November 23rd, 2011 | 1:00 pm

What Type of Leader are You?

filed under Expert Answers

KarolWasylyshynContributed by Karol Wasylyshyn, author of Behind the Executive Door: Unexpected lessons for Managing Your Boss and Career

When historians write about business in late 20th and early 21st century America, they will say it was a time of intense leadership scrutiny – not only of executives’ results but of how they achieved them. This focus on leadership behavior has been my life’s work.

Or, in other words, I’ve been in the right place at the right time to deliver on a distinctive value proposition.  Specifically, my integration of a business background and training in clinical psychology has enabled me to provide the behavioral guidance necessary for senior business leaders to thrive and win in a global business climate.

In my consulting experience, thriving and winning in a business climate that has become exponentially more complex and volatile is as much about effective leadership behavior as it is about smarts, industry knowledge, and classic leadership competencies such as strategic thinking and innovation management. Even a cursory examination of the flame-outs of well-known business leaders to include Carly Fiorina, Robert Nardelli, Al (“Chainsaw”) Dunlap, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Tony Hayward and Mark Hurd bear this out.

A few years ago I became intrigued by a couple of questions. First, Do the executives with whom I’ve worked fall into any particular behavior patterns? And second, If they did represent specific behavioral patterns (they did), how could this information be helpful to both them and the people who report to them?

Based on my analysis of 300 executive coaching cases, I identified three distinct behavioral patterns or leadership types that I named Remarkable, Perilous, and Toxic. Subsequent empirical research found these three types to be empirically distinct based on two commonly used psychological tests – one based on the Big Five Factor theory of personality and the other a measure of emotional intelligence.

The Three Leader Types

I used four criteria in the identification of the three leader types – Remarkable, Perilous and Toxic. These criteria were: (1) total brain leadership (TBL) – the ability to integrate left brain analytical problem-solving and right brain interpersonal skill; (2) emotional intelligence (EQ) – self awareness, emotional control, attunement to and empathy for others, and the ability to form relationships that were a combination of transactional and personal; (3) productive narcissism – channeling one’s special talents in the service of the organization; and (4) specific leadership competencies – strategic thinking, driving results, managing people, and executive credibility.

Remarkable leaders met these four criteria consistently well.

Perilous leaders, while as talented as Remarkables, they did not meet these criteria consistently well. The issue that most disrupted their effectiveness was what I refer to as their sense of “unrequited work.” Nothing ever fully satisfied them and this fundamental discontent had cascading and adverse effects on others – especially those who reported to them.

Toxic leaders fell short on all four criteria. Serious psychological issues undermined their cognitive abilities and compromised their relationships. For the most part, their behavior was influenced by getting their own needs met. They could be tempestuous, irrational, and dominant to the point of instilling fear and severe disempowerment in the workplace.

It is important to note that I have not conceived of leaders as being locked into one of these types. Rather, I see them moving along a behavioral continuum among remarkable, perilous, and toxic behaviors. The confluence of work and personal factors can influence rapid shifts along this behavioral continuum. The value of recognizing where a boss is on this continuum is that the direct report can them make the in-the-moment adjustments necessary to influence a productive work atmosphere.

In my recently published book, Behind the Executive Door: Unexpected lessons for Managing Your Boss and Career, I have provided a quick survey for identifying which category a boss most frequently represents. If you are a boss, this may be a helpful tool for assessing your effectiveness – from a behavioral perspective. This could be the catalytic starting point for your taking steps to increase your effectiveness as a leader.

Remarkable leaders can be even more effective than they already are by:

  • Forging reciprocal working relationships with their top performers through which they accelerate results that neither could have achieved on his/her own.
  • Stretching subordinates’ strategic thinking by revealing more of their own, i.e. how you arrive at breakthrough thoughts with important implications for the growth of the company.
  • Helping employees recognize when they are unduly mired in tactical work, and then guiding them toward initiatives that have greater strategic potential.
  • Pointing out when employees are confusing “being busy” with being engaged in work that is actually driving results.
  • Ensuring that you’ve got the right people in the right roles and that you’re creating the right conditions for them to be successful.
  • Being a truth teller when someone is not cutting it in a job – and also being willing to make the tough calls on people sooner rather than later.
  • Insisting on and modeling enterprise thinking and action, i.e., not letting your people get trapped in silo thinking and behavior.
  • Walking the talk on empowerment, i.e. ensuring that your best employees really have the autonomy and creative latitude they deserve.

Perilous leaders can be more effective if they:

  • Make a concerted effort to bask in their accomplishments versus a steady stream of harsh self-criticism or litanies about all the ways something could have been better.
  • Orchestrate team-based discussions of strategy or other key business issues as an antidote to their feelings of isolation and also as a lubricant for increasing collaboration, transparency and trust.
  • Seek feedback from trusted others to ensure an accurate self-appraisal of how one is perceived in the organization.
  • Strive to connect the longest distance in the world: the one between the head and the heart. In short, making a habit of integrating analytical problem-solving based on objective data with a focus for germane people-related issues.
  • Strive to build emotional intelligence (EQ). Unlike IQ, EQ is developable and if this is an issue, seeking coaching to develop this crucial leadership behavior.
  • Seek input from key stakeholders before taking bold actions – stakeholders who will provide a candid litmus test and/or be a reliable set of brakes if needed.
  • Are not unduly concerned about organizational political factors or otherwise have their enterprise-wide instincts thwarted.

Toxic leaders need to recognize:

  • Their erratic, self-centered, imperious and volatile behaviors seriously endanger their ability to retain talented employees, as well as achieving consistent business results.
  • They may need psychological help to manage their volatility and other problematic leadership behavior.
  • Executive coaching may be a helpful development tool – but only if they are truly intentional about changing their bad leadership behaviors. If they are not, this will be a charade and a waste of company resources.

Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, licensed psychologist and executive consultant, is the author of the newly released book BEHIND THE EXECUTIVE DOOR: Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your Boss and Your Career (Springer). She is the founder of the Leadership Development Forum and teaches at the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University. Wasylyshyn has 25-years of experience consulting to C-level executives in international Fortune 500 and privately held companies. Her work has been widely published in books and professional journals and she has lectured at the Wharton School.

7 comments

  1. Sarah

    Smart and timely advice!

  2. Lindsay

    This is such wonderful insight into today’s leaders. I especially appreciate the fact that you see every leader as being on a sliding scale, as opposed to locking people into one “set” of leadership techniques and characteristics. It’s both humbling and motivational to look at your own leadership style and see where different traits fall within those categories. Thank you, Karol!

  3. Kate

    Very insightful article – I think everyone has encountered at least one of Wasylyshyn’s remarkable, perilous, and toxic leaders

  4. Anon

    How does an employee deal with a Toxic Leader?

  5. Janet

    What can leaders do if they want to change their Toxic or Perilous behavior?

  6. BookTrib | What Type of Leader are You? »

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  7. Dina

    Nice post!