Dr Erik de Haan Monday, October 28, 2019

The modern executive can no longer leave their personality and emotions at home. He or she needs to draw on all of their senses, sensitivity and intuition; and have the courage to speak to others with full conviction, as well as deeply listen to them whilst reading between the lines.

Addressing emotions, handling stress and staying open and receptive under pressure has become, perhaps, the most important success criteria in the 21st century; arguably, leaders need to be creative, receptive, flexible and strong-willed all at the same time.

I am proud that the Dutch version of my book The Leadership Shadow is having a reprint now, five years after it was first published. It is certainly a sign of our times that the hidden and highly personal aspects of leadership are receiving more attention. As argued in this book, leadership is now under much more pressure and scrutiny than it was, say, twenty years ago: positions are no longer fixed and predictable, replacing executives in changing circumstances is the order of the day, and as long as you are “in post” you are under immense pressure. Markets and products are constantly changing, customer expectations are high, and processes are continuously undergoing a radical redesign. Work that was commonplace only a few years ago has now been automated out of existence, and new tasks have taken its place, arising from new products, new legislation, new networks and software, fluctuating markets and emerging opportunities.

Our highly personal responses to stress are much more important for our leadership contribution, and it is increasingly vital to understand how the leadership role slowly but inevitably corrupts us. This book is about these hidden reactions to stress and leadership, at the core of our being. It describes and details the phenomena that we find in leaders, and suggests what we can do about these risks caused by stress and hubris.

For readers of the book, there is important news this year. For the first time, we have found clear and statistically significant evidence that executive coaching really can help with the “shadow side” of leadership. In two meticulous experiments (randomised studies with control groups), we found statistically defensible evidence that coaching is not only appropriate for the resilient, tough, traditional leader but also specifically addresses and mitigates the leadership shadow.

One experiment involved around a hundred business school students who were coached by accredited executive coaches (and another hundred students in the control group). Together with their coaches, they completed extensive questionnaires before and after each of six sessions, and again three months after the end of coaching. Like many other researchers, we found that coaching was an effective intervention, but we also found that it was mainly the students’ “resilience” that was a good predictor of the final outcome and the change effected through coaching. The more resilient, tougher and stronger a leader, therefore, the more likely it is that coaching will really help. And as The Leadership Shadow shows, it is often the more resilient leaders who rise to the top. Coaching works especially well for this type of leader.

The other experiment (De Haan et al., 2019) was carried out with a group of over a hundred senior managers in an international pharmaceutical company, who were coached by recognised internal coaches. Once again, there was an equally sized control group that was not coached, and again we found clear effectiveness of the intervention in comparison with the control group. This time we also decided to use the Hogan Insight Series to measure the personality of the leaders being coached. This was done both before the coaching and after six months (around six sessions) of coaching. As expected, the leader’s personality remained entirely the same after the six months of coaching: most of the 28 personality dimensions were unchanged or fluctuated similarly in control and target group. However, we found that two dimensions were slightly but significantly altered after the coaching intervention (i.e. only in the group being coached). We can, therefore, assume that these two dimensions were influenced by the coaching.

These two personality aspects are related as well. The first, “Prudence” (self-discipline, responsibility and conscientiousness), had gone up significantly. The second, “Excitable” (moodiness, irritability and emotionality), had conversely gone down significantly. Two positive developments for leaders, which in our view may well have been part of the same effect of coaching. The managers appear to have become demonstrably both more responsible and more even-tempered. The second personality dimension (“Excitable”) is also described as a leadership dimension in this book, namely in Chapter 7 under the heading “borderline patterns in leaders”. The definition used in this book and in our experiment was exactly the same, i.e. derived from the Hogan Development Survey. This research, therefore, confirms what many coaches already believed, namely that executive coaching is an excellent intervention for leadership development that also takes into account the leader’s less visible “shadow side”. Coaching is, after all, made-to-measure, focused on the specific contract with this individual executive. Coaching is also safe, confidential and – within the carefully protected conversational space – challenging and confronting, enabling the shadow sides of leadership to be addressed robustly. This is unfortunately not the case with other forms of leadership development, for example, training programmes, MBAs or organisational focus groups, wherein my view it is never really safe enough, or tailored enough, to confront individual executives with their shadow.

It is high time we made sure that our modern executives are equipped for the stress and risks of leadership in a rapidly changing world, that they operate ethically and effectively, and that they do not cause damage within their teams and companies, as so many do. This research and the book on the shadow side of leadership provide us with some initial tools to grow leadership in a healthy way in modern organisations.

De Haan, E., Gray, D.E. & Bonneywell, S. (2019). Executive coaching outcome research in a field setting: A randomized controlled trial study in a global healthcare corporation. Academy of Management Learning and Education, August.