Why the Lone Wolf Personality Fails as a Leader (and how to fix it)

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

Q: What's the difference between a lone wolf and a leader?

A: When a leader turns around, there's a group following them. When a lone wolf turns around, they're alone.

If you've ever watched a movie or TV show with a lone wolf personality trying to be a leader, you know how awkward it can be. They may stand up and suggest a seemingly great idea (or at least a strong opinion), and yet when they get up to go, no one follows.

Typically, that leads to some type of, "I guess I'll do it myself!" kind of comment.

And that's exactly at the heart of lone wolf behavior, and why they struggle as leaders.

a lone wolf personality has its pros and cons

What is a lone wolf personality?

Someone with a lone wolf personality tends to have strong opinions, and a work ethic to match. They don't mind doing things on their own; in fact, they often prefer it, so they can do it exactly their way.

Getting more specific, lone wolf traits tend to include:
  1. Independence: Lone wolves highly value their autonomy and want to solve problems on their own.
  2. Self-Reliance: They trust their abilities over others when they need to get things done.
  3. Anti-Authority: Lone wolves tend to not like being told what to do by you or anyone else. They often struggle to follow rules and guidelines, especially if they don't agree with them.
  4. Socially Disengaged: They tend to keep to themselves and will have fewer friends at work than your more outgoing team members.
  5. Extremely Direct: Lone wolves focus on results and expediency, often at the expense of social norms. Their directness can cause others to bristle.
  6. Highly Creative: On the positive side, lone wolves bring unique perspectives which can often lead to innovative solutions and valuable, unique perspectives.
  7. Results Oriented: They can often be some of your best team members, because they care most about getting the job done and delivering results.

Those last two traits are why many managers love having a lone wolf on their team.

Especially if you have the skills to navigate their downsides, lone wolves often play a critical role in having a great team that consistently wins.

Yet, as many managers learn: Just because someone is a great individual contributor, doesn't mean they'll make a good manager.

The lone wolf personality is one of the most common personality types who fail as leaders. That's why today's post is dedicated to understand why, and showing you and your lone wolf how they can succeed as a leader.

Table of contents

lone wolf personality doesn't make a good leader in many cases as Camille Fournier shows us

What makes Lone Wolf Behavior different from a Typical Leader?

As we defined above, lone wolves have several personality traits that can make them struggle as leaders. Unfortunately, these traits tend to cause frustration, drama, disengagement, and often turnover on their teams.

Let's break down the lone wolf traits we talked about earlier, and specifically how each causes problems:

  • Trait: Independence - Lone wolves highly value their autonomy and want to solve problems entirely on their own.
  • How things go wrong - As a leader, this can cause you to sideline your team from key decisions and solutions rather than leveraging everyone's collective knowledge and ideas.

  • Trait: Self-Reliance - They trust their abilities over others when they need to get things done.
  • How things go wrong - Placing supreme trust in your own abilities over others', lone wolves may hoard important tasks and responsibilities. This leaves your team members frustrated, and stuck with only mundane busywork and feeling unchallenged.

  • Trait: Anti-Authority - Lone wolves tend to not like being told what to do by you or anyone else. They often struggle to follow rules and guidelines, especially if they don't agree with them.
  • How things go wrong - It's hard to maintain order on your team if you don't like setting guidelines and assume everyone on your team will just do things exactly like you do.

  • Trait: Socially Disengaged - They tend to keep to themselves and will have fewer friends at work than your more outgoing team members.
  • How things go wrong - Your team wants to feel you care about them as a person. They want some rapport and trust, yet lone wolves tend to avoid such discussions leaving your team feeling you are cold and distant. It also then limits psychological safety on your team discouraging sharing and collaboration.

  • Trait: Extremely Direct - Lone wolves focus on results and expediency, often at the expense of social norms. Their directness can cause others to bristle.
  • How things go wrong - This style, especially when combined with a lack of rapport, leads to frustrated team members who feel bossed around and abused. It's not long then before your team becomes disengaged, checked out, and searching for a more humane boss.

  • Trait: Results Oriented - They can often be some of your best team members, because they care most about getting the job done and delivering results.
  • How things go wrong - While this is good, combined with the issues above, you can seem like an unreasonable manager who cares only about results and not at all about your team members. Performance will suffer more and more over time.

If you only had 1 or 2 of these lone wolf traits, or only occasionally displayed this kind of lone wolf behavior, you might be able to get by okay. Your team might groan or be annoyed, but they could tolerate it because of other positive qualities.

The real problem with most lone wolves is that they will do the majority of these things often with their teams. These issues compound to give you a team that can't stand their boss.

That's why it's so important to look at these issues with clear eyes.

There are many changes you, or the lone wolf you're trying to develop into a manager, must change. Fortunately, it is possible, if you take the time to learn new skills and embrace the changes needed to transform from lone wolf to a real leader.

From Loner to Leader: How you can transform a Lone Wolf into an true leader

The first step for you to transform a lone wolf is making sure they understand the most fundamental truth: successful leadership requires a shift from their current lone wolf mindset.

What worked for them as an individual contributor will fail as a leader of a team.

Unfortunately, love wolves tend to mistakenly view leading others as simply doing what they want and expecting people to follow. That fails for all the reasons we just outlined above.

Instead, you must teach them that true leadership means earning the right to be followed, which comes from practicing key behaviors like becoming collaborative, building real relationships, and thinking of your team first.

Let's take a deeper look at each of those and how you can learn them as a lone wolf.

lone wolf personality traits need to build rapport more.

1) Earn Buy-In Through Real Relationships

One of the biggest areas of weakness for lone wolves tends to be getting buy-in. You just want to get things done, and what's the point of all this talking about it, right?

That may work when your boss assigns a critical task to you and you can just go do it.

But now you have a team to lead. You need them on board and supporting you. You also need them contributing to their full potential, because you cannot do it all yourself.

Even a brilliant strategy will fail without your team's full commitment, which comes only after you've developed rapport with each of them, and shown you genuinely value each person. The lone wolf behavior of being direct, and all-business makes this extremely difficult.

To break this pattern, you must consciously practice empathy and humility, while working hard to find common ground before they will start listening to you and commit to your leadership.

You need to make an effort to see things from your team's perspective, not just bulldozing forward with your viewpoint. You also will earn more credibility over time if you show you're willing to admit mistakes as well as listen to their feedback and ideas.

All of this can sound foreign to your average lone wolf, but it's the dose of bitter medicine you need to start building a healthy foundation with your team.

To get this buy-in and start building strong relationships, a lone wolf should start with these key actions: (click the links to learn more about each of them)

  • Build rapport: Get to know your team. What makes them tick? What are they excited about? Learning these things unlocks how to motivate them and builds trust.
  • Create psychological safety: Without trust and a healthy, collaborative dynamic among your team, you won't get the best ideas. It takes effort by leaders to actively nurture and cultivate this.
  • Get real buy-in for your ideas: "Because I said so" gets old very fast. There is an art to getting buy in that can make your ideas better, and ensure you have your team's support.
lone wolf traits can hold leaders back by not listening to their team

2) Embrace an Inclusive and Collaborative Mindset

For the lone wolf accustomed to complete autonomy, the idea of explaining, consulting, compromising and sharing ownership can feel tedious and distracting from "just getting it done."

Yet, your instinct that people should simply understand and follow your lead doesn't work out.

A my-way-or-the-highway stance will quickly have your team feeling unheard and disconnected from your vision. They will not follow simply because you're the one in charge.

True leadership requires an investment in each person on your team, and involving them in your planning and processes. They want to feel heard, and they want to feel they're making a real contribution.

This can be very hard for a lone wolf who is used to simply acting fast.

Part of leadership is learning to slow down. As a wise friend taught me, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast" and in the case of leading a team, it helps to slow down and make sure you're bringing your team along.

That can include listening to their concerns and ideas, giving them appropriate projects for their current skill level, and a lot more that leaders must be intentional about. You don't get a high performing team by accident, nor do you get it by trying to control every little detail yourself.

No one can do everything by themselves, and no team wants a boss who puts a stranglehold on every step of the process.

That's why you have to work hard as a lone wolf (or in teaching one) to embrace processes that will help you remember to involve your team.

To start involving your team more, master these skills first:

lone wolf traits are hard to let go of, but necessary

3) Let go of their Lone Wolf Identity

This can be the hardest of all for many. The lone wolf identity often comes from prior experiences of feeling misunderstood, unheard, or undermined by colleagues and bosses.

Whether it was a sabotaged project where they felt a coworker ruined their hard work, or they saw much more success doing everything themselves rather than working with others, it's not easy to break that pattern like that once it's learned.

To change that mindset requires you to recognize the biggest aspects that need to change:

  • Trusting others: Part of doing everything yourself comes from believing everyone around you is your enemy, incompetent, or out to hurt you. Helping them rebuild trust is crucial to getting them to let their walls down.
  • Who you surround yourself with: If you've ever been on a team (or class project) with terrible people, you know how frustrating that is. Letting the lone wolf pick their team, or fire poor performers, can help them see how great a good team can be.
  • Team over individual: Lone wolves are used to doing it all themselves. A team first mindset does not come naturally, but if they start trusting others, and feel confident in the skills of their team, they can start embracing a more team-oriented mindset.

To some of you this may sound easy and obvious. However, this identity shift can be incredibly difficult after years of lone wolf conditioning.

Yet, these mindset shifts are essential to unlock their potential as a leader.

To help them shift their mindsets, start with these books and resources:

lone wolf personality means you need to coach them more.

Provide Ongoing Support for Your Lone Wolves in Leadership Roles

If you decide to promote a lone wolf into a leadership role, it's important you recognize what you're signing up for. You cannot just promote that person and leave them alone to figure it out.

You need to embrace your role as a leader to coach them, so they have a chance to develop.

You're going to need to spend more time with them. They need to learn from you through consistent effort to not just teach them the principles we've outlined above, but to also show them all their blind spots.

Too often, lone wolves have *no idea* that their approaches are hated by their teams. They assume because they respect intelligence and that their ideas tend to be right that that's enough.

Often, it takes a rude awakening for them to want to change.

As their leader, it's your job to make that rude awakening happen with the least amount of collateral damage.

That means stepping in to help them understand problems as they emerge:

  • 👎 Bad: If you wait until someone has quit their team, that's an expensive way to learn, especially because we know employees tend to leave in waves. If one person leaves, others may, too.
  • 👍 Better: If you do skip level 1 on 1s, or review their 360 reviews, and hear about problems with the team, you can share those with the lone wolf, while helping them understand what needs to change.
  • ⭐ Best: A lone wolf in a new management role is the definition of low Task Relevant Maturity. That means you should be more hands on with them and their team so you can identify teachable moments quickly and more consistently.
lone wolf traits are hard to unteach but you should try

Final word - Great leaders, if you can teach them.

Before you promote a lone wolf into a management and leadership role, it's important for you to ask yourself two *very* important questions:

  1. Are they willing to learn and change?
  2. Are you willing to teach and guide them?

If either of those are no, you should not give them the role.

This is exactly why many companies have developed parallel tracks for experienced individual contributors. In many cases, lone wolves can be *much* happier as a "Principal Controls Engineer" or "Staff Engineer" than as any kind of manager.

There is absolutely no need to force it.

Yet, some lone wolves can be taught. I know, because there was a time where I had some of the lone wolf traits; I had learned from school projects that teammates just drag you down.

It wasn't until my father showed me what was possible when you were surrounded by a good team (and that you can fire underperformers at work) that I realized there was a better way than just doing everything myself.

Will you take on the challenge to turn a lone wolf into a leader? There may be a great leader waiting to be unleashed if you're willing to take a chance and make the effort.

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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