The Dark Side of Leadership

Posted by in Keynote, productivity, workshops | 2 comments

We all have a leadership role of one form or another. Many of us are leaders in our organizations.  We have management responsibilities that require us to effectively lead people as individuals, in teams, or across the entire enterprise. Some of us hold leadership roles in our communities, churches, homeowners associations, or volunteer groups. And, of course, there are the leadership roles we have at home, as parents, manager’s household budgets, or vacation planners. Like it or not, we are counted on to be effective leaders at work, at home, and in life!

Early ‘Leadership’ training

As far back as I can recall I seem to have liked the idea of being a leader. When I was six years old I volunteered to take the lead as George Washington in a play to be given for the entire school. “This is good”, I thought. I got lots of attention, I’m special, this felt great! At home, one role I adopted early on was that of ‘the good son’. What could I do to as the youngest of three kids to prove myself, feel some power, or get noticed?  Of course, when you’re a kid you’re not really fulfilling a leadership role as much as you’re trying to dominate or avoid the domination of your siblings or parents.

My first ‘official’ leadership role happened when I was nineteen.  I did some volunteer work with a hunger relief organization, giving me an opportunity to run meetings and do some fund-raising.  My intentions were good, help the hungry. There was, however, a dark side to my need for being the leader. Although I would not or could not have acknowledged this at the time; I loved the feeling of having some power over other people. I could tell them what to do and I really liked that!

Okay, so what? Don’t we all go through similar kinds of experiences growing up?  What does any of this have to do with my capacity as a leader now? Let’s examine the correlation.

“Consider the idea that there is a  correlation between the decisions and meaning you have ascribed to being a leader in the past and your current capacity to lead effectively in the present.”

By the time I turned twenty my ‘idea’ of leadership was already formed. For me, leadership was a way to feel loved and accepted; taking the lead in life was also a strategy for avoiding the domination of others. Being a leader became a way of insulating myself from my fears and insecurities about not being good enough, strong enough, or smart enough. I could always ‘use’ leadership in an attempt to feel the power that I really didn’t have. That is, until now.

Thirty three years later….

Recently, I was offered the role as the leader for a Men’s Group that I helped to form. I felt honored by the offer and graciously accepted. Our group is relatively small with less than fifteen members, meeting twice monthly. We encourage and support each other to share openly and honestly about our feelings, fears, and the unique challenges we face as men.  I have really enjoyed the support of our group and have, for the most, part looked forward to getting together. That is, until I became the leader.

At first I felt pretty good about my new role as the group leader.  “Wow, these guys accept and trust me enough to lead our meetings and facilitate the group.” “This is great!” It was not that long after, however, that those positive feelings faded away and I began to feel afraid, somewhat unsure of myself, and a little insecure.

Actually, I started to feel really insecure. But, why should I be feeling any of this? After all, we’ve been meeting as group for several months, speaking openly, and building trust.  I’m not talking about leading people into battle or quarterbacking the team in the Super Bowl.  I’m not talking about being the CEO of some major corporation with millions of dollars at stake, having to answer to board members, executives, or stockholders!

So then why am I feeling so different? What’s changed? What’s happening to me and my relationship with my Men’s Group? Oh yeah,… I’ve become the leader!

As the newly appointed leader I’m aware that I’m questioning my motivations.  Will I try and dominate the group? Will I be passive so that I don’t upset anyone? Will the spoiled brat in me start raging, like I did when I was a child in order to get what I want?  Or worse, what if I try really hard to be a really genuine, effective leader but I’m wrong with my leadership? What if nobody says anything about it? I could wind up alienating everyone, alone, isolated and paranoid.  Awful!

At first, the irony of being in a support group in which I’m having so many negative feelings was lost on me. One of the main reasons I had for being in this group was so that I could genuinely open up about my feelings – feelings I normally keep to myself, guarded, and in the dark.

Then the light went on! It is because I am in this support group that I’m able to bring this awareness to my role as a leader, bringing a new awareness to past based, out dated, ineffective strategies. I could now share my need to dominate or avoid domination; I could be open about my need to use leadership as a way feeling some power, or feeling good about myself.

I really don’t want to admit this but I also realize now that I have used everyone and everything in my life to try and feel good about myself. Being the leader was one more way for me to look good, feel good or dominate others. I understand now that if I am really going to make a difference or have a real, lasting and positive impact as leader, it starts with being really honest and forthright about the stuff I don’t want to share and shine some light on the dark side of leadership.

Thankfully, our Men’s Group is designed to allow us to bring those feelings into the light and out of hiding. Grounded in principles of self-compassion and compassion for each other, the brotherhood we have created allows us to work through our negative feelings and ‘dark secrets’ without having to hide in shame or pretend they don’t exist.

Transformed leadership, beyond self interest

Since I began sharing some of these insights with my group my relationship with leadership has transformed. I am able to lead beyond my need to dominate, gain a false sense power, or get attention in order to feel good about myself.  I feel more grounded, like a whole person, with the kind of strength and real power that comes from a deeper understanding of self and of what it means to lead beyond self interest.

We could all benefit tremendously if we could have more compassion for ourselves and share some of the underlying feelings we face in our role as leaders.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could be really honest about the fear, shame, or anxiety we experience?  What if we could get beyond our fears about appearing weak or looking stupid? How could that transform our experience as a leader and your ability to lead?

We can truly support and empower each other by shining some light on the dark side of leadership.

One aspect of effective leadership is the willingness to do some serious introspection, asking questions that may provide insights, some of which we might not like! What about you?

  • When did you first lead? How old were you?
  • What was your experience?
  • What decisions did you make about being a leader?
  • What meaning did you attach to being a leader?
  • What leadership roles do you currently have?
  • In which of those roles do you feel most empowered?
  • In which of those roles do you feel least empowered?
  • What are you not saying or afraid to reveal regarding your leadership?
  • What do you struggle with or stress about with the groups you are leading?
  • How have you undermined other leaders?
  • How has that impacted your ability to lead effectively?
  • Do you harbor fears about others undermining you?
  • Am I working for the highest good of my team or am I working for my own self preservation?
  • If my life is about something beyond my own self interest, what does that mean?
  • Do you have the courage, strength or emotional stability to stay in the struggle in order to be an effective leader in life?

Effective leadership demands that we deal with these questions openly and honestly. Who will you share your insights with? Who won’t you share your insights with and why not? After all, the people you lead are, no doubt, facing similar challenges and having very similar feelings! They are counting on our leadership to motivate, empower, and inspire them. We all need the support and encouragement to lead effectively – beyond our fears and self interests- in order to grow up from where we are.

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition.It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”   Barack Obama


  1. Wow, Jerry!!! How courageous of you to reveal your self in a way that helped me relate and connect “to dealing with life on life’s terms” like we all do as men.
    I have to admit that my initial reaction (internally in my head, at least) was more like: so what does this guy have to say that needs to be blogged? Here’s someone else jumping on the blog fad-wagon. Not exactly coming from a place of inquiry or openness, was I?
    Then I began to read your piece and found myself engaged by your thoughtfulness and candid discussion and self- revelations that so resonated with me. Thanks for helping me ask myself how my child-like perceptions of leadership can be transformed into a much more genuine and real response to my life’s challenges at home, in the world of work, and with other men.
    Your article resonated with me deeply and helped me debunk much of my years of self-perceived uniqueness. I am that and more. Thanks for keeping it real and helping me on my spiritual quest. It is comforting to know there are men out there like you. I am indeed fortunate to be a member of the same Men’s Group with a brother who wants to what’s right for the highest good of all.
    Peace & love,

  2. Richard, thanks for your feedback! I feel really good that you could relate and found some value. Let’s keep supporting each other!

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