How to Vaccinate against Toxic Leadership

How to Vaccinate against Toxic Leadership

The measles outbreak is getting lots of attention. We know the solution: vaccination. But we’re having trouble convincing a portion of the population that this cure is worth the perceived risk.

It’s an important topic to address – as is another outbreak that I, personally, hear about on a daily basis. This one gets a lot less attention, and it’s not causing death. But it is destroying lives. And within your company, it may be hard to convince certain key decision makers that the cure is worth the perceived risk.

I call this condition toxic leadership. And believe me, it needs to be remedied.

The Symptoms of a Toxic Leader

First, lets look at the symptoms that help identify a toxic leader. I’ve discovered several throughout my decades as a management coach:

  • People are silent in his presence
  • He does not say “I don’t know”
  • He talks about others’ weaknesses, but not about their strengths
  • He finds ways to describe his own contributions without crediting others
  • He is uninterested in personal leadership development
  • He is closed to new ideas, advice, learning, or approaches
  • It’s all about him: Does he get the spotlight? Is he being criticized?
  • He studies people only to learn how to manipulate them, rather than to help them grow

Now, a non-toxic manager can show a few of these symptoms. Nobody’s perfect! But here’s what you can look for: when you invite this non-toxic boss to take advantage of coaching or leadership development, he’ll respond with enthusiasm.

A toxic leader, on the other hand, will display all of the symptoms at one time or another. And, when you invite him to participate in some sort of leadership development, he won’t show interest. Likely reason: “too busy right now.”

Why Toxic Leadership Spreads

Bad-Leadership-Can-Be-ToxicSo, how do toxic managers keep their jobs? And why can they climb higher and higher within an organization, infecting more and more people as they go? There are 2 related answers:

  1. The leaders above them are short-range thinkers
  2. The toxic manager often gets good short-term results

It’s actually pretty simple: The toxic manager’s focus on himself is a strong driver toward hard work, accomplishment, and achieving the goal. All of this can lead to short-term results.

When higher-ups see said results, they like the quick uptick, so they often choose to give this leader even more authority. But those with longer-term insight might sense what’s harder to recognize:

  • This guy is sub-optimizing team performance
  • The company is losing excellent people because of his leadership methods. (Hint:  mediocre people don’t leave when the toxic manager shows up – only your best employees do.)
  • He’s shutting down innovation that could create new opportunities for your company

The problem is, none of these disastrous costs leads to an invoice to the company that says “caused by your toxic leader.” However, his short-term results might move a needle. Somewhere. For a minute.

But I guarantee that if I could whip up that invoice, you’d see that his “results” are one of your greatest expenses.

Identifying the Toxic Leader

If you work for a toxic leader, you know it. When you read through the above symptoms, your suspicions were only confirmed. Now what? Take a deep breath and skip down to the Vaccinating section below.

If you manage a toxic leader, you might not know it. In most cases, it’s harder to recognize these folks from your vantage point, because they pride themselves on making sure that “people who matter” see them in the best possible light. Here are some tips to help you:

  • All conversations contain predominant references to “I” and “me” rather than “we” and “them”.
  • When you have a meeting with her and her team, members of the group look to her before answering questions. And many people in the room might seem simply unwilling to chime in at all.
  • Whenever you ask her anything, she always has some sort of answer for you (even if that “answer” meanders way off topic into her own area of expertise).
  • When things go well, she identifies what she did to make it happen. When things go poorly, other names come up.
  • When you present a new idea to her, she’ll get uncomfortable. This is tricky territory for her, because she wants to come off looking good in your book, but she doesn’t like outside input. So, while she may initially act amenable, she’ll probably come up with reasons not to follow up. (Note: when you ask her why she hasn’t followed up, she’ll blame someone else. See above.)
  • She says things like “Yes, I convinced Sarah to do that by appealing to…” or “I motivated Jon by dangling X carrot.” The key insight here: she’s not interested in how encouragement can grow her employees, but in how she can use it to get something out of them. She’s proud of her manipulative abilities.

Vaccinating Against Toxic Leadership

In truth, toxic influences can come from many directions within your organization. So it’s important to look at all of them when considering the possible remedies. Let’s get specific and practical:

Toxic Leader

We need to come at this one from 2 angles: that of the toxic leaders’ manager, and that of the toxic leaders’ employee.

First, I’ll address this leader’s boss: The answer is simple, and you know what it is. Eliminate the toxic person from his or her role.

Now, many high-level leaders – including boards of directors – are not willing to “risk” this cure. (Remember the short-term vision issue?) If that’s you or your board, consider offering the leader a final shot through coaching. There are bad leaders who are teachable and absolutely deserve a chance to get better. But truly toxic folks will either flake out on leadership development or charge through a bunch of coaches, never truly engaging in a process that implies they might have room to grow.

Now, what to do if this leader is your boss: Best option? Recharge your career elsewhere. While you’re looking, you can make your work life a bit more pleasant by giving your boss credit, asking questions instead of making statements, and never criticizing.

But don’t linger. If you have a toxic boss, you’re working for a company that is too short-sighted to hire and promote more effectively – a company that isn’t focused enough on its most valuable resource: its people. It’s time to find a new gig.

Toxic Peer

If you have a toxic co-worker, the best thing you can do is make yourself an excellent leader. Develop your behaviors into the exact opposite of the symptoms list above. Do not criticize your peer, and do not openly compete. Simply perform with the powerful attributes in your arsenal, ignoring the toxic colleague as much as possible.

When faced with a public attack from him or her, do not respond with statements, but use with questions: “Now, what evidence brought you to that conclusion?” or “What makes you feel that way?”

Toxic Subordinate

If you’ve realized that there’s a toxic person on your team (even if he manages no one, he can be toxic), show him this blog, or share other personal development tools that you know and trust.

If he takes this seriously, he can re-orient his destiny. If he declines the help, remove him from your organization.

Toxic Customer

Finally admitted that your difficult customer is in fact toxic? Ask them find another supplier. Your customer is not number one. Your people are! The toxic customer will degrade your team. They are not worth it.

Toxic Self

If you have realized, in reading this or previously, that you are in fact a toxic leader, I congratulate you on your honesty and insight.

Now consider this carefully: those around you see you as self-confident, decisive, smart, in-charge, dominating, and achieving. But you and I know the truth – a truth that would shock your co-workers: you are caught up in an endless, life-long battle to think well of yourself

But you don’t have to stay on that path. If you’re willing to start discovering the cure, I’d love to talk with you. There are tools that can help. Lots of tools. But you have to decide that you want to help you.

3 thoughts on “How to Vaccinate against Toxic Leadership

  1. Luke Adam - March 2, 2015 at 10:04 am

    I had a lot of fear as I read this blog. I did not want to be a toxic boss. What I realized is that we all have a bad day occassionally as we may be thinking abour ourselves a little more than others. We also have areas that we can work on without being a toxic boss. The key is what is our theme? Do I do all those toxic boss indicators listed in the blog? If not, I still need to be aware of my weaknesses and not let them undermine my attributes in which I have strength.

    • Bill Munn - March 3, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      Great observation, Luke. In fact, your comments make me smile, because the very act of questioning yourself proves that you are NOT a toxic leader. You clearly have a teachable spirit!


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