Not all leaders are created equal. What’s more, just because a person is in a position of leadership does not automatically mean they are a leader. The term “ toxic leadership ” is somewhat of an oxymoron, because true leaders aren’t toxic—nevertheless, many companies struggle with managers, department heads, and even CEOs that are downright poisonous to their organizations. These companies generally have a problem recognizing what a leader is and may end up spending exorbitant amounts of money and time on diagnostic tests, evaluations, and assessments to figure out if their leaders are “doing it right”. The good news is that figuring out whether your organizations “leaders” are actually leaders or not is surprisingly simple. The bad news is that most company’s leaders are not. Ask yourself this: Does the “leader” in question actively promote and further your company’s mission—and, more importantly, does she inspire others to do the same?
As the great management guru Peter Drucker once said, “There is no success without a successor.” True leaders will build up others, providing the drive that moves a successful company forward. Toxic leaders, on the other hand, will corrode your company’s culture and bring a halt to production and innovation if left unchecked. What are the qualities that we must vehemently distance ourselves from if we are to curb the spread of “toxic leadership”?
Lack of Vision and Foresight
Leadership without vision is destined to fail. A toxic leader doesn’t have a clear vision of which direction to lead her team in, much like the old metaphor of the blind leading the blind. A good leader must possess many different types of vision to lead an organization, starting with a great grasp of the company’s overall mission and values. A company’s mission statement expresses the purpose of an organization’s business, as well as provides a framework for sustaining business operations. If you’re unaware of your organization’s mission, how will you be able to inspire others to achieve it?
Shortsightedness is another form of vision that toxic leaders suffer from, such as electing to deal with problems in a way that addresses its symptoms in lieu of its root causes. A common example is the way the majority of businesses have handled the perceived “IT skills gap”, letting critical positions sit vacant for months at a time while they wait for a mythical candidate to appear that has every certification and amount of experience listed in the job description. This generally costs the business loads of money in lost productivity, and some argue that it is the paradoxical cause of the IT skills gap in the first place. On the other hand, great IT leaders realize that, in an industry that grows increasingly complex every day, it’s almost impossible to find exactly what they’re looking for in potential candidates—fortunately they also realize that it costs less to train up than to wait for the arrival of the Übermensch. Toxic leaders deal with problems (if they deal with them at all) when they pop up. Great leaders deal with them before they pop up at all.
Greedy Instead of Giving
Business author Simon Sinek is a great reference for leaders who want to serve their people in the best way possible (what else does a leader do anyway?). One of his most recite-able quotes comes from his Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, when he says “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This hearkens back to your mission statement, and the reason that companies have one in the first place. If your employees perceive that you and your business exist solely to make money, consequences be damned, they won’t want to work hard for you—unless they also feel that their existence revolves solely around making money and you pay extremely well. Even then, these organizations are led by the paycheck, not by true leaders. Toxic leaders with allegiance only to profit will give rise to employees with allegiance to nobody but themselves—which can be a detriment to quality, teamwork, and many internal processes. Great leaders recognize that money is a side effect of their actions, and those that invest in their employees will see their employees invest in their company, their leaders, their fellow employees, and themselves. This propensity to give might seem to go against keeping your business in the black, but if you are giving instead of greedy (and not shortsighted, of course!) you’ll see happier employees, stronger company culture, and a more productive workforce.
Too Much Ego, Not Enough Accountability
A great piece of advice that always gets a knee-jerk reaction is that you should always try to be the dumbest person in the room. True leaders are eager to hear foreign ideas and concepts from experts on the matter. They relish in learning from others, and those around them know it. Even if a leader is the smartest person in the room, they realize that adopting a know-it-all mentality will only create distance between themselves and their employees. Communication will come to a grinding halt, and innovation will become non-existent, because, why should anybody else try to innovate when you already know everything? Ego and leadership don’t generally go well together, because ego, much like greed, is self-serving. What is the one trait that central figures in most widespread faiths exhibit? Selflessness and humility.
Toxic leaders consumed by their own egos generally also have a hard time with accountability. Real leaders take responsibility when things go wrong and give praise when they go well. They recognize that all people make mistakes instead of pretending that they never make any themselves. If you as a leader don’t take responsibility for your own actions, your employees won’t either. In instances where problems arise from error, employees will be more worried about diverting blame than getting the situation fixed. The worst example of this is found in our healthcare system. The prevalence of medical diagnostic errors is one of the biggest patient safety problems in the U.S., contributing to the statistic that medical errors caused by physicians is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Whether this is a top-down problem caused by a convoluted infrastructure that values profit over safety, a bottom-up problem caused by doctors who won’t report their errors, or something in between, one thing is clear: toxic leadership and a lack of accountability can cause irreparable harm to any organization or population.
Good Leadership Begets Good Employees
Employees that know the mission, plan accordingly, care about more than just a paycheck, and who are willing to put others first are precisely what drives successful organizations. Bad leaders fail to promote or replicate these values. Toxic leaders both actively and passively destroy them. A great leader, however, embraces these values in order to selflessly further a company’s mission, and, most incredibly, inspires others to do the same.