Coaching Difficult Leaders With the DISC Assessment

Coaching Difficult Leaders With the DISC Assessment

Anyone with more than a few years experience in management positions, consulting or HR would acknowledge their fair share of dealings with egomaniacs and corporate psychopaths who have an uncanny knack for climbing into executive positions. According to British author, Jon Ronson, 4% of CEOs are psychopaths.


"Psychopath" is a fairly loaded term. For the layperson, it might bring to mind the character of Patrick Bateman, the charming Wall Street serial killer featured in American Psycho (2000). For psychologists, it refers to a type of anti-social personality disorder with a range of symptoms or hallmarks, identified using a 20-item checklist. For businesspeople, the term might be used as an attempt to account for shockingly callous actions by a colleague or boss. Generally, there is one element that connects the perspectives of a psychopath from all angles: an unusual absence of empathy.

This is not to say that every executive who appears to lack empathy is truly deserving of being labeled a “psychopath.”

There are many cases of leaders who struggle to manage relationships with their teams due to certain behavioural patterns—patterns that are very common among high achievers. Some leaders may simply be more focused on tasks than relationships, and thus sometimes appear to lack empathy. White

Understanding the "Implementor" In our experience, we have observed that the Implementor is the behavioural style most likely to request (or be asked to partake in) leadership coaching.


The Implementor style refers to the combination of High D + High C (the two task factors) on the DISC assessment. This style is often perceived as tough and hard. They might even be described as cold and insensitive by those who have a High I + High S (the two relationship factors).

One of the best examples of the Implementor style is our former prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

Australian readers may remember The Killing Season, an acclaimed 3-part documentary series chronicling the ups and (mostly) downs of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. For non-Australian readers, this series attempted to shed some light on why Rudd, one of the most popular prime ministers in our history, with a outwardly charming persona loved by many in the public, came to be replaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard. Numerous sources consistently circled back to Rudd’s “cold” and “dismissive” personality, plus his “command-and-control” management style.

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However, Rudd’s leadership style might be described as HOSI: hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

At one point in the series, Jenny Macklin, a senior minister who spent time with Rudd in the aftermath of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, noted how moved she was by his compassion towards the victims, both publicly and privately. The interviewer then asks:

“So how do you put those two things together: This reputation that he has for being hard on people and careless of their feelings and their lives, and that person you saw there?”

To which Macklin replied nodding: “People are complex.”

people are complex

What was particularly striking about the documentary was Rudd’s shock when finally learning about the impending leadership coup. He was apparently totally unaware that feelings in his party had turned so sharply against him to the point that a majority of his colleagues wanted him replaced. When he called his Treasurer and close friend, Wayne Swan, to clarify rumours that his job might be under threat, he was only to be told that Gillard, his deputy, was going to challenge for the leadership and Swan was going to support her.

Rudd was incredulous:

“I said you’re what?! You’re what? I said why haven’t you raised this with me? Why haven’t you picked up the telephone to me? Why haven’t you spoken to me? Why haven’t you come round?”

Rudd’s predicament is not an uncommon one in business. There are many leaders who are perceived by their staff as overly demanding, rude, and insensitive to their feelings. The problem is that staff are often too afraid or don’t know how to call attention to the leader’s behaviour. The leader, therefore, is totally unaware of the real hurt they are causing—until it’s too late to repair the damage. White

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How DISC Can Help DISC provides a platform and a common language to discuss basic behavioural differences. This language is objective and non-threatening. There’s no right or wrong answer to the DISC questionnaire—each style has its respective strengths and limitations.

With the DISC language in hand, it helps to prevent misunderstandings and reduce team conflict. For example, when a team is aware that a manager has an Implementor style, they can be prepared for certain tendencies: Fast paced, challenging and assertive, yet also detailed oriented, precise and systematic (and not overly chatty). By understanding their manager’s style as well as their own style, team members can adapt their work approach to be more effective.

The same applies to managers: By understanding the behavioural strengths and limitations of those of their team, they can learn the best way to communicate, delegate and motivate each individual—and clearly understand what things NOT to do. White


Need Help Coaching Leaders? We have a network of coaches, trainers, and consultants in Australia and New Zealand who specialise in executive coaching and mentoring. Call us for a confidential discussion: 02 9360 5111.



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