Tim Hebert
November 23, 2016

ARTICLE: Are you a "Toxic Leader"?

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Like me, you’ve likely worked for several individuals throughout your career—both good and bad. Some may have been nothing more than a boss, or a supervisor who signs off on time sheets, vacation requests and barks orders. Others were true leaders, empowering you to quickly reach your potential – to be your best.

For some reason, I seem to have worked for more bad leaders than good (maybe you feel the same way!). I vividly remember my first “boss.” I was 17-years-old, right out of high school and working in an environment in which the average age of an employee was 30. My boss just didn’t get me. In fact, during a one-on-one with him early in my tenure, he told me flat out that he didn’t like me, thought I was irreverent and, that for a person my age, I had too much influence and sway over other people in the organization. What’s more, he said it was his personal mission to get me kicked out of the organization. Can you believe it?

I thought it would get better as I got older.

But I soon found myself working for another individual who I came to learn was taking extensive reports that I was compiling and passing them off to upper managers as his own. Of course he never confessed this to me himself. Rather, after submitting the report, he would assure me that he sung my praises to company executives.

No matter where you are in your career, from time to time, you will come face-to-face with a toxic leader. In fact, as you read this, you may be wondering if anyone would ever describe you as such a leader. If you are asking yourself that question, or have ever asked that question, you are very self-aware. However, I have found that many people/leaders are blinded to the way they treat people and how their actions and behaviors affect others. This lack of self-awareness is a primary reason why many leaders become toxic.

Let’s uncover five behaviors these leaders tend to exhibit:

 1. Staying Below the Line

 Ask a number of executives and employees about the chief reason companies experience problems with leadership, culture and empowerment and many will agree it’s because a lack of accountability prevails through the organization. While leaders feel their employees don’t hold themselves accountable, employees tend to feel there is a lack of responsibility at the executive level.

I’ve read quite a few books on the concept of accountability and, while many authors place it at the organizational level, one book I read, “The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability,” puts the focus solely on the individual. In other words, we as employees and leaders either choose to be accountable or not.

At Atrion we follow this principle. You are either accountable or not. If you are accountable, then you’re focused on the desired results/outcomes regardless of the circumstance, and your behaviors are above the line. If not, then they are below the line. Some below-the-line behaviors are:

  •  Justifications and excuses
  • Blame-storming
  • Denying
  • The wait-and-see method
  • CYA, or cover your “butt”
  • Confusion
  • “It’s not my job” statements

 Toxic leaders fail to put the onus of accountability on themselves. Does blame-storming, denial or justification ring a bell for you?

 2. Becoming the ‘Negative Nelly’

 We’ve all met the “negative Nelly,” or the person who complains about everyone and everything. This person proves that one rotten apple can in fact spoil the bunch. In fact, one interaction with a “negative Nelly” can ruin your entire day.

The problem with these folks is that they adversely affect the energy of the work environment. Every professional brings a specific type of energy to the workplace that influences others. What we find through studies and research is that positive energy is infectious but takes a long time to build to an intensity that is beneficial.

Conversely, negative energy is like a fuse. As soon as you light it, it burns hot, fast and furious. One is like a candle while the other is a bomb. The problem with toxic leaders is that they don’t realize the impact of their negative energy. This type of attitude has a tendency to fuel an atmosphere of gossip and speculation—instead of cooperation and openness.

Much as cancer pushes out and starves healthy cells, negative leaders push out a company’s best employees.

 3. Lacking Honesty

Toxic leaders are apt to outright lie, make commitments and promises they don’t intend to keep, and intentionally deceive.

What’s more, they may be reticent to be fully candid with their employees—to the detriment of the employees. Picture workers who are not performing optimally. Many times, these individuals want feedback from their bosses about their job performance and how to improve. Sure, it’s a tough conversation to have (and the individuals may not like what they hear) but they most likely still want this dialogue to take place.

Unfortunately, many “leaders” want their employees to do something differently but are so committed to avoiding conflict that they will sugarcoat a concern or beat around the bush. Suddenly that critical conversation never happens and the employee is left feeling confused. In many ways, a reluctance to deliver the truth is even more harmful than making false promises or deceiving.

Toxic leaders are often unaware of the responsibility they carry to empower their employees to reach new levels of greatness. They’d rather have the easy conversation than the one that could ignite a spark in an employee.

 4. Being a Know-it-all

 I’ve worked with great leaders who were wicked smart and seemingly had all the answers. They quickly became a constant go-to source. But there’s a fine line between having answers versus having the ONLY answer. Toxic leaders don’t know the difference. They simply know it all. They are likely to:

  •  Have comments on everything that you are doing even though they have limited knowledge
  • Use the Internet to find a single fact/detail and then beat you over the head with it
  • Rely on their past experience without the ability to adjust to the current situation

 As leaders, we’re expected to know a lot and share that information; people appreciate that. But you have to ask yourself, why are you sharing information? Is it to show how smart you are and to prove that you are right? Or is it to sincerely help someone?

Though it’s easier to quickly give advice, the discovery process for employees is critical. Leaders have to enable their employees to arrive at conclusions themselves. They have to be willing to exert patience in watching someone discover the answer. Unfortunately, toxic leaders are often less concerned about their or others’ personal and professional growth and are more focused on just being right.

 5. Being Insecure

Our insecurities are rooted in how we feel about ourselves. When we doubt our ability, feel that we don’t measure up to standards or don’t generally like ourselves, our insecurities are energized and that erodes our confidence. In many ways, the above behaviors are all rooted in a toxic leader’s lack of security.

While leadership is about exuding confidence, it’s also about how you demonstrate that confidence. One is in yourself and your abilities. The other is in your team. You may not have all the answers but, if you have a great team, you can reach moments of excellence together. When leaders don’t have confidence in themselves or their teams, they cover their insecurities in ways that are subversive, such as acting like a know-it-all, and/or being disrespectful and indecisive.

Because of these insecurities, toxic leaders often create a lack of clarity within the organization; they tend to procrastinate and then become the martyr, and they constantly seek praise and validation from everyone. Many times they treat others poorly to make themselves feel great. These types of individuals find it hard to grow themselves professionally and invest in their own talents.

 Bonus One! Lacking an Attitude of Gratitude

I can’t help but add this behavior to the list as well, as so many toxic leaders simply expect hard work and effort but give little or no recognition. They may even take credit for the team’s successes (like my former boss) and lay any blame at the team’s feet. In Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” he talks about the effectiveness of “Level 5 leaders.” His research concluded that a Level 5 leader often gives all the credit for his or her success to his or her team and consequently takes all of the blame when faced with failure. Are you a Level 5 leader who shares the glory with your colleagues and team?

For more on this, check out my previous blog “Five Killers of Corporate Culture.

 What Path Will You Take?

In many ways, a leader can be like a river: providing nutrients to help workers grow, survive and thrive. But if you’re a toxic leader, then the river you create will only serve to limit, diminish and destroy those around you.

When I think of toxic leaders, I am reminded of the Androscoggin River, the third-longest river in Maine— flowing 278 miles from Errol, New Hampshire, to the Atlantic Ocean. At one point in time, it was one of the most polluted rivers in the country and helped to inspire The Clean Water Act. Today, it is still ranked as one of the 20 most pollu


ted rivers in America. In fact, one 14-mile stretch requires oxygen bubblers to prevent fish from suffocating.

As someone in a leadership role, you can make the decision to provide the nutrients or poison your surroundings. You can choose to be the one who inspires, mentors and elevates the standards of excellence, or the one who leaves a wake of negativity.

As you begin your process of introspection, you may find these related blogs helpful:

 I am sure that you have had your fair share of good leaders and some whom you would rather forget. Are you a leader who people willing follow or are you forgettable?

As you ponder that question, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to share stories about your experiences with both exceptional and toxic leaders. Looking forward to continuing this conversation!

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