Toxic Leadership: A New Look at Solutions

When we talk about leaders, we tend to focus on the positive aspects of their leadership and what they’ve used their skills to accomplish. But there’s also a dark side to leadership.

Have you ever worked for a toxic leader, someone you think of as manipulative, two-faced, untrustworthy, and selfish?

“Toxic leaders cast their spell broadly. Most of us claim we abhor them. Yet we frequently follow — or at least tolerate — them.” ~ Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Much has been written about toxic leaders with psychopathic traits and narcissistic personality disorders. Bad leaders leave a trail of diminishing returns, ruined reputations, failed products, employee litigation and disheartened staffs.

But applying labels doesn’t solve any problems. Leadership is relationship-driven, and organizational toxicity involves all levels—from followers to executive boards. Chopping off the rotting head won’t do the trick when the entire organizational system has been infected.

Companies that replace one dysfunctional leader with another often run through a series of CEOs in an attempt to find the right savior. They’re effectively changing seats on the Titanic. Consultants and coaches may try to treat toxicity’s symptoms, but they’ll achieve lasting results only when they address its root causes.

Despite our best efforts at developing leadership skills, we continue to witness counterproductive and destructive workplace behaviors. Toxic leadership is a major contributor to employee disengagement.

In Search of Answers

“Toxicity is everybody’s business, just as ‘quality is everybody’s business’ in TQM.” ~ Alan Goldman, Transforming Toxic Leaders (Stanford University Press, 2009)

There’s no shortage of bestselling business books that pose the following questions:

  • How do we handle high achievers with difficult behaviors that push the limits?
  • Why do followers and executive boards tolerate and empower toxic leaders?
  • Why are HR experts, boards, managers and others so reluctant to respond to toxic behaviors?
  • Should we fire a dysfunctional CEO or hire a leadership coach who provides detoxification training?

The dark side of leadership emerges over time. Left unchecked, bad behavior invites turnover, absenteeism, grievances, bad press and costly lawsuits.

Can leadership coaches and consultants diagnose and “cure” these destructive leaders? That’s the question I ask and it’s much debated among my colleagues.

It’s not easy. Most toxic leadership behaviors are embedded in dysfunctional systems that actually promote destructiveness through poor policies, avoidance and negligence.

If you suspect that you work in an organization that has toxic leaders, you won’t be able to handle it alone. Sometimes it helps to speak with a professional, if only for your own sanity and well-being. Contact me and let’s talk.

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