How to recognise the dark side of intensity

Sometimes, charm and charisma go bad and become coercion and manipulation. Here's how to spot the warning signs.

by Kate Lanz
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Leaders are often intense people, creating a sense of excitement and a laser beam focus on delivering a goal. Intensity makes them energising to be around, galvanises their teams and focuses people’s minds on winning. 

Intense leaders are a source of motivation and inspiration, especially when there’s plenty of growth around. Intensity is an addictive emotion and leaders get an exhilarating sense of authority and control when they act as a source of motivation for others. But, like every characteristic, intensity has a dark side that can emerge when times are tough.

Managing the dark side is critical for these leaders. They need to be able to spot the signals and develop self-management strategies to prevent the worst impact of the dark side of intensity.

From challenge to control

When there’s growth, a leader that is challenging and looks to stretch performance is often respected by their team. When there’s a reduction in budgets and times get tough, challenge can often segueway into control with unrealistic demands. This can leave the team feeling demotivated and micro-managed.

From team to individual

When there’s little room to manoeuvre and the pressure to perform is high, leaders can use their intensity to move from a team focus to an individual focus. As intensity drills downwards individuals feel focused on too strongly and for too long. There’s no room for dilution and a leader will start to burn them out or grind them down.

From drive to push / from exhilaration to effort

There’s an amazing sense of exhilaration that comes from creating zest and drive. When this starts to wane, there’s an unconscious desire to get it back, so the leader pushes harder and harder, almost on autopilot. They are unaware of the resistance that is building up around them. People feel undermined, undervalued and in some cases the braver ones start to push back.

Leadership starts with the real ability to lead oneself first and foremost, before one can lead others.  Goleman in his work on emotional intelligence names the first two components as self-awareness and self-management.   

Understanding the reasons behind intensity can lead to some breakthroughs. These leaders are usually high achievers and ride high on the adrenaline rush created by delivering great results. When this becomes difficult, intensity can begin to run the show.

To manage the dark side of intensity leaders need to learn when and how to dial it down and replace it with other forms of motivation, such as coaching rather than driving team members. Equally, leaders will need to be comfortable with a different pace of action.

Kate Lanz is an executive coach at Lanz Executive Coaching.

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