Behind the Executive Door

Where personality meets leadership.

The (Painfully) Perilous Boss

Five Steps for Managing A Perilous Leader

Karol Wasylyshyn
Martin was clearly one of the most talented business leaders I'd ever met—super smart, strategic, articulate, and motivational. Had it not been for certain self-limiting behaviors—especially his hair-trigger temper—he could easily have become CEO of a global company. He was once on the very threshold of achieving that lifelong aspiration when his angry, self-righteous outburst at a Board meeting literally scuttled the Directors' decision to appoint him CEO.  Martin left that company immediately and despite all of his leadership assets, he didn't realize his career goal elsewhere. It was as if his reputation—potential for the amygdala hijack—preceded him. I would describe him as distinctly perilous... painfully perilous in that it was he who single-handedly sabotaged his becoming all that he desired to be.

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In my recent book, Behind the Executive Door:  Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your BossI described three leader types—Remarkable, Perilous and Toxic. Based on my analysis of 300 executive coaching cases, a significant majority (60%) of these business executives fell into the Perilous category. Like Martin, these leaders possessed capabilities on a par with those of Remarkable leaders. While they were capable of leading remarkably well at times, underlying issues—especially what I have termed their sense of unrequited work—influenced leadership behavior that was fundamentally more Perilous than Remarkable

Like unrequited love, unrequited work involves something desperately wanted but unrealized. In a career, unrequitedness is fuelled by lost opportunities and the failure to achieve strong work-related  aspirations. One's unrequited sense of work can be manifested in chronic frustration, disappointment, and the envy of more successful others. For those reporting to them, no work effort is ever quite good enough and there is little, if any, affirmation of efforts made to achieve results (see cartoon below). 

In addition to the over-arching theme of unrequited work, there are three factors that contribute to one behaving as a Perilous leader; (1) lack of total brain leadership (TBL), i.e., the failure to integrate left brain rational thinking with right brain interpersonal relationship sensibilities, (2) variable emotional intelligence—especially problems in controlling negative emotions such as anger and, limited empathy for others' personal issues or work-related concerns, and (3) narcissism that is more unproductive than productive, i.e., getting one's own ego needs met transcends leading people in a fair and reasonable manner.

We need to pay attention to Perilous leaders—not just because of how numerous they are or because of the grief they can bring to themselves and others. We need to pay attention to them because they have the potential to be Remarkable—and, our generous efforts can help get them there.

For those of you with a Perilous boss, here are some suggestions that could help you "manage" him/her and thus influence a more productive and positive atmosphere at work:

  • Be overt with your comments about their talents and accomplishments—especially in front of people senior to them in the organization (If it hadn't been for John's marketplace intelligence and quick problem-solving, we could not have trumped the competition the way we did with this product launch ...)
  • Encourage decision-making that is based on a realistic and integrated view of both facts and relevant people issues (Your idea about how we need to re-organize makes business sense but it's not going to be easy to get full alignment especially with some of the senior staff; it would be helpful if you had private discussions with a few of them and make them ambassadors for the change...)
  • Give timely and constructive feedback when the boss says or does things that can have potentially de-moralizing effects (I understand your frustration but the way you blew up in the leadership meeting this morning will probably prevent people from being as transparent as we need them to be right now... make an effort to smooth this over)
  • Alert the boss to personal or work-related issues that may be distracting a key employee and eroding his/her performance; "coach" the boss on what he/she can say or do that would ease the situation (Bob's son was just diagnosed with a serious illness so he's probably going to miss more time from work; it would be helpful if you told him not to worry about it...)
  • Clothe the emperor/empress—let the boss know when he/she has behaved in a manner that is perceived as more self-serving than in the interest of the team and/or organization (You probably don't want to hear this but I need to tell you that people believe your push for these results is more about you getting your next promotion. It could help if you acknowledged how hard everyone is working right now...)

Remember: If you are successful in helping your boss (or yourself?) be less Perilous, this has implications for improving his/her overall effectiveness, your happiness, and the success of the company. 

Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn is a licensed psychologist, executive consultant and author of Behind The Executive Door: Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your Boss and Career.

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