How to avoid the dark side of leadership (and keep your job)

Empathy will boost your career, but it's very easy to lose once you become the boss. And then the trouble starts...

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Aug 2016
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Your Career

There was a time when leaders were expected to have a certain degree of appendage-swinging machismo. After all, without aggression how could you possibly be expected to control subordinates, intimidate suppliers or drive a hard bargain with customers?

Thankfully ‘dark side’ CEOs like that have next to disappeared, because everyone else has figured out they’re not actually very effective (well, usually – Steve Jobs was a tough cookie, but he was the exception rather than the rule).

Instead – alongside the obligatory ambition, creativity, temperament, talent and work ethic - what is increasingly propelling people to the pinnacle of corporate leadership is empathy.

Picking up on how others think and feel is an essential skill in business, from motivating teams and defusing conflicts to encouraging innovation and negotiating deals. It's also comes in handy when trying to avoid career-shattering ethical 'misjudgements'. 

But empathy is not a constant quality, like height. Your levels change depending on social context and experience – and unfortunately being a leader can have a distinct shrinking effect.

‘Being placed in a position of leadership tends to diminish people’s ability to empathise,’ says Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley and author of The Power Paradox. With that goes the capacity for compassion and the skill of treating others with respect.

‘It’s a case of power corrupts, but with a psychological twist. Feeling powerful shifts our focus away from others, and their interests and emotions, to our own self-interest and desire, and the paths to gratify those interests.’

Don’t be evil

Now there’s a leadership trap for you. You replace the shouty, sergeant-major-esque CEO of the previous generation by virtue of your empathy, only for power to turn you into something just as horrible and ineffective yourself.

So what can you do if you find yourself slipping to leadership’s dark side, other than buy a black cape and a walking cane with a skull on it?

Thankfully, being mindful of the problem is half the battle. Now all you have to do is get yourself into some good habits.

‘Make it a practice to listen and empathise with force,’ says Keltner. ‘Ask great questions, don’t interrupt, orient your body to those speaking, let others always speak up first.’ Making a point of expressing public gratitude for what people have done well could be helpful too.

Leaving it all up to you might be misguided, however. You may trust yourself, but that’s no excuse not to build accountability into your organisation, just in case.

‘It is important for the actions and decision-making of leaders to be scrutinised and evaluated by those they lead. To the extent that there are means of commentary by which subordinates and colleagues can comment upon leaders, abuses of power are less likely,’ says Keltner.

With a little care, you can stay on the side of light – and employment. So be nice.

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