, and got to anchorage next morning. A heavy gale came on, which increased in fury until it became a perfect hurricane, continuing to midnight of the 2nd January, 1864, when the anchor chains parted, and the vessel almost immediately struck upon a rocky beach, and within a few minutes was nearly full of water. Providently all hands, four men in addition to the captain, were able to get safe ashore, and to secure from the wreck nearly all the articles likely to prove of service to them. The vessel having been provisioned only for a two months’, the supply of provisions was but scanty, and the country on which they were cast was barren and inhospitable. To detail the hardships undergone by the little band suring their two years’ seclusion in the desolate spot, their only food being seals’ flesh, and their drink water. is a task for which no one who has not passed through a somewhat similar phase of suffering, is at all competent.

With the imperfect shelter afforded by a tent formed of portions of the spars and sails of the wreck, their employment being that of killing seals to sustain their own lives, and the monotony of their existence being only varied by an occasional climbing to the tops of the mountains in hope of discovering a sail, they were buoyed up with the probability of their discovery by some vessel which might be sent in search of them. This hope, however failed them, and at length Captain Musgrave, the mate of the Grafton, and one of the seamen, determined to make an effort to reach some inhabited land in a boat which they constructed for the purpose, by enlarging the ship’s dingy (13ft), using the few tools – Insufficient for the purpose – which they had been able to save from the wreck. The remaining two seaman preferred to continue on the island, trusting to the probability of assistance being rendered by the safe arrival of the captain and the other two at some port. Had they wished to come away, the cockle shell of a boat in which the venture had to be made was incapable of carrying them, in addition to the three who had already decided on the attempt. The frail craft was so leaky as to require incessant pumping to keep her afloat, and for five days and nights did these brave men unremittingly battle with the winds and waves, sustained by the hope of life and the prospect of deliverance. On the morning of the sixth day, the little party reached Port Adventure in safety, where they were fortunately immediately seen and received by Captain Cross of the Flying Scud, who hospitably entertained them, and subsequently brought them on to Invercargill in his own vessel. On their arrival here, with the benevolence characteristic of the British merchant, the case of the suffers was taken in hand by John M’Pherson, Esq., and a subscription set on foot for chartering and furnishing a vessel to proceed at once to the Auckland Islands for the delivery of the two seaman still remaining there.

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Damage Limitation

by Dr Tuvia Melamed on Jan.24, 2010, under Articles

Preventing Liability and Derailment

Dr Tuvia Melamed

ClearWater A&D
to download a pdf copy click here

After being extradited to the remote Elba Island in 1814, Nahpoleon did not waste time feeling a sense of remorse for the half-million French families mourning their lost ones who died in the Napoleonic Wars. What history books provide us with is a detailed account of a relentless leader planning his comeback with devastaiting effects for the French nation. Using this anecdote and other examples, this paper explores the dynamics of executive derailment, and offers pragmatic ways to minimise the potential damage that weaknesses bring about.

Everyone is looking for people with the potential to be successful – but for most roles, the potential of getting it wrong, can outweigh the benefits of high potential. In many cases, those who ended up being a major liability, gave an impressive initial impression associated with drive, ambition, potential and high capability.

How about Nick Leeson? Barings Bank’s golden boy whose unsupervised dealing resulted in the sale of the 200-year establishment for £1.

Remember Gerald Ratner, the entrepreneur who set the multi-million jewellery business, and in one statement (“People say. ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap”) an estimated £500m was wiped from the value of the company.

Likewise, in August 2007, British Airways were fined £270 million after admitting that one of its senior managers tried to collude with Virgin Atlantic over fuel surcharges and price-fixing on cargo flights.

Think about these ‘walking time bombs’. In many cases it would be difficult to stop them ticking, simply because they display qualities that are associated with success and high performance. Many manage to slip through the net, disguised as high performers, and you don’t find out how disruptive, or even destructive they could be, until it is too late…

This article is about understanding those hidden negative attributes and preventing them emerging to the surface and becoming a liability.

The Practice of Leadership Development

I have been running leadership development and coaching programmes for nearly 20 years. When I started, the common focus of such programmes was around addressing deficiencies. Executives and leaders looked to the coach or the facilitator for a quick fix – How can I become more assertive? How can I turn into a visionary leader? What do I need to do to show more charisma and exert my authority? How can I transform my thinking and actions from operational to strategic? …

The domineering notion was that great leaders have certain ‘leader-like’ qualities. Coaching and leadership developments were seen as methodologies of mapping the executive’s profile against this ‘leader-like’ framework, and focusing on closing the gaps between the person’s profile and the ideal profile. The message was “if you keep working away your non-talents, your persistence will pay off in the end”. Superficially this provides a solid, if cliched piece of advice – “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on trying, again and again”. Yet, if the focus of a person’s life is to turn their non-talents to talents, then all they can look for is crushingly frustrating and unfulfilling life.

This approach focused on the negative – on correcting faults, on deficiencies – and as such it had an aura of being politically incorrect. In an era were HR managers taught to replace the term ‘weakness’ with ‘development opportunity’, this negativistic approach run out of steam and became slightly unfashionable. We soon saw the rise of a highly appealing alternative, fashioned by Martin Seligman’s ‘positive psychology’ and Gallop’s strengths builder (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999).

Leadership Development took a different turn. Rather than fixing what is wrong with us, it let us focus most of our efforts on our strengths, learn to better utilise them, gain leverage from them, and realise their full potential. As for the ‘weaknesses’, all we needed to do was damage limitation – i.e., learn few techniques to ensure that these weaknesses do not hinder our progress. In a much-quoted example, Gallop used Tiger Woods as a poster boy for this concept (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). Apparently, Tiger Woods has fantastic long-game – his length with his irons and woods – is an exceptional strength, as is his putting. His ability to chip out of a bunker can be an issue. He is inconsistent compared to other top professionals (ranked 61st on the PGA ’saved sands’.) Consequently, he spends 90% of his training time perfecting his long shot and putting, and only 10% on chipping out of a bunker, ensuring that he does just enough to prevent it becoming an obstacle to achieving his goals – Knowing that what wins him his titles and prize money, is his long and short game.

The ‘positive’ approach quickly caught on and inspired many executives. At last they did not need to worry about their weaknesses, or learn skills that were alien to them. All they had to do was to focus on what they were good at – that sounded to many of them relatively easier, less taxing, and far more fun.

However, the reality of this .positive’ approach was, and is, less promising. All that it created was simply a shift in balance from weaknesses to strengths. Our developed leaders today, are not that much more capable and prepared for their leadership role, than those we encountered 20 years ago. I would like to argue that the reasons for it stem partially from the ways we define weaknesses and what we do about them.

Traditionally, weaknesses are viewed as deficiencies in desired characteristics. Hence, the developmental approach to handle these deficiencies was to teach leaders how to master these skills areas, creating a model for each skill area and practicing and working hard to gain the skill. Assertiveness training is a typical example of the deficiency model. Typically, leaders were trained to internalise and practice a 4-stage process until they mastered it. Doing so, meant in developmental terms, fixing the weakness and turning it into strength. The model stated:

  • Articulate the undesired behaviour displayed by the ‘aggressor’ – “For the last 3 weeks you have been parking in my car parking space”
  • Say what do you want – “I want you to stop parking in my space even if I am not here, or you are just stopping for a short while”
  • Explain why you want it – “This is my property which I’ve purchased, and I feel that you disregard my rights by doing so”.
  • Reiterate what you want – “From now on, I want you not to park in my designated car parking space under any circumstances”.

Although I have simplified the model and neglected some elements (e.g., tone of voice), in its essence, this is what development means when dealing with fixing a deficiency. Although this approach has its place and value, I struggle to see how it delivers the leaders’ expectations of turning a weakness to a talent.

The ‘positive’ approach shifted the balance towards strengths. It did not ignore weaknesses, simply gave them less ‘air time’. As in the case of Tiger Woods training regime, the weakness received just enough attention to warrant that the person can get-by without the need to master it. The focus was on compensating for the deficiency by, and masking it with, the talents and strengths the person does posses. Going back to the assertiveness example, the ‘positive’ approach would emphasise to the non-assertive leader that dwelling on the weakness is the wrong way forward. Better use of their time is identifying ways to fine-tune their strengths, to enable them to get closer to their objectives. As for minimising the negative impact of lack of assertiveness, the ‘Positive’ coach would advocate building on strengths such as ability to articulate ideas and interpersonal charm as ways of allowing the non-assertive leader to influence and shape the behaviour of the ‘aggressor’.

The reality was again somewhat disappointing. Being told to focus on strengths, leaders viewed it as a mandate to ignore or only pay a lip service to managing their weaknesses. As such, leaders may feel better about themselves, but the final outcome was only marginally better.

Ticking Time Bombs

The work of Bob Hogan, Marshall Goldsmith, and Morgan McHall offers a different line of thinking that departs from the definition of weaknesses as deficiencies (Hogan, 2007; Goldsmith, 2007, and McHall, 1998). Although recognising that people may have deficiencies, they prefer to view many weaknesses, as the possession of a negative trait or characteristic that can turn into a liability, rather than as lack of a desired skill. As such, we no longer talk about skills or lack of skills, but about a deeper layer that shapes the way we either utilise or misapply skills. That further emphasise the importance of the application of Damage Limitation as a key part of any personal development.

Consider the following classical case study of Horst W. Schroeder, the former Kellogg Co. President, who was fired after only nine months in role (as reported in the Wall Street Journal nearly twenty years ago (Gibson, 1989)). The German-born Schroeder had been Kellogg’s star for sixteen years. Schroeder started out as a controller in West Germany, and gained valuable cross-functional and cross-cultural exposure and experience, running operations in Europe, and then promoted to run all overseas operations. He consistently achieved impressive results, including successful introduction into North America, regardless of heated opposition of a popular European cereal Mueslix. He demonstrated an insightful understanding of the business and the market, and articulated an engaging corporate vision about growth during times of market share reduction.

With no doubt, Horst Schroeder had plenty of talent. If assessed against leadership competencies, he would have emerged victorious. His outstanding record of accomplishment suggests resilience, willingness to preserve in the face of tough opposition, and strong organisational commitment. His diverse cross-functional and cross-cultural experience and exposure made him a perfect match for the rapidly growing overseas markets. Likewise, his decisiveness coupled with his well-articulated corporate vision serve as a wake-up call for the relatively sleepy and somewhat complacent Midwestern culture of Kellogg. Indeed, if we list all of Horst Schroeder qualities on flipchart, few could predict the turn of events that followed.

The growing body of research and knowledge about executive derailment suggests that managers and executives who derailed brought highly impressive accomplishments and attributes to the fateful job. Hence, focusing on strengths, honing and perfecting them, is not sufficient. Unless, recognising that development is as much about neutralising negative traits (weaknesses) as it is about playing to one’s strengths, many talented executives are like a ticking time-bomb… waiting to explode.

Before exploring ways of defusing these ticking time bomb, it is worthwhile to understand the causes of derailment. There are three inter-dependent sets of factors that emerge within certain circumstances and lead to derailment:

  • Overstretched strengths turn into weaknesses
  • Blind spots matter
  • Success breads arrogance

Overstretched Strengths: Hogan’s outstanding work on the ‘dark-side’ of personality and its explicit link to executive derailment, offers a list of eleven measurable personality attributes, and regard them as overplayed strengths that turn into liabilities. Table #1 offers a list of strengths and their dark side, based loosely around the work of Hogan.

TABLE #1: Strengths Overstretched – The dark-side of Strengths
Enthusiastic – Passionate Excitable; Flippant, blowing hot and cold; Inconsistency; Mood swings; Lacks resilience; Loses heart when things go wrong
Analytical Capacity – Brilliance Devalues others’ contribution; Creates intellectual silos; Cynical; Excessively sceptical; Uses analytical sharpness to block initiatives; Can’t-Do attitude
Consciousness – Quality orientation Risk-averse; Paralysis-by-Analysis; Indecisiveness; Afraid to act; Inclined to create large staffs and over-resource
Results focused – Task oriented Detached; Insensitive; Dictatorial; Harsh; Fails to engage others; Fails to enlist support at crucial times; The sum is no more than the individual parts
Diplomatic Skills – Political Astuteness Manipulative; Passive-Aggressive; Too slick; Creates hidden agendas; Operates to own (covert) agenda; Untrustworthy; Does not address issues directly
Self-confidence – Leader Like Qualities Egocentric; Narcissistic; Believes own press; Fails to learn from mistakes; Wins at all costs to the business’s determent; Climbs on ‘dead bodies’ to reach top
Action oriented – Decisiveness Reckless; Impulsive; Lacks reflection; Confuses activity with productivity; Underplays quality for quantity; Takes unnecessary risks
Communication Skills – Influencing skills Prima-Donna; Superficial; Lacks substance; Emphasises form over function; Refuses to accept responsibility for mistakes; Creates a ‘blame culture’
Innovation – Strategic Capacity Airy-fairy; Unrealistic, Impractical; Wastes organisational resources; Sends the organisation on a fanciful ‘goose chase’; Misses on local markets
Diligence – Integrity and Values Control-freak; Cannot grow the business beyond a certain level; Holier than thou attitude; Rigid; Imposes personal standards on others
Customer-focused – Dutifulness Spineless; Can’t create breakthrough; Can’t control costs; Too conservative; Over-promises – Under delivers; Lacks independent judgement

Blind Spots Matter: The American Guru of executive coaching, Marshall Goldsmith, views weaknesses as bad habits that at some point become beyond mere irritation. These are flaws that were overlooked or laid dormant for long periods, in light of outstanding results or compensating strengths, but become central in the context of new circumstances.

Weaknesses do catch up. In his study of derailed executive, McHall identified insensitivity as the most commonly reported flaw amongst derailed executives, and one of the sharpest differentiators between derailed and successful executives (McHall, 1998).

Going back to our case study, Gibson (1989) describes Horst Schroeder as domineering, demanding, abrasive, unwilling to listen, abrupt, and intolerant of dissent. Yet, a highly impressive 16-year record of accomplishments overlooked these. It was not until he stumbled as president and needed the support of his subordinates that his alleged treatment of others became his nemesis.

Power, dominance, and intimidation can produce compliance, but also create enemies along the way – a horde of disgruntled employees, each keeping an account of all the times they have been mistreated, eagerly waiting to see the fall from grace of their aggressor. When the time is right, they cash on all these mistreatments, through lack of support at crucial junctures, passive aggressive acts, and counter-productive activities. Organisations are willing to excuse behavioural flaws as long as they get the desired results. Yet, at executive levels, alienating others is a recipe for a disaster, ensuring that good results are not sustained over time.

Goldsmith lists no less than twenty-one of behavioural habits that prevent successful leaders’ progress beyond their current position. The one that captures the notion of ‘Blind Spots Matter’, is what he calls ‘an excessive need to be me’. It relates to innate personal attributes that result in an ingrained set of behaviours, both positive and negative, that we think of as our inalterable essence – our identity.

If you are what I call a ‘last-minute.com person’ (– i.e., chronically disorganised, poor at attending appointments at time or meeting deadlines, struggles to run projects to schedule, does everything at the last minute, and never plans properly) – you mentally give yourself a pass every time you fail to meet others’ time expectations. “Hey, that’s me,” you tell yourself. “I have other qualities that compensate for it. It is part of my charm.” You find justifications and rationales for it – “Disorganisation is a sign of genius; of creativity”; “sometimes you need to take longer than planned” or “at times you need to go of on a tangent before you can find the right direction”. To change your habits would be going against the deepest, truest part of your being – going against the grain – It would be inauthentic.

Likewise, if you are a relentless procrastinator who habitually ruins other people’s timetables, you are doing so because you are true to yourself. You are exercising your right to be yourself. Over time, it becomes easy for you to cross the line and begin making a virtue of your flaws – simply because the flaws constitute what you think of as your identity. This misguided loyalty to our true natures – this ‘excessive need to be me’ – is the toughest obstacle to behavioural change, and is at the essence of a Blind Spot that matters.

Given the obvious danger that weaknesses pose, it raises the question why don’t people, particularly the talented ones, correct their weaknesses before they cause havoc? Why don’t they engage in damage limitation? The most obvious reason is that they haven’t yet been hurt by them. Because of the confidence generated by success and demonstrated strengths, it is easy to dismiss them as unimportant. Yet it goes deeper than that, and that leads to our third set of factors associated with derailment, namely, arrogance.

Success Breads Arrogance:Self-confidence that is a key ingredient in success can grow bloated by the success that fed it. A common feature of executives who derailed is that their confidence turned into arrogance. Many develop an ‘untouchable’ self-belief. While this adds to their charisma, it also instils a false sense of security. When challenged, it can result in poor judgement based on inflated assessment of own capability, and as in the case of Nick Leeson,  bringing down the executive and the whole business. Like Napoleon who believed that he can march to Moscow, because nobody can stop the unbeatable French army, or Hitler that repeated the same mistake over a century later, the consequences can be dire.

Hogan (2007) refers to executive arrogance as a narcissistic tendency. His description is of a self-confident person who seems fearless when facing difficult tasks, and will take charge in social situations. An executive with high career aspirations, who seeks leadership positions in every assignment, and gets annoyed if they are not forthcoming. Their superiors are impressed by their drive and energy. However, their confidence may exceed their performance capacity. They tend to overestimate their abilities and competencies, assumes they have the right answers and do not seek others’ input. Take more credit for success than is fair, and refuse to accept responsibility for failures. Their aggressive style may intimidate subordinates, possibly leading them to surround themselves with people who agree with them. They are hierarchical, feel entitled to leadership positions and demand to be treated with respect.

So strong is this arrogance and refusal to accept responsibility for failure that most executives  fail to learn from mistakes. Instead of repentance, or attempt to engage in damage limitation, they blame everyone else than themselves. Believe that they will get it right next time.

History books do not tell us about Napoleon feeling suicidal after being forced to abdicate to the remote Elba Island. Nor do they tell us about a sense of shame or guilt for initiating the invasion of Russia campaign that wrecked the French ‘Grand Armée’. Likewise, there is no account of a sense of remorse for the estimated half-million French families mourning their lost ones. What history books tell us is that while in exile, he ran Elba as a little country; he created a tiny navy and army, opened some mines, and helped farmers improve their land. However he became restless, and planed his comeback. Within a year he returned to France and regained control of the government in the Hundred Days (les Cent Jours) prior to his final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

The same applies to Gerald Ratner and Nick Leeson. The first re-launched as GeraldOnline, the UK’s largest online jeweller, retailing “high quality” jewellery at discounted prices. Whereas as the second re-built his career on the back of the devastation caused to Barring Bank, emerging as a book writer, and a regular guest on the after-dinner speaking circuit.

How about O. J. Simpson, who planned to launch a book and a TV series named ‘If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened’, which puts a new spin on the link between arrogance and the term ‘getting away with murder’?

And what happened to Horst Schroeder, can the same set of factors be applied to him as well? – Read the following extract (box #1) from the Associated Press (2006) and judge for yourself

Box #1: On Success, Arrogance, and Weaknesses that Matter
Schroeder quits American Italian board – January 27, 2006KANSAS CITY, Mo. – American Italian Pasta Co. said Friday that former Chairman Horst Schroeder has resigned from the company’s board of directors… Schroeder was named chairman in 1991 when he came to American Italian from Kellogg Co.The move comes a week after an amended federal lawsuit claimed Schroeder and a number of other current and former company executives used various accounting and operations tricks to hide the company’s declining finances from shareholders. Among the schemes was hiding excess inventory in warehouses, repackaging product past its expiration date and improperly accounting for some capital expenditures…Earlier this week, the company’s stock lost 41% of its value in a single day after an analyst downgraded the stock on worries about the lawsuit. Shares lost 8 cents to close at $3.43 Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.The stock has lost 84% of its value since August, when the company disclosed that its audit committee had begun an internal investigation into the company’s accounting and that it couldn’t release third-quarter numbers. In October, it told investors not to rely on financial reports going back to 2002.

The Developmental Approach

The common approach to development evolves around the development of counter behaviours – i.e., changing the negative trait and turning it into a positive one. For example, let us say that you are a high-achiever, focused, decisive, self-starting, low-maintenance, and a hard-working individual. One that does not suffer fools gladly, and hates wasting time picking up the pieces dropped by less purposeful individuals. You are perceived as a high-power manager, but also as direct, blunt, harsh, and insensitive. People respect and fear you, but do not necessarily view you as a nice person. You reach the painful realisation that you can achieve more by getting people on your side, and decide to change peoples’ perception about you. Hence, you decide, “I need to become a far nicer person”. How would you go about it?

The ‘counter-behaviour’ approach advocates that you start engaging in a series of ‘nice-person’ type behaviours, and try to turn them into daily habits. Coaches subscribing to this approach will work with you on building habits such as:

  • Having a Monday morning meeting as the first activity of the week, where you invite all your direct reports to a 20-minute informal chat over coffee (that you prepare for all) to update them on business matters
  • Spending everyday 20 minutes ‘walking the floor’ and doing nothing in particular, beside talking to people, showing personal interest in them, and making yourself available
  • Giving three unconditional complements every day to your colleagues, from simple statement like “I like your tie”, to more business-related comments such as “I heard you gave an excellent presentation yesterday, well done”.
  • Starting every day by approaching each of your immediate colleagues with a smile, a bright “Good Morning”, and an informal, “How do you do?”

Knowing the person you are such coaches will probably ask you to keep a daily record (probably in the form of an Excel spreadsheet) of all these small behaviours, and email the spreadsheet to them every Friday, as a way of monitoring your behavioural change.

While this target-driven coaching might appear appealing from the outset, it is a daunting assignment. It requires you to master a very long list of positive actions, to enhance your self-awareness, and worst of all, to behave against your common nature. From a person who prides themselves of being focused and low-maintenance, you find yourself ‘wasting’ your valuable working hours on niceties that cause your workload to build up. In a sense, when adopting the ‘counter-behaviour’ approach, you are asked to engage in a ‘personality transplant’ – converting all the negative things you do at work into positive actions. This is asking a lot from most people. It is hard enough to try and change a single habit, let alone a whole raft of actions. Doing so means that you set yourself to failure. All it takes is a bit of pressure and stress at work, and you will drop one by one the good intentions and the ‘nice person’ behaviours, and will revert to your old self.

Fortunately, there is far more efficient and effective manner to meet the objective of becoming a ‘nicer person’. It builds on the view of weaknesses as the possession of a negative trait or characteristic that can turn into a liability. I call it ‘Damage Limitation’. With ‘Damage Limitation’, you don’t have to try becoming a nice person, all that you have to do is stop being not nice. This is not a semantic psycho-bubble. It is conceptually different. It is very different thing to STOP doing negative actions, than to start engaging in positive ones. ‘Damage Limitation’ will not turn you into ‘Mr. Nice Guy’, but it will prevent your nasty streak costing you heavily. Soon people will pigeonhole you in their mind using your strong attributes. The ‘being nice’ attributes will not feature there, neither in a positive nor in a negative way. – Thus, if in the past people would have branded you “a tough, ambitious, high-flyer, who climbs on dead bodies to reach the top”, they will now refer to you as “hard-working, focused, high-achiever – someone you can trust to deliver”.

‘Damage Limitation’ does not require much. You don’t have to constantly think of coming with new ways of being nice to people you don’t rate. You don’t have to design and keep tedious daily routines as a make-up hiding the personality imperfections you wish to cover. You don’t have to remember to say nice things, dish out phoney complements, and tell little white lies. All you have to do is … do nothing at all.

  • When someone challenges you, rather than biting their head off, arguing with them,  proving that you are cleverer than them, or being defensive, all you have to do is … nothing. Listen, consider what they have said (they might even have a point), and say … nothing.
  • When someone makes an incompetent suggestion, don’t criticise it or them, don’t pass comments on their naivety, say … nothing.
  • When someone offers a brilliant idea, do not get competitive, don’t claim that this is simply a re-hash of earlier ideas you made, don’t try to hijack their idea, don’t let everyone else know that you already knew that. Thank them, and say … nothing.

The beauty of this approach is that it is easy to apply. You simply need to know what to stop. You might feel the first couple of times that you have to ‘bite your tongue’, and may need to convince yourself that you are not losing your edge, or becoming ‘a softie’. This is not the case, you simply ‘stop behaving like a jerk’. Given the choice between starting being nice, or ceasing being a bully, the second option is far easier. The first requires a concentrated effort of adding acts; the later is nothing more than omitting acts. No need to polish your skills, perfect your mannerisms, train or practice. All that is required is the faint imagination to stop doing what you have done in the past – simply, do nothing at all.


  • Associated Press (2006). Schroeder quits American Italian Board. January, 26. http://www.boston.com/business/articles
  • Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First Break All The Rules. Simon & Schuster, London.
  • Buckingham, M. & Clifton, R. O. (2001). Now Discover Your Strengths. Schuster & Schuster, London.
  • Gibson, R. (1989). ‘Personal Chemistry’. Abruptly Ended Rise of Kellogg President. Wall Street Journal, November 28, A1, A8.
  • Goldsmith, M. (2007). What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. Hyperion, New York.
  • Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the Fate of Organizations. LEA, Mahwah, New Jersey.
  • McHall, W. M. Jr. (1998). High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders. Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA

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