“Leadership is based on inspiration, not domination; on cooperation, not intimidation.” – William Arthur Wood

Intimidation is a valuable clue to behavior. It tells you much about your personality. From what intimidates you to what about you intimidates others can give you an excellent perspective on self-awareness and self-management. What intimidation isn’t is a great leadership quality.

As an executive coach, I am often exploring these parts of my client’s personalities, hoping to help them discover the insight to manage both what intimidates them and what is intimidating about them to others. There is no case in my experience where exploring both of these areas hasn’t resulted in excellent self-discovery for my clients.

So, if you want to learn something valuable about yourself and your leadership, let’s try an exercise together:

  • First, take out a pen and paper.
  • Next, draw three lines down the middle, so you have three equal segments on the paper.
  • Now, label the left column: 1) People Who Intimidate Me; 2) the middle column, No One Intimidates or Feels Intimidated by the Other, and 3) the last column, People I Intimidate.
  • Then, starting with your first job ever, remember your bosses and your colleagues, assigning each person to one of the three columns.
  • Finally, tally the numbers in each column and examine. Ask yourself, are the columns about equal or is one column much, much larger than the other?

What Does This Self-Examination Tell You?

There are a few things this exercise reveals.

Look at column #1, “People Who Intimidate Me.” Is this column empty or have only one or two names? I would be surprised if it did for most people. If yours does, you must have been a tough cookie at age 25 if your boss or boss’ boss didn’t intimidate you (even if it was just a little). With my clients, I encourage them to look to their past again.

What if there are few if any names in the third column, “People I Intimidate?”Ask yourself if you were completely honest. Can’t you think of one person you think felt threatened by you? Is there more than one?

And what about the scrutiny on the middle column, “No One Intimidates or Feels Intimidated by the Other?” There you listed people where you did not perceive intimidation on either side. Any chance that they may have perceived it differently? You might even contact a few of them to double check. It could be a fun conversation to have with a few of those folks you haven’t spoken to in a long time.

Besides brutal honesty, what is critical to this exercise is an examination of the dynamics and personalities of the people in each column. Each of these personality traits you identify in others as either intimidating or not are an insight into your personality. What you define as intimidating in the other defines something about you. What you think makes you intimidating, is also key to your personality traits and values.

For example, pick one of the Intimidators from your list. How would you describe him or her? Were they brash, bullying, arrogant, rude or something else I didn’t list here? Now consider yourself at that time. Any chance that you perceived arrogance or bullying when it might have been something else? In other words, is it possible the person’s knowledge and experience so outweighed yours that you felt uncomfortable and put a negative label on it?

Now, go back to the column listing the folks you indicated you might have intimidated. How would you describe them? Were they wishy-washy, insecure, “too nice” or something along those lines? Take a hard look at your behavior in that situation. Is it possible they were responding with these traits because of your behavior, and not because they are naturally this way?

What you extract from this exercise, about your colleagues and even more importantly about you, tells you what personality characteristics are more likely to make you feel intimidated. It might also tell you what personality characteristics you value as a leader.

In many ways, this is one of the most crucial exercises a leader can do. If you are going to lead well, you must be fully aware of what people/situations/personalities intimidate you, and vice versa. This self-awareness helps you react more strategically and less emotionally. It also gives you the self-awareness to control what makes you intimidating, helping eliminating instances where you “run over” people, dismiss or interrupt them, which devalues them—whether it’s intentional or not!

What can you do to remove the intimidation from either side of your leadership today?