How To Coach A Tyrant At Your Organization

April 4, 2016

coach a tyrant

How do you coach a tyrant? “You’re not the first person to complain about Mark’s management style,” HR director Sonja said. “Well, who’s going to be the last!?” Bruce shouted. “He’s a petty tyrant, and I’m fed up with his demands. Everyone in the department is sick of his heavy-handed leadership, and our productivity numbers show it.”

Tyrants don’t always get results. Mark isn’t the only tyrannical leader harming the work output of his staff. During our Brainpower webcast series, my friend and colleague Daniel Siegel described Michael Rutter’s classic studies of school leadership’s impact on performance. Rutter found that schools with a dictator-like leader performed more poorly than those led by a director with emotional intelligence. An executive coach participating in the webinar asked us how we would coach a tyrant. Dr. Siegel used his understanding of Attachment Theory and Secure Base Leadership to frame his response.

Dictators are made, not born. Dr. Siegel said, “As a coach, I would try to get beneath the structure of why this person was that way. We all start life needing to have three S’s that build on a fourth S: First, we need to be seen – our feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams, longings, our perspective are taken into account and respected by, in this case, the caregiver.

The second is to be soothed. As a baby, when we’re distressed, we need connection with a caregiver who sees us, makes sense of what they see, and responds in a timely and effective manner…. Across all cultures, when you have that response, you are soothed.

The third S is safe, being protected from harm…. When you’re safe, soothed, and seen in a reliable way, you get the fourth S, security.

I wrote a book with Mary Hartzell called Parenting from the Inside Out. It could easily be called “Leading from the Inside Out.” It reviews the science of attachment and allows you to make sense of what happened to you, to liberate yourself from ways you adapted when you were not seen, soothed, safe, secure. Brainstorm is a condensed summary of attachment theory and what you can do to bring someone from non-secure states to secure states of mind. Such non-secure states of mind can make you prone to acting like a dictator in an organization.

Does Mark want to change? I agree with Dr. Siegel. Before coaching Mark, I’d want to know more about how he chose that strong-handed approach to leadership. I’d also want to know about his motivation. Does he care about his disgruntled staff’s low productivity? Does he want to change? A non-confrontational way to approach that is “Where would you like to be in five years? What are your dreams? What would help you get there?” When attempting to coach a tyrant, that can get to the behavior you’re trying to reach.

If Mark does want to change, he needs to see himself as others see him. Sonja could use a 360-degree instrument with Mark, asking for feedback from people who know Mark well and whom Mark respects: his peers, boss, direct reports. I helped develop one for emotional intelligence competencies, called the “Emotional-Social Competence Inventory,” the ESCI. Everyone fills it out anonymously, and Sonja would give him the feedback. Glaring issues like those Mark’s staff report will show up. Once Mark sees the feedback, and recognizes his need to develop some different skills, Sonja can go through the steps Dr. Siegel outlines in Brainstorm.

Find a positive career model. Sonja can also ask Mark about people from his career whom he loved as leaders, and they can serve as positive career models. With such a leader in mind, Sonja can help Mark practice steps to become that kind of person and look for situations where he can practice and see the value of a different form of leadership.

 It’s never too late. Is Mark too stuck in his ways to change? I wrote the foreword to Dr. Siegel’s book, Mindsight.

During Brainpower, Dr. Siegel reminded me of an example from that book, saying:

“It’s never too late. In Mindsight, I wrote about Stewart, a 92-year-old lawyer who ran a law firm like a dictator. No longer in charge of the organization, he ran his relationships the same way. He goes through a process of transforming from ‘It’s all about me. I’m the leader, and this is the way you have to do it’ to a completely different way of being. You can see what the challenges were in Stewart’s inner life and how he went from a non-secure, or insecure, to a secure state of mind.”



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About The Author

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, a Times bestseller for a year and a half—with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages—has also been a bestseller in many countries. He has written books on other topics as well, including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis.


  1. avatar

    What can the employee do if the dictator doesn’t think he has to change because all his bosses were the same?

  2. avatar

    Great article . We often believe in coaching as a direct one to one or presentation groups
    The amount of energy that can exchange within the coaching environment
    Speaks for it’s direction and productivity too. Such a article I havn’t read for a long time.
    Thank you.

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