Leading Gifted, yet Difficult People

Leading difficult but gifted people
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There are, in most every organization; people who are gifted in one specific area, be it programming, art, sciences, etc. But they are, just for the lack of a better term, jerks. While we won’t get into the specifics of WHY they act this way, as they are different for each person, it expresses itself in ways that are mean, aggressive, or egocentric, among other things. If you have in your head an image of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, you’re there!

But we can’t write these difficult people off. Gifted people who have limited people skills can still be leaders. And they can be very good leaders. It will take time and it will take work, but they can be formed into effective leaders. Here are ways that can be accomplished.

  1. Put them on an individualized project. If they are highly gifted but lack relational intelligence, then place them on individualized projects where they can use their skills without having to interact with others. This allows you, the leader, to watch them in their creative zone and see how they operate. They get a chance to shine, and you get the chance to observe. You get to ask questions, and to understand them, how they think, and how they utilize different processes to achieve the desired outcome. As you do this, you get a chance to develop a relationship with them so that trust is developed, and they can hear you when you begin to work with them in a mentoring relationship.
  2. Put them on a team you lead.  In this scenario, they are on a team where they have to interact with others and grow their social skills. As the leader, you have to be involved in the team and can work with the entire team to manage language, behavior, and attitudes. It gives you the opportunity to coach the difficult person and help them understand why they shouldn’t think or act in ways that are unhealthy or disruptive. You can also work with them on language and mindset. This mentoring and training takes work. It takes energy, and it takes emotional and relational intelligence. 
  3. Once you feel comfortable with how they have developed, allow them to lead a small project with good people that function under a strong leader. Give them the opportunity to utilize the relational skills you have worked with them to develop. Be involved with the team on a limited scale and turn the leadership over to them. Then observe, coach, and develop. Then repeat.
  4. Expand their leadership responsibilities. Give them more projects, bigger projects or important projects to lead. Never, however, stop observing, coaching, and developing them.

It’s important to understand that development, not giftedness is the key. Difficult people need to be able to use their gifts, but they cannot use them in ways that are detrimental to the team. And since leaders are not born, but made, our role is to help them grow those relational skills and paid that with their gifts. Help them focus on relational skills, empathy, conviction, compassion and grace. It can be tough, but it can be done.

We can’t give up on gifted people or average people. We all have blind spots – some are bigger than others – that need correcting. Relational coaching can help the entire team become exceptional team members and leaders!

And just think, if a difficult person can be formed into an effective and relationally aware leader, it could accelerate organizational growth or opportunities. 


David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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