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Posted 09 Aug 2018

Leadership Derailment in Women – an alternative Dark Triad

I’m really noticing the bias in the Leadership research. I’ve been looking for research based evidence to support my own development and my mentoring of colleagues as my business grows and the advice is completely irrelevant for a female-led organization. Common themes like the ‘dark triad’ of leader personalities (narcissism, Machievellian and psychopathic tendencies) aren’t the issue. For the female leaders at risk of derailment the problem is the opposite. Let me explain what I mean. Here are the problems I experience, or see and hear when female friends and colleagues are struggling with their role:

  • Female leaders doing urgent admin tasks for their direct reports rather than asking them to catch up with their workload – even when this means correcting mistakes or completing tasks that were promised days or weeks earlier – and not following up with a warning.
  • Female leaders working additional hours way over and above what is necessary in a well-resourced team, while insisting that their direct reports take long lunch breaks.
  • Female leaders failing to address significant poor performance in their direct reports through performance management systems (and instead picking up the extra work) followed by conducting reviews that focus on how happy and content everyone feels.
  • Female leaders using phrases such as “sorry to trouble you but I could do with getting the figures this week, do you think that is possible?” as opposed to “I need the figures by Thursday COP, thanks.”
  • Females leaders avoiding asking their teams to take on additional, exciting projects that would lead to career advancement and growth in case it worries them or makes them feel pressured.

Leadership research is based on the current paradigms of leadership, in which white, male and privately educated people are over represented. And I can see very clearly how in a group of Koch brothers and Donald Trumps psychologists would do well to caution against the dark triad. However female leaders have a completely different dark triad.


Fear of making a decision, deferring to their line manager or indeed their direct reports. Asking for what people want to give rather than what the company needs. Avoiding taking responsibility and a lack of confidence in own intuition.


Doing all the work in the team in order to achieve performance, and then expecting people to feel sorry, or help out because of the emotional distress rather than because it was their job in the first place.


Responding to complaints from team members by taking over for them and avoiding having the hard conversation that says “you need to do this yourself next time”, doing the thinking for their teams, ‘mothering’.

So when these are the problems, where is the Industrial/Organizational Psychology research to help us? These traits are highly genderized and I am starting to feel like some sort of traitor in my own company for disagreeing with advice from OP that says “leadership is like being servant”.

I’ve been through this. I started my company as a coach and a psychologist practitioner and I have become a leader because I did a good job and my company attracted like-minded people to deliver. However, over some very difficult years I have learned something about business – however much we like coaching, leaders serve the business. Good business leaders serve their clients and customers’ needs. We get the job done first, that’s why we are still in business. Of course the best way to do that is to have a happy, productive workforce but we don’t achieve that by lying to them about how well they are doing to avoid conflict and letting deadlines slip whilst smiling and asking people how they feel.

I heard a comment from a leader that she thought female leaders suffered from having to “behave like men” in order to get ahead. I am not sure I can ascribe to personality characteristics that are innately male or female and further, I wonder which ones she is talking about? Directness? Boldness? Ambition? Decisiveness? Authority? Surely these aren’t male characteristics, they are part of the job description for running a company or department? I have many of these characteristics and associate some with ADHD, does that make me less female? Or more likely to get shot down when I display them?

It feels like the double standard on emotion to me, neatly represented by this photo:

Is Serena having a ’meltdown’? Is she Narcissistic? Is she derailing? Or is she a highly trained athlete at the edge of her capabilities arguing for fairness and avoiding deference? To be honest, I haven’t seen the match but I do know that while both athletes were rightly penalized, her behaviour is getting a lot more attention than similar behaviour in men.

Now I’m not suggesting that the leaders start wagging their fingers at people who disagree with them, however it is the ubiquity of that behavior in men that has sparked the current ‘Leader as Servant paradigm’, not the behavior of women. No, women have diligently read all the leadership advice that advises coaching, inspiring and motivating. We’ve been on workshops about humility and leading from behind, but for women, this isn’t helping us to get the job done because we are more likely to be starting from a baseline of positive regard and egalitarianism. We don’t need the ‘correction’.

I’ve never made a bad leadership decision because I thought I was invincible, was trying to manipulate a situation or dominate someone. Every bad leadership decision I ever made has come from giving people too much leeway, not being clear about boundaries and failing to trust my intuition. I see this issue replicating with some of my female friends and colleagues.

If we reinforce to women that they can only succeed by serving, we risk widening the gender gap in leadership, and reinforcing the stereotype that female-led businesses lack dynamism, drive and ambition.

I’ll leave you with the final word from Reese Witherspoon: “Ambition is NOT a Dirty Word”.