The Allure of Toxic Leadership

Not long ago, I was asked by an organization to coach newly hired executives. Needless to say, I welcomed the opportunity to work with such a “coach-centric” organization. Not knowing what to expect, I anticipated having a head-spinning barrage of leadership challenges. However, I soon noticed that the vast majority of my clients were incoming executives who had failed to take stock of their new organization’s culture.


In fact, my clients came in two distinct categories:

  1. Those executives who stepped on what I call a “cultural landmine” – Individuals who were mandated to have a coach and
  2. Forward thinking executives who sought the help of a coach to help them overcome challenges.


And, while it would be easy to agree with the organization’s assessment that those in the first category were “toxic leaders,” the answer is not so cut and dry. Sure, those individuals might have made bad decisions from time to time (…or often); however, the truth is most of these executives were merely trying to execute the mandates given to them by senior leaders. And, vague statements like, “I don’t care how you go about it, just make sure you get results!” or “I’m not a micromanager, but I’ll let you know if I don’t like something that you’re doing” don’t really help new leaders assess the lay of the land. It also doesn’t help when the person making those statements have zero idea about their new employee’s approach to leadership. Complicating this are organizational cultural issues and the fact that people naturally resist change. When some new leaders experience resistance, they resort to threats or immediate corrective action.


On the surface, this would seem like the correct response to defiant employees. After all, it usually does the trick. Most employees respond to position power. Who in their right mind would outwardly defy a direct mandate from their boss? – Not many. If this type of response seems to do the trick, a new leader may be in danger of being seduced by the dark side of leadership. If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s very similar to the “dark side” mentioned in a series of very popular Science Fiction movies. In fact, they are almost identical. Both are easier, fueled by anger (or annoyance), and get quick results. However, any gains that are made will erode over time. Although direct reports may not make their defiance obvious, they will resist in more subtle, but equally damaging ways.


The following are some examples:

  • Work stoppages or slow downs
  • Feigning ignorance or downplaying their skill
  • Gaslighting (“You never told me that.”)
  • Abruptly quitting
  • Complaining to your boss

If these consequences don’t seem like a big deal, consider the following story. A long time ago, in an organization far, far away, there was a Chief Operating Officer (COO) who was relied heavily on autocratic leadership. This leader would often publicly humiliate employees, minimize their hard work, and micro-manage their projects down to the type of paper they used for reports. Needless to say, they were not very popular. However, because they achieved “results,” they were allowed to operate in this manner. The COO particularly disliked one (very jumpy) middle manager. It seemed they got some kind of perverse pleasure in making this manager squirm, sweat, and stutter. This went on for years until, one day, the manager got feed up and complained to a friend who just happened to be related to a very powerful board member. Within two months, the COO was fired and the employees who had worked for them rejoiced.


The morale of the story is simple: don’t give in to the allure of toxic leadership. Instead, cultivate a genuine interest in what makes your team members tick. Learn what motivates them, what de-motives them, and the best way to reward them for a job well done. Spend some time explaining your values to them and ask them about theirs. Have regular meetings with them to discuss their career trajectory and help them create a plan to reach those goals. It sounds cliché, but find out where they see themselves in five to ten years. Nurture the team and reward the entire team when they truly exhibit the spirit of teamwork. Also, if you’re new to an organization, spend a go deal of time during your first 90 (or so) days understanding the culture of the organization. Don’t just read the organization’s mission, vision, and core values. In fact, many times those statement can be misleading. Instead, compare those statements to how the individuals act in the organization. The true culture of the organization most likely resides there, not in their aspirational statements. This sounds like a lot of work for a good reason: it is. However, the benefits far outweigh the effort that it takes to put these things into action. As a result, you will be viewed as a true leader, not a tyrant who the rebels want to depose.