We all think that change for the sake of continuous improvement and development should be something that everyone jumps on board with because, hey, it is in everyone’s best interest after all. But ask anyone who has ever led a change process in an organization, and you will get a resounding, “no way, that just doesn’t happen.” So many change initiatives fail because of the fixed belief that change should be easy. As a result, leaders aren’t prepared for the resistance, opposition, and passive-aggressive behavior that plagues change processes because in their minds “Everyone is going to love it.” If you are leading change, you should expect sabotage and resistance as a normal and natural part of the change process. If you don’t expect it, the dysfunction of the saboteur will cause your initiatives to fail, leaving leaders, employees and the organization in their comfort zone with sometimes devastating consequences.

Despite knowing that resistance is a normal and natural part of change, leaders continue to get frustrated and angry at employees when they resist going along with their change process. They don’t see their resistance to changing to the leadership behaviors they need to drive change. Instead, they blame employees and keep driving the change thinking that people are just going to jump on the bandwagon at some point and then shut the whole thing down when they don’t get traction. The dysfunction of the saboteur takes over and leaders, employees and the organization stay in their comfort zone with sometimes devastating consequences.

Going behind the shield

Humans have a system in the brain for shielding ourselves psychologically. Our self-protective system’s agenda is to protect us, to stabilize us when we feel shaky, insecure, or frightened. It isn’t to be judged as good or bad. We would not survive psychologically if we didn’t have this system. The self-protective system of the psychological system guards the integrity of our authentic self and protects us from emotional harm. This system is to the brain like the immune system is to the body, springing to action to ward off physiological threats. We don’t have to tell it to react because it knows its job. With the self-protective system, we need to learn what is a real threat and what is a perceived threat, so our shields aren’t up all the time.

Unknowingly, leaders shift to self-protective survival behaviors in reaction to their employee’s resistance to change, development or challenge. We go behind the shield where it’s safe and comfortable, yet it doesn’t really get us anywhere. When we are self-protective our thinking is more influenced by emotions than reason. We come up with all kinds of excuses as to why someone else is to blame or that we are powerless to do anything more than complain about the behavior of others.  And despite how bold, directive, and optimistic we usually are, we revert to a persona that is powerless to do anything but fume internally.

In the psychological realm of the self-protective system resides 4 archetypes of survival or personas that our authentic self pulls out when we feel threatened. These shields have a connection to Jung’s 4 mental functions located in neural networks in the brain. When we shift to our shields, we start using the behaviors and characteristics of the persona we need to shield us from the perceived psychological threat. In other words, we are on the defensive, using fight-flight instinctual reactions. Each Persona has its own agenda, story, and script. When we operate from any of the different Personas, it’s like letting another person be in the driver’s seat in our life.

While there are four leadership personas or shields, we are going to focus on the Saboteur Leadership Persona and the shield it uses to deflect perceived threats to its self-concept.

Guardian of our comfort zone

The Saboteur Persona is known as the Guardian of Change but when it’s unconscious, it becomes the Guardian of our Comfort Zone. It is where the energy to change emerges from, where we drive for new and different experiences. Any situations that create uncertainty or where the outcome is unknown can be a trigger for the Saboteur Persona. What is unknown or not yet experienced is uncertain and therefore dangerous, this despite it being what we actually want to have or achieve. This belief causes the Saboteur to disrupt our path to our goals by distracting us, changing our minds, creating too many options, or procrastinating.

When we lead from the Saboteur Leadership Persona, we are consciously or unconsciously preventing our own success and the success of our business. There are two ways this is usually done. The first way is through creating too much change leading to too much-unfocused activity. The second way is through too little or no activity at all, causing slowed or no growth. Both ways prevent our success. We shift the focus away from our goals and what we are trying to achieve. Instead of following through with our goals, we allow the Saboteur to hijack us.

In the Saboteur Leadership Persona, we are frightened of losing our grip on power and will do what it takes to hold on to power, status and influence. We often see senior leaders who have worked with peers for decades pull out their Saboteur shield when they feel threatened by a new organizational model or by high-performing direct reports showing greater levels of initiative and willingness to challenge the status quo than they are. They will undermine themselves or their direct report by resisting change or undermining the work of their employee. For example, they may commit to something in a meeting to make themselves look progressive and collaborative only to deny ever having said what they did. They become more concerned with holding on to the power they feel in their comfort zone than on their organizational goals.

The Saboteur also fears that by achieving our goals and ambitions, it will be somehow destructive to others, or it will ultimately end in failure or rejection. It has a tendency to catastrophize, casting doubt on plans by coming up with worst-case scenarios that shut down any energy for driving change.  This causes leaders to not make important decisions based on how employees might feel or because they want to make employees feel supported.

Sabotaging employees

Another tactic the Saboteur uses is to prevent skilled subordinates from having face time with senior executives or relationship building that would showcase their talent to other leaders. Their survival agenda is their priority and once a leader has reached the top, they will do whatever it takes to not lose it.  They can feel threatened by their subordinate’s potential and not invest in developing them as a way of maintaining the gap between themselves and next-level employees. This in turn costs the organization in terms of a talent gap and an inability to grow because no one has been trained up to fill the gap. They don’t distribute power throughout the organization, they make sure they hold on to it.

Organizational stagnation caused by the Saboteur

When leaders envision a desired future state and begin to direct their energy into a change process or change their own behavior, underlying unconscious fears can pop up. These fears convince us that no good will come of any change, even change that leads to our vision of what success looks like. Senior leadership teams often create strategic plans with no tactical plans to ensure the strategies are being followed and in essence, sabotage the ability to achieve the vision. When we are in the grip of the Saboteur Leadership Persona, we are afraid to step out of our comfort zone and take advantage of opportunities that will lead to greater empowerment and success. We undermine changes that we have initiated leading to organizational stagnation.

Slowing down change through procrastination

During change, the Saboteur Leadership Persona shows up in the form of procrastination, especially when it comes to aligning behavior behind new goals. Leaders will say they’re on board, but then act like they’re not. They make commitments to leading change in their functional area and then conveniently “forget“ because they are swamped or don’t have time. When confronted, they accuse others of making a big deal out of nothing, acting as though their lack of alignment or deviation from the strategy is insignificant when their procrastination is noticeable by all employees and as a result are actively eroding the company culture.

Catastrophizing & doubt casting

Doubt is a hallmark of the Saboteur. It comes in the form of self-doubt, doubting others, and being skeptical about change. Self-doubt is triggered by a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated by doing something that you aren’t sure you will succeed at or win. Questions like, “What if I mess up?” “What will others think or say if I do this?” Or “What if I’m not smart enough, talented enough, capable enough, or experienced enough? “Are you crazy? You’ll make a fool of yourself!” These are some of the Automatic Negative Thoughts of the Saboteur that cause us to doubt ourselves the minute we choose or decide that change is necessary. We end up talking ourselves out of taking actions that are necessary for the growth of the business.

Creating chaos, not leading

Many high-achieving people who operate from the Saboteur Leadership Persona don’t plan and instead, stay stuck in the weeds. While they complain about how busy they are and how they want things to be different, they insist they can’t stop long enough to change their behavior. We’ve had clients who have said “I didn’t have time to tell my employee how to do it. They had to figure it out for themselves.” They then reported that when the employee delivered work that wasn’t what they wanted, they had to spend more time correcting it and doing it themselves, sabotaging their ability to reach their own goals.

Focus on helping or doing for others

The Saboteur makes a lot of decisions based on how they may affect our relationships. We will speculate on how others may feel if we decide to do something without consultation or when we must have a feedback discussion when an employee’s performance is not meeting expectations. While we know it’s our decision to make, our speculation can convince us that if we say anything at all or do things based on our agenda and schedule, someone will get upset. Instead of leading with the authority of our role, we instead put their feelings and needs ahead of our own and facilitate a meeting where everyone can weigh in. We avoid performance discussions, sabotaging work product and allowing employees to believe they are doing a better job than they are. We believe we are helping them when we are actually creating more issues.

Oppositional, rebellious acts

Oppositional acts can be overt or covert. They can be against ourselves or against others. When it’s time for us to develop new skills as leaders or get on board a change process, we can find ourselves doing something different than what we wanted or committed to. Opposing change initiated by others is also one of the ways the Saboteur Leadership Persona shows itself. It comes up when we feel cornered or pressured to go along with what everyone else wants us to do. Instead of making waves by objecting outright, the Saboteur will make a show of compliance and then proceed to do nothing or precisely what it wants. This passive resistance is a way of slowing or stopping change.

With the Saboteur Persona, our fears cause the use of persistent self-sabotaging thoughts and actions. We end up believing that we aren’t good enough and settle for conforming to actions and behaviors that others use to stay safe.

What to do

Sabotaging ourselves leads to the sabotaging of employees and our organization. We need to recognize that we are keeping ourselves safe at the expense of achieving our potential when we refuse to step out of our comfort zone and drive change. Awareness of the doubt casting, catastrophizing, and procrastinating that alert you to the Saboteur Leadership Persona helps you to stop getting in your own way. When we find ourselves procrastinating about dealing with difficult employee behavior that others have noticed and commented on, instead of distracting ourselves, we actually do something before it becomes a bigger mess to clean up later.

Taking leadership power back from the Saboteur requires that we observe ourselves and our automatic negative thoughts, figure out destructive patterns of behavior and find new positive messaging that supports our growth and change. The reasons for the Saboteur Leadership Persona being triggered are largely unconscious and not rational. They are triggered by threats to our psychological comfort zone. It takes time to see the pattern and learn to intervene on our own behalf. Instead of getting upset with ourselves we need to cultivate self-acceptance and compassion. The triggers for undermining our own hard work aren’t always obvious, but there are some ways to recognize what we are doing and make different decisions and choices.

Negative self-talk erodes the confidence needed to try new things and step out of one’s comfort zone. That’s why many successful people create systems and support to help them work through potentially destructive decisions and behaviors. For example, having a leadership coach who can help you separate the real challenges or obstacles you’re facing rather than the ones you’re making up during a catastrophizing session. Leadership coaching helps you develop habits that support the investment of your energy in the behaviors and achievements you want instead of undermining your own goals. Coaching can also help you explore underlying feelings and what’s causing them so that they no longer are obstacles to your success.

For more information on leadership coaching and how to break free of the grip of the Saboteur Leadership Persona, contact Anne at [email protected].

Learn how you can lead with authority. Get a copy of So You Think You Can Lead? on Amazon. 


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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