Have you ever explored the dark side of your leadership?

Whether you are super stressed over a work deadline or worked up over a heated discussion, you can have control of how you react under intense situations.

Steffan Surdek
October 18, 2021
Dark side leadership

People often talk about leadership as this positive inspirational force or attitude. We tend to forget that leaders are human beings though and sometimes, they have a dark side too.

I first heard about the dark side of leadership through Dave Logan a long time ago. The concept stayed with me and I like to talk about it every once in a while with clients.

This article will explore the dark side of leadership: What is it and how can you become more aware of it to better reign it in.

What is the dark side of leadership?

The dark side of your leadership appears in those times where as a leader, you don't show up in your best light. It represents the negative parts of you that can show up when you are dealing with frustration, stress or anger.

For some, these parts may lash out on others in an almost visceral way. You know when it happens and you may also feel guilt or shame when it does. As a leader, you feel this way because you know you can be a better person than that.

For others, these parts may show up in how you react to certain people around you. When certain words or behaviours people use trigger you (especially when it is always the same person), it can be a sign they are showing you parts of yourself that you do not like. You may be blind to the fact that you say or do these exact same things, but you do not like this trait and this is why it triggers you.

My dark side can have a vengeful streak. Despite working on being the best leader I can be and letting a lot slide, the streak is still there. The times when people hurt me in an intense way, the anger can drive me to do bad things to get back at them.

How can you manage the dark side?

Developing awareness of your dark side, its triggers and how it appears is the first step to reign it in. As long as you are unaware of it, it will remain a visceral thing for you.

I often tell the leaders that I work with that awareness is not about changing one behaviour for another. Awareness is about noticing the triggers, seeing them in action and making a choice:

"This conversation is triggering me right now. Do I want to take this action or get out of the discussion?"

You need strong anchors as well to allow you to reign in your dark side. One of these anchors can be your core values, another one can be to have a prime directive.

Your core values are what you live and breathe every day. They define you as a person and guide you in your actions. Your prime directive is your overall guiding principle. For doctors for example, this would be the Hippocratic oath.

Let's make this concrete with a story

A few years ago, I was having a hard conversation with a friend and colleague of mine. We were talking about a mandate we were working on and the deliverables he was producing. The conversation turned ugly. My colleague questioned my character, integrity and even my ability to be human. The conversation crushed me and I could not believe what I was hearing. All this over a deliverable this person was not producing, and I was there trying to do the right thing for our client.

Because of the sensitivity of the topic, I had decided to come into the discussion with a prime directive. The irony is that my directive was "Listen and do no harm". So I listened as best I could and took what was coming my way without fighting back.

At the time, I was very angry at myself for sitting there and creating the space for this person to tell me all this. I could almost hear my dark side whispering in my ear: "Feel the rage... Feel the anger... Give in to the dark side..."

But my directive is what guided me to stay calm in the conversation despite how I was feeling in that moment. I did my best to not let my anger take over and keep the discussion as healthy as I could.

Later, my dark side thought about my next conversation with this person on this topic. It shared with me how to handle it in a way where this person would never ever hurt me again.

It took me a week to have a follow-up conversation with him. During that time, I pondered how the next conversation should go and how I should prepare for it. I came in the next discussion with the intention of speaking my truth about what happened last time.

The second conversation we had was a lot more productive. I was happy in the end that I did not give into the original desires of my dark side to be equally mean and aggressive.


Remember that everyone has a dark side to themselves or even their leadership. This dark side can lead you to do things which may be out of character. The more you try to bottle it up, the more outrageous the way it will show up.

The dark side of your leadership appears when you are experiencing anger, stress or frustration. It is a part of you that you are not proud of showing to others, but you know it exists.

Awareness is the first step to reigning your dark side. Learning to see your triggers in action will help you act in a more intentional way.

Your dark side can sometimes be your friend too. You need to learn to dance with your dark side, play with it, channel its energy and use it in productive ways.

What does the dark side of your leadership look like? What are the triggers for it? What could you do differently to reign it in or harness its power in a productive way?