Toxic leadership 1: the causes

In the first of three articles on toxic leadership, Kevin Johnson explains what it is and why it happens.

It’s the fairytale: the son of an electrician joins a multinational, becomes CEO and presides over a rapid rise to global dominance. But then the rot sets in. Macho leadership, lavish spending and insufficient due diligence bring the company to its knees. Under Fred Goodwin, the Royal Bank of Scotland became the world’s largest company by assets. Then it posted the biggest annual loss in UK corporate history. Much of the blame for the bank’s collapse was attributed to Goodwin’s toxic leadership style.

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Toxic leadership hits the headlines when a CEO is affected. But actually it can be a problem for leaders at any level. The role of a leader should be to equip, enable, drive and then support the success of others, so they can add value to the organisation. Leadership becomes toxic when a leader attempts to coerce others. It shows itself in bullying, aggressive, arrogant, dictatorial or manipulative behaviour; ineffective communication; micro-management and a lack of empathy. A toxic leader can unfairly judge, attack, blame or ridicule others; strengthen and defend their own position; block ideas and exclude or ‘talk over’ team members.

So why does it happen?

Seven key drivers can bring about toxic leadership:

1. It gets rewarded. Here’s the thing: people don’t set out to be toxic. Usually, their intention is to get results. However, sometimes the style they adopt, in order to do this, is over-weighted with toxic behaviour. But if this style achieves the desired result, the leader starts to rely on it. They then become locked in that style, ‘conditioned’ to behave that way. And those who get results get promoted. So the leader rises up the organisation and they don’t change their winning formula. Toxic behaviour remains their default response. At a very senior level, any short-term performance improvement is rewarded by a rise in the company’s share price. The Board get their bonuses. No one challenges the bad behaviour that drives success, even when the storm clouds are gathering. But, ultimately, that success is achieved at a very high price.

2. The leader’s ego takes over. Instead of collaborating with others and building on their strengths, leaders start to believe they have all the answers and that they’re equipped to make the best decisions. Rather than valuing and including their team members, they simply want others to follow them. Anyone who dares to raise a counterview is shot down.

3. An imbalance of traits. Trusted leaders demonstrate integrity, competence and compassion in their actions. But some leaders overly-focus on competence and they neglect integrity and compassion. Essentially, if a leader lacks one or more of these three fundamental traits, their behaviour will be toxic.

4. A skills deficit. Toxic leadership can stem from a lack of fundamental management skills, such as an inability to delegate effectively or to manage upwards. If a leader doesn’t delegate well, or isn’t clear about why something needs to be done, their teams will never be able to truly deliver the requirement. The leader may then become aggressive, spiteful and controlling but the root cause was their own inability to delegate. Likewise, if they don’t prioritise effectively – and they simply demand that everything is urgent and important – this could be because they’re unable or they’re reluctant to challenge upwards.

5. A quick mind. People in leadership roles tend to think quickly. If someone explains a problem to them, they may leap ahead to a solution. But rather than explain their thought process, they will simply give the answer – sometimes rudely and abruptly while their team member is still in mid-flow! This creates the perception that the leader doesn’t listen or they’re not interested in the team member’s opinion, which can leave that person feeling highly disengaged. But actually the leader has listened. They’ve just processed the information quickly and they’ve failed to take account of their team member’s feelings.

6. What goes around comes around. A toxic leader could consciously or unconsciously be treating others in the same way that they were treated in the early days of their own career. When organisations value transformational ‘hero’ leaders, charismatic, macho leadership can be seen as the default way to achieve results. If an individual experiences this style at an influential stage of their development, they may try to replicate it when they eventually reach a position of leadership. For them, that’s the behaviour that brings success.

7. ‘Imposter syndrome’. Some leaders have an innate fear that others will discover that they’re not as good as they’re meant to be. Their insecurity and limiting beliefs then drive toxic behaviour. They overcompensate by exerting their authority and belittling others, in an attempt to shield and protect themselves.

In the next articles in this series, we’ll look at the consequences of toxic leadership – and what can be done to address it.





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