The Two Sides of Leadership: What Goes On Behind Closed Doors?


We heard it all before: leaders behaving one way in public, then very differently behind closed doors.

Right now in the UK, ex Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling is spilling the beans over the leadership style of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Seemingly placid, timid and shy on the surface, rumours of an explosive, temperamental and potentially bullying Brown gradually started emerging from Number 10 in the final months of his presidency. These allegations were quickly dismissed by government officials and no further action was taken. Mr Darling is now telling the world about the “hellish” behaviour he experienced and the “brutal regime” he suffered at the hands of Mr Brown. And while, admittedly, we have only heard one side of the story (Brown has yet to comment), Darling painfully refers to this period as “hellish… very personal. It left a scar on me… you just can’t get over it.” Once again, a leader’s personality is on the front cover of all newspapers.

It is not hard to see why Brown’s personality captured the attention of the media. Reports of Brown’s behaviour away from the public eye appeared like two inexplicable sides of the same coin – and the difficulty in the reconciliation of the two once again highlighted our inner challenges with ambiguity and conflicts.

This is not surprising; human beings do not like to consider themselves conflicted and it is known that most of us find inconsistencies in behaviour unsettling. In the history of personality research, these conflicts were once considered discrepancies and thus wrongly attributed to assessment and measurement errors. Today, consultants specialising in the assessment of the bright and dark side of personality are aware that conflicting behaviours can be exhibited in different circumstances or even days (e.g. emotionally composed and mature one day, volatile and abusive the next). In fact, we often encounter these conflicts when interpreting psychometric reports and delivering feedback to organisational leaders. Addressing intrapersonal conflicts is a complex task that requires careful analysis, introspection and a desire to change.

Years of research conducted by the Centre for Creative Leadership and Hogan Assessment Systems, as well as an increasing number of publications (see Dotlich and Cairo’s Why CEOs Fail), demonstrate that leadership derailment can be attributed to recurrent, measurable and most importantly, manageable themes (or derailing tendencies).

Darling’s testimony is a stark reminder that these derailers do not only represent barriers to leadership effectiveness and well-being at work, but also constitute significant barriers to individual, team and organisational performance (in this instance coming in the way of something as important as tackling the country’s financial crisis). These destructive tendencies affect the ability of leaders to gain trust from subordinates and form coalitions at work, which in turn negatively affect a range of executive functions, such as decision-making, the objective analysis of crucial facts and figures, and the ability to build and maintain a high performing team.

Brown’s example of leadership style characterised by an excessive focus on managing relationships publicly with external customers and stakeholders, while ignoring the quality of the interactions with internal ones: colleagues, peers and subordinates. Leaders adopting this style have a tendency to release their frustration upon team members, disregarding the consequences of their behaviour, either because they think that the behaviour is acceptable (it’s between us) or simply because they can get away with it (no one will know).

We never fully know what goes on behind the closed doors of an organisation. But leaders who keep smiling in public, only to behave carelessly towards their team members, have an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson from this story.

After all, reputations are powerful and enduring things; they can be buried, but they never fully go away.

Andrea Facchini, MSc.
Business Psychologist and Guest Blogger