Here’s How to Screen Prospective Leaders for Risky Behaviors

Mar 20, 2014

leaders org chart - freeThe numbers of fallen leaders in sports, business, entertainment, and politics grows each day. Why do so many influential leaders engage in risky behavior that sends them plummeting from positions of power?

Consider the cases of NYC mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, and hedge fund manager Steven Cohen. Some candidates barely make it out the gate (Herman Cain) before they become “disqualified.”

As employment professionals, we may ask: “How can we develop a more failsafe way to weed out leaders who may have risky, impulsive, addictive, and possibly immoral lifestyles? Do we have a role in directing them toward the help they need?”

Here are three guidelines that will help:

1. Watch for the truth about the person to reveal itself during the interview process.

Who doesn’t have a secret? Perhaps we have small secrets that are not deal-breakers. For example, we tend toward micro-managing, or we have impulsive anger that can get triggered in certain rare situations. Other times, the secrets are bigger: We are an alcoholic who occasionally binges at work functions. We have serial affairs and consider it one of the perks of our position. We love the dopamine high of gambling, and use this to unwind from work stress. We have never recovered from our own childhood abuse, and we secretly carry on a compulsive sexual addiction.

Daniel Wegner, now a psychology professor at Harvard University, identified “ironic rebound” in experiments where he told students to “not think about white bears.” He discovered that if people push a thought away, it will return with force — and with even more authority!

Simply put, if John the interviewee is holding tight to a secret, the part of his brain that monitors whether he will spill the beans is working overtime bringing focus on the secret. The willpower part of his brain that is in charge of zipping his lips may be taxed during the stress of an interview. This makes the person prone to slip-ups of truths.

John is inwardly telling himself, “Don’t think about the two sexual harassment incidents that got me in trouble in my last job.” But his stress is making him say to you, “Well, I work well with both male and female staff. Of course, certain women can spell trouble. Ha, ha.” He may laugh uncomfortably, and any further explanation from him may sound convoluted or defensive. He may have just revealed the tip of an iceberg. The interviewer must remain calm and invite more discussion about his comments.

2. View your candidate as a triple decker sandwich of “stuff.”

The first layer: genetics —  We have genetics that predispose us to psychological tendencies or addictions. Every family has genetic tendencies, whether it’s biologically based OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), alcoholism, or depression, to name a few. Your candidate will have their own unique genetic challenges. It’s okay to be on the lookout. Do they drink to excess at a lunch meeting? Do they jump around from subject to subject or job to job? It’s important that whatever biological hand we have been dealt, we have mastered it. Many people take their so-called “lemon” genetics and turn them into lemonade.

The second layer: dysfunctional families — We all had dysfunctional families that result in the pickles in our sandwich. Of course we get good stuff as well. However, the question for your candidate is around the pickles. We come away from our childhoods with negative triggers and beliefs. An example of a negative trigger is desk rage: “No one respects me!”

You may want to ask your candidate to name one pet peeve or emotional trigger in a Sandwich illustrationjob situation. What fires them up when they see this happening? What behavior of others do they tend to take personally? You want your candidate to be able to consciously recognize and handle their triggers. It is a challenge to glean out the facts, because many people minimize these issues.

The third layer: behavioral habits — We have a brain; our own inner app whose purpose is to protect us, reward us for new inventions or territories, and arouse us toward attractive sex partners to ensure survival of the species. You want your candidate to know the domino effect of poor habits on the ability of their app to guide them: Staying up late leads to missing the gym and a tired brain is vulnerable to impulsive life and work decisions.

You want your candidate to possess a good stress-reduction routine, including good exercise, nutrition, self-regulation of thoughts and behavior, and sleep. Without a routine, your brain is subject to an “amygdala hijack,” a term coined by Daniel Goleman, PhD, which refers to impulsive, poorly thought-out decisions.

3. Rate their 3Qs.

Self-control EQ — Dopamine is actually released when we anticipate a reward. Does the leader know what gets their dopamine going; what excites and inspires them? Have they had any “learning experiences” of being too impulsive or seeking immediate gratification instead of pursuing a slower, safer plan? Leaders often crave new risk-taking ventures, opportunities for expansion, independence, and wanting a bigger piece of the pie. They need to have mastered how to pursue exciting endeavors with the teamwork of the prefrontal cortex, their willpower center.

Intuition IQ — We all have an ability to “know” that does not involve the logical brain process.
For example, you instantly “know” when you meet an applicant for the first time. You use all of your senses to size up a situation. Successful leaders don’t override their intuition. They call it gut or inner knowing and use it to stay off roads that lead to personal or job “crashes.”

Ask this applicant if they have a practice of using their intuition to stay on course. They may say that they felt a gut reaction of “No” even though on the surface everything looked okay. Somehow it didn’t smell, feel, hear, or look okay. They paid attention to synchronistic events that supported their ideas.

Authentic Leadership AQ — An authentic leader has self-honesty and self-mastery as their goal. It’s important for leaders to have a well-balanced life that spans seven areas: relationship, leisure, financial, health, spiritual, creativity, and career.

You may want to ask these questions:

  • What was their happiest day this past year and why?
  • Does this leader have a vision for a higher or greater good?
  • Do they volunteer in any causes dear to their heart?
  • What is their view of receiving coaching, mentoring, or counseling if they have a personal issue that affects their work?
  • What do they do for self-improvement or creativity?
  • If they found an impropriety, what would be their approach (a slow careful investigation or impulsive reaction)?

Screening leaders for risky behavior takes an understanding of each leader coming with their version of a triple-decker sandwich. What sets them apart from others is that they start with self-honesty. They embrace the pickles in their sandwich, that personal healing journey that is theirs and only theirs to address. Temptation will always be there for leaders. You are looking for one who ascribes to “Know thyself” and “Heal thyself.” You are looking for no less than an authentic candidate who has enjoyed the journey of self-mastery and is ready to lead others from this strength.

Image: nongpimmy /
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