Leadership and the Dark Side Personality: Active coping and overplayed strengths

What makes a good leader?

There are good leaders and there are not so good leaders. Often, at the point of realisation that you have a not so good leader, you may already be at the point of hindsight in recruitment terms. Then there are the leaders that possess so many of the qualities that you may be looking for, but in reality, the leadership style does not translate how you may have expected. So at the recruitment stage, how can you know which candidates possess the qualities to meet the challenges of the role?

My recent interest in leadership has centred around a concept defined by Leslie Pratch, in her book ‘Looks Good on Paper’. Pratch is a psychologist, like myself, who evaluates candidates’ leadership potential for executive positions using personality assessments. This is perhaps, one of the better leadership theories that I have read recently, more because it brings together so many different traits and characteristics into one concept.

Pratch discusses one of the variables that she considers when predicting effective leadership – ACTIVE COPING. Active coping is the healthiest response to stressful situations and the one most likely to lead to a successful resolution. It is the readiness, willingness and ability to adapt resourcefully and effectively to novel and changing conditions (Pratch, 2014). It is, by definition, a concept that is fairly difficult to identify through a personality assessment – it is not always overt and observable. What needs to be done here, is consider the traits and skills that are associated with active coping that are more observable.

What personality traits are associated with active coping?

Pratch lists a number of variables that she associates with active coping:

• Awareness – to see reality, their own needs, capabilities and limitations;

• Courage – to not be intimidated by challenges;

• Resiliency, toughness and the ability to learn from experience – to regroup and recover from setbacks;

• Energy, fortitude and the willingness to persevere – to continue forwards under the most trying circumstances;

• Resourcefulness – to invent solutions to problems with their current resources, or developing new resources;

• Decisiveness – to handle conflicts amongst competing goals;

• Executing a plan – to anticipate, strategize and weigh the risks of potential actions.

These variables that make up active coping are far more readily observable from a psychometric profile and during interview, providing the right questions are asked.

“Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world. Or they can be passive copers, allowing themselves to be defined by their circumstances and enslaved by their personal needs. When circumstances change unpredictably, an individual’s latent weaknesses or untested strengths emerge.” Pratch (2014).

Overplayed strengths

I like this concept of active coping and feel that I can relate to it. From my perspective however, where leadership often looks less effective (on paper), results from an individual’s overplayed strengths. Overplayed strengths are a hidden weakness that derail leaders time and time again.

In a recent Korn/Ferry International report, “Survival of the Most Self-aware,” author J. Evelyn Orr, concluded that ‘when all things are equal, self-awareness is a key trait that explains why some business leaders succeed when others derail. Self-awareness is knowing your strengths and limitations, the willingness to seek and act on feedback, the ability to admit mistakes, and the tendency to reflect and apply personal insights.’

Many leaders, whilst looking good on paper and possessing many of the attributes outlined by Pratch, struggle considerably with the self-awareness aspect. They have a distorted perception of themselves that can manifest itself in a number of ways: a tendency to overestimate skills or underestimate shortcomings (known as “blind spots”), or an inability to recognize an untapped capacity (known as a “hidden strength”). (Orr et al. 2010).

And that’s where many leadership development tools are failing us. Dividing qualities into ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ implicitly ignores strengths overdone and perhaps critically the self-awareness.

The darkest of dark sides

Case in point: Darth Vader. One of the most iconic fictional villains of all time, Darth Vader was a fearless leader in the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars movies. Rarely are the ‘not so good’ leaders archetypal villains and I have my tongue firmly planted in my cheek for my illustration of weak leadership in this article.

So how does his leadership style measure up? Vader had a lot going for him. He focused on his priorities – he paid attention to what was going on in the galaxy and evaluated impacts. Vader knew when to delegate and when to take care of something personally. He kept himself aware of his team’s progress. He dealt with risks proactively.

But Vader had no tolerance for failure. He disposed of any officers (by choking them…) who made mistakes resulting in organisational disarray, with staff constantly being thrust into new roles. People were afraid to offer feedback or suggestions so decisions were made at the highest level only. But his biggest error: Vader failed to learn from mistakes. The Galactic Empire built the Death Star, the Rebels destroyed it. And the response from the Empire: to rebuild it bigger and better. Vader became over confident in his own abilities, moving stubbornly but blindly forward without changing course.

Whilst Vader ticks the boxes of many of Pratch’s active coping traits, he was a leader ruled entirely by overplayed strengths rising from a lack of self-awareness, letting his ‘dark side personality’ rule. It would appear that Vader was perhaps a passive coper, defined entirely by his circumstances and enslaved completely by his personal needs – to rule the Galaxy.

So in the search for an effective leader, what is clear, is that it is not just the active coping characteristics that are vital to success, but that these traits are kept from being over-played. A combination of psychometrics can help identify these leadership derailers in combination with the underlying traits. Lakeland Capabilities combines psychometric tools which measure both an individual’s traits and the ‘dark-side personality’ to help recognise and mitigate performance risks before they become a problem. The output from these psychometrics describes how leaders are likely to interpret the world and treat subordinates while under stress and pressure and predict career-derailing behaviours that interfere with the ability to build a cohesive and high-performing team.

If you would like assistance with assessing and developing leadership, take a look at our Development and Psychometrics pages or contact us for a further discussion.


Orr, J. Evelyn. 2012. “Survival of the Most Self-Aware: Nearly 80 Percent of Leaders Have Blind Spots About Their Skills.” The Korn/ Ferry Institute. http://www.kornferryinstitute. com/reports-insights/survival-most-self-awarenearly-80-percent-leaders-have-blind-spotsabout-their.

Orr, J. Evelyn, Victoria V. Swisher, King Yii Tang, and Kenneth P. De Meuse. 2010. “Illuminating Blind Spots and Hidden Strengths.” The Korn/Ferry Institute. http:// www.kornferryinstitute.com/reports-insights/ illuminating-blind-spots-and-hiddenstrengths.

Pratch, L. S. 2014. “Looks Good on Paper? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance” Columbia Business School.