Toxic Leadership
and what to do about it

Toxic leadership seems to be a topic du jour at the moment. There are lots of articles and books being written about it. I am going to give you my personal take. As the adage goes: ‘You know it when you see it.” And one could add “And when you feel it”.

Here are some descriptions of toxic behavior culled from various dictionaries. “Very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way”, “Causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious”, “Causing you a lot of harm and unhappiness over a long period of time”, “Extremely harsh and malicious”.

Related to the corporate world toxic leadership is “A combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. (Forbes, 10th January 2014).


The bottom line is that such a leader is in service to self versus in service to others. My friend Kernan Manion, Co-Founder of Speak up Academy, calls it “Malignant narcissism.”

But why are some leaders toxic? I am not a psychologist but a lifetime’s journey toward ‘self-realization’ leads me to be sure that the root reason is a level of fear and insecurity. And if we agree with this premise then we can move on to ways in which toxicity in leadership can be prevented and even drained from the host.

Whether that fear stems from a difficult childhood or a traumatic adulthood the fact is that fear creates the bully, the immured heart and soul, the disconnect from feelings, the survival mode, the withdrawal to self, the self-obsession, the grandiosity, and the lack of compassion and empathy for others.

Toxic leadership can have massively damaging effects on an organization's culture, economic performance and even threaten its very existence as in the much-cited cases of Enron. I am sure you can think of others. BP, Volkswagen, maybe even an organization you have worked in?!

So, what can be done about it? Most people have good intentions and their toxic behavior is the result of a lack of self-awareness and awareness of others. Most of the senior executives I have coached who clearly have a toxic style of leadership are mortified when they discover how they are impacting others and, especially, viewed by others. Of course, there are genuine psychopaths, but their lack of heart and soul connection should be the subject of another article and their treatment is not straightforward!

Here is a true story of toxic leadership and how it had a happy ending. And it is very pertinent to our theme.

I once was asked to coach a very successful senior executive at a global bank. She was not on talking terms with her co-head of a global division despite being three office rooms apart on the same side of the same floor. The atmosphere was poisoned and the division’s thousands of staff were lined up behind each co-head wreaking havoc with any notion of optimal collaboration and productivity.

I interviewed lots of people around the executive and then fed the verbatim, uncensored, unedited data back to her in a one day 1-2-1 session. Listening to often repeated words like cold, bully, unapproachable, uncaring and scary was a shocking and extremely painful experience for her. She had managed to reach near the top of the ladder and was the CEO’s favorite by her mid-forties but had never received any honest feedback from the succession of male managers who had been her boss throughout her career.

This feedback, while so painful, was transformational. She made a quantum leap in her own level of self-awareness and how she impacted others. From night today. And in the process, a healing started to take place in her relationship with the other co-head as well as the entire division.

This executive was only this blind due to a failure of various managers to give her feedback earlier in her career. Giving constructive and truthful feedback is not easy sometimes and it often requires ‘emotional fortitude’ to courageously help the ‘difficult’ or toxic individual.

So, here are some of the ways in which toxic leadership can be prevented or detoxed:

  1. The CEO and her team need to lead by example in cultivating a corporate culture that provides a safe space for open and honest communication.
  2. People at all levels need to be diligent in observing and reporting toxic behavior no matter how subtle or unreported, and this includes the Board if the CEO is the one poisoning the chalice.
  3. Appropriate action should be taken in a timely and constructive manner in the form of skilful and brave feedback.
  4. Toxic behavior should NEVER be ignored and swept under the carpet for any reason.
  5. A culture of feedback and coaching should be developed that takes into account the importance of self-development around self-awareness and the rest of the major competencies of Emotional Intelligence.
Michael Banks

Written by Michael Banks
Principal Consultant @PeopleSmart
Published by PeopleSmart

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