The Tragic Dramatic Leader

Tragic dramatic leaders are characterized by some or all of the following attributes:

  • Their inherent insecurities have also pushed them to attain notable skills and achievements
  • Reliance on past success, reputation, forceful logic, and passion to win at any cost
  • A tendency to dramatize and glorify their past experiences and organizations
  • Will often exaggerate the severity of a problem or embellish good news or successful events
  • Characterized by mood swings.  Difficult for others to know which persona will show up on a given day
  • Highly sensitive, and often taking business conversations and outcomes that do not comply with their wishes personally
  • Become strong-handed or use bullying tactics, including advertising their superior intelligence or downgrading that of others when they don’t get their way.  Conversely, they may regress to passive aggressive withdrawal – “I don’t like what is going on around here so I am taking my ball and going home…”

Tragic dramatic leaders have a tendency to insert negativity and contaminate the climate of organizations, taking away from the motivation of the team.  They often cloak their own personal agendas behind key strategies and business goals.

Since this type of behavior is unsustainable, these leaders, at some point in their career, are forced to either reflect and adjust their leadership style or derail.  Anyone who coaches, or is tasked with helping the tragic dramatic leader may experience the following:

It is difficult for the tragic dramatic leader who has had business and financial success to admit to his highs and lows.  He may dismiss others as “too soft” or not in touch with the reality of the business and the hard decisions that a leader has to make or some other version of “oh but if you were in my shoes you would know that…”  Of course these explanations are the final remnants of a defense system that is experiencing a gradual breakdown.  It is futile to argue facts, figures and specific examples with him.  Years of left-brained conditioning in support of his tragic dramatic persona has made him a superb defender of his position and gifted debater.  It is more productive to ask him if he thinks that the perception that is surrounding him is affecting his success in the organization.  If he is willing to admit that these perceptions whether fair or unfair, are important, then it may be useful to ask him to provide his own examples of how these negative perceptions about them might have gained currency.  In this way, the coach steers clear of the intellectual banter and point-counterpoint debates.  It is also the ideal moment to ask the tragic dramatic leader if he or she wants to engage in the necessary work.

The coach must exercise a perfect balance of heart and backbone.  Under the hardened cover, the tragic dramatic leader carries vulnerabilities and insecurities that require understanding, empathy, active listening, support and trust.  On the other hand, he is usually masterful in exercising that which will carry the day.  This includes not only superb logic and intellect but also weaponry for emotionally high jacking the audience.  These include anger, cynicism, tears, silence/distance, resentment and even vengeance.  The coach must have a strong backbone and not take the mirror away prematurely.  It is only when the tragic dramatic leader realizes that the work is not about defeating the coach but to use the coaching opportunity as a safe process for gaining critical insights necessary for development and self mastery that the breakthroughs and insights surface.

An example of a tragic dramatic leader is a senior leader at a global pharmaceutical organization.  She was an exceptionally gifted and intelligent individual.  Her technical skills were outstanding.  She had been promoted rapidly to a senior position. It was not uncommon for her to make passionate presentations and appeals in favor of her position. During these presentations she neutralized all dissent and other points of view through her superior intellect and communication skills.  Naturally, over time her intense personality and style led some of her peers, who felt she was taking up too much air time and too focused on her own agenda, to turn against her.  Since she was used to being admired and winning the point, the tragic dramatic characteristic began to surface. She exhibited anger and impatience, followed by withdrawal and lack of participation.  When she was called on, she would respond in an indifferent and cynical manner.  In private, her frustration would well up and tears would follow.  She routinely placed the blame on others or the organization and would defend her own decisions and actions.  Her strong logic and debate skills led her supervisor and peers who were trying to help her to throw their hands up and give up.  Many were seeing her as foul tasting medicine—needed and valued in her area of specialty but to be avoided if at all possible.


Questions for on-line conversation:

  1. Which aspects of the tragic dramatic leadership style have you observed in other leaders?
  2. Have you had the opportunity to supervise or coach any? What was your experience in this regard?



About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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