Leadership Barometer 43 Toxic Leaders

March 22, 2020

We are all familiar with the word “toxic” and recognize that toxic substances are known to cause human beings serious injury or death. We are also aware that some individuals have mastered the skill of being toxic to other people.

When a toxic person is the leader of an organization, the performance of that unit will typically be less than half what it would be under a leader who builds trust. There is documented evidence (see Trust Across America statistics) that high trust groups outperform low trust groups by a factor of two to five times.

Thankfully, the majority of leaders are not toxic. One estimate given by LTG Walter F. Ulmer in an article entitled “Toxic Leadership” (Army, June 2012) is that 30-50% of leaders are essentially transformational, while only 8-10% are essentially toxic. The unfortunate reality is that one toxic leader in an organization does such incredible damage, he or she can bring down an entire culture without even realizing it.

Why would a leader speak and behave in a toxic way if he or she recognizes the harm being done to the organization?

Is it because leaders are just not aware of the link between their behaviors and performance of the group?

Is it because they are totally unaware of the fact that their actions are toxic to others?

Is it because they are lazy and just prefer to bark out orders rather than work to encourage people?

While there are instances where any of these modes might be in play, I think other mechanisms are responsible for most of the lamentable behaviors of toxic leaders.

Toxic leaders do understand that employees are generally unhappy working under them. What they fail to see is the incredible leverage they are leaving off the table. They just do not believe there is a better way to manage, otherwise they would do that.

If you are in an organization, there is a possibility you are in daily contact with one or more toxic leaders. There are three possibilities here: 1) you have a leader working for you who is toxic, 2) you are a toxic leader yourself, but do not know it or want to admit it, or 3) you are working for a toxic leader or have one higher in the chain of command. I will give some tips you can use for each of these cases.

Toxic Leader Working for you

This person needs to become more aware that he or she is operating at cross purposes to the goals of the organization. Do this through education and coaching. Once awareness is there, then you can begin to shape the behavior through leadership development and reinforcement. It may be that this person is just not a good fit for a leadership role. If the behaviors are not improved, then this leader should be removed.

You are a toxic leader

It is probably not obvious to you how much damage is being done by your treatment of other people. They are afraid to tell you what is actually going on, so you are getting grudging compliance and leaving their maximum discretionary effort unavailable to the organization. Trust will not grow in an environment of fear.

The antidote here is to genuinely assess your own level of toxicity and change it if you are not happy with the answer. This can be accomplished through getting a leadership coach or getting some excellent training. Try to read at least one good leadership book every month.

You are working for a toxic leader

In my experience, this is the most common situation. It is difficult and dangerous to retrofit your boss to be less toxic. My favorite saying for this situation is, “Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

So what can you do that will have a positive impact on the situation without risking loss of employment? Here are some ideas that may help, depending on how severe the problem is and how open minded your boss is:

1. Create a leadership growth activity in your area and invite the boss to participate. Use a “lunch and learn” format where various leaders review some great books on leadership. I would start with some of the Warren Bennis books or perhaps Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

2. Suggest that part of the performance gap is a lack of trust in higher management and get some dialog on how this could be improved. By getting the boss to verbalize a dissatisfaction with the status quo, you can gently shape the issue back to the leader’s behaviors. The idea is to build a recognition of the causal relationship between culture and performance.

3. Show some of the statistical data that is available that links higher trust to greater productivity. The Trust Across America Website is a great source of this information.

4. Bring in a speaker who specializes in improving culture for a quarterly meeting. Try to get the speaker to interface with the problem leader personally offline. If the leader can see some glimmer of hope that a different way of operating would provide the improvements he or she is seeking, then some progress can be made.

5. Suggest some leadership development training for all levels in the organization. Here it is not necessary to identify the specific leader as “the problem,” rather, discuss how improved leadership behaviors at all levels would greatly benefit the organization.

6. Reinforce any small directional baby steps in the right direction the leader inadvertently shows. Reinforcement from below can be highly effective if it is sincere. You can actually shape the behavior of your boss by frequent reminders of the things he or she is doing right.

It is a rare leader who will admit, “Our performance is far off the mark, and since I am in charge, it must be that my behaviors are preventing people from giving the organization their maximum discretionary effort.”

Those senior leaders who would seriously consider this statement are the ones who can find ways to change through training and coaching. They are the ones who have the better future.

Most toxic leaders will remain with their habits that sap the vital energy from people and take their organizations in exactly the opposite direction from where they want to go.

Another key reason why toxic leaders fail to see the opportunity staring them in the face is a misconception about Leadership Development. The typical comment is, “We are not into the touchy-feely stuff here. We do not dance around the maypole and sing Kum-ba-yah while toasting marshmallows by the campfire.”

The problem here is that several leadership training methods in the past have used outdoor experiential training to teach the impact of good teamwork and togetherness. Senior leaders often feel too serious and dignified for that kind of frivolity, so they sit in their offices and honestly believe any remedial training needs to be directed toward the junior leaders.

To reduce the impact of a toxic leader, follow the steps outlined above, and you may be able to make a large shift in performance over time while preserving your job. You can even use this article as food for thought and pass it around the office to generate dialog on how to chart a better future for the organization.




Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.




Leadership Barometer 29 Admitting Mistakes

December 16, 2019

One of the most powerful opportunities for any leader to build trust is to publicly admit mistakes.

The source of that power is that it is so rare for leaders to stand up in front of a group and say something like this:

“I called you here today to admit that I made a serious blunder yesterday. It was not intentional, as I will explain. Nevertheless, I failed to do the best thing for our group. I sincerely apologize for this and call on all of us to help mend the damage quickly. Without being defensive, let me just explain what happened…”

If you were in the audience listening to this leader, how would you react? Chances are your trust for the leader would be enhanced, simply by the straightforward approach and honesty of the statements.

Of course, it does depend on the nature of the mistake. Here are a few situations where an admission of a mistake would not produce higher trust:

• If the blunder was out of sheer stupidity.
• If this was the third time the leader had done essentially the same thing.
• If the leader is prone to making mistakes due to shooting before aiming.
• If the leader simply failed to get information that he should have had.
• If the leader was appeasing higher-ups inappropriately.

Assuming none of the above conditions is present and the mistake is an honest one, admitting it publicly is often the best strategy. There is an interesting twist to this approach that has often baffled me.

Let’s suppose that I have gathered 100 leaders into a room and asked them to answer the following question: “If you had made a mistake, which of the following two actions would have the greater chance of increasing the level of respect people have for you?

(A) You call people together, admit your mistake, apologize, and ask people to help you correct the problem.

(B) You try to avoid the issue, blame the problem on someone else, downplay the significance, pretend it did not happen, or otherwise attempt to weasel out of responsibility.

Given those two choices, I am confident that at least 99 out of the 100 leaders would say action (A) has a much greater probability of increasing respect.

The reason I am confident is that I have run that experiment dozens of times when working with leaders in groups. The irony is that when an error is subsequently made, roughly 80% of the same leaders choose action more consistent with choice (B).

The real conundrum is that if you were to tap the leader on the shoulder at that time and ask him why he chose (B) over (A), he would most likely say, “I did not want to admit my mistake because I was afraid people would lose respect for me.”

This situation illustrates that, in the classroom, all leaders know how to improve respect and trust, but many of them tend to forget that knowledge when there is an opportunity to apply it in the field. It seems illogical.

Perhaps in the heat of the moment, leaders lose their perspective to the degree that they will knowingly do things that take them in the opposite direction from where they want to go.

I believe it is because they are ashamed of making a mistake, but when you admit an error, it has an incredibly positive impact on trust because it is unexpected. Perhaps this is one of the differences between IQ and Emotional Intelligence.

Early in my career, I made a mistake on a trip to Japan and left some confidential information where it might have been viewed by those who could have used it against my company. Upon returning home, I went immediately to my boss and said, “I have to share that I did a dumb thing while I was in Japan last week.” He said, “What did you do”?

I told him the story of what happened and that my lapse could have caused some jeopardy for us. His response was, “Well you know, you are right, Bob. That’s not the smartest thing you ever did.” He said, “The smartest thing you ever did was to tell me about it.”

From that point on, I knew that he trusted me completely over the next 25 years. It was because I blew myself in when I didn’t have to. He would never have known what happened if I did not tell him.

Intellectually, many leaders know the best route to improve trust is to admit a mistake, but emotionally they are not mature or confident enough to take the risk.

When you admit an error, it has a positive impact on trust because it is unexpected. As Warren Bennis in Old Dogs: New Tricks noted, “All the successful leaders I’ve met learned to embrace error and to learn from it.”

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Leadership Barometer 19 Generates Passion

October 8, 2019

A really good measure of the skill of leaders is how much passion they are able to generate in the organization.

Generates Passion

A hallmark of great leaders is that they are not only passionate people themselves, but they have an uncanny way of infusing the entire population with that passion.

That ability is a real gift. I believe most leadership skills can be learned, but the ability to spread one’s passion to others is usually an inherited trait.

If there is no seed, you cannot get it from reading textbooks or from going to courses. The good news is that most people do have the seed of potential in their DNA. They just need to hone the skill so it is optimized.

Get a great mentor

So, how does a leader develop this skill? One way is through a great mentor or a role model. If you do not have any charismatic leaders in your organization that can teach this skill, I recommend you go online and look up some of the great people from history or present who are particularly good at this skill.

I think of people like Zig Zigler, Earl Nightingale, Warren Bennis, Napoleon Hill, Lou Holtz, or Vince Lombardi.

There are literally hundreds of great role models, and they all have content on the WEB or in programs that can be purchased. A great source of inspirational tape programs on this topic is the Nightingale Conant Corporation.

You can find enough material to keep you learning about spreading passion for years. I know because I have invested in most of the tapes in their library and listen to them often. I have memorized the key points and seek to apply them whenever I can.

Passion is closely aligned with the sense of ownership. If you can get people to recognize the quality of their life is really more in their own hands than they realize, you are on the right track.

Teach people to reject being victims and to take control of their situation. Once that is accomplished, it is easy to generate passion because passion is all about an intense desire to achieve something because it will improve the quality of one’s life or help other people.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Successful Supervisor 100 Your Leadership Legacy

November 3, 2018

The legacy left behind by a departing leader reflects the caliber of leadership. John Maxwell summed it up in “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”:

“When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged by what you achieved personally or even what your team accomplished during your tenure. You will be judged by how well your people and your organization did after you were gone. You will be gauged according to the Law of Legacy. Your lasting value will be measured by succession.”

Pass your legacy of exceptional leadership skills to future generations by becoming a grower of other leaders. Doing this not only helps the new generation, but it also enhances the performance of your current team.

Modeling and teaching outstanding leadership skills is the most effective way to bring your organization to the pinnacle of success and keep it there. You need to make this investment, but it is a joyous one because it enhances the quality of work life for everyone. As a leader, you will have more success, more joy, more followers, and more rewards.

When leading an organization, large or small, you can’t do it all. Running the details of a business must be done through others. In large organizations, there might be thousands of others. You need an organization of trusted lieutenants to accomplish the work. To do this, you need to shift your focus from manager to teacher.

The best leaders are those who believe it is their highest calling to personally help develop the leaders who work for them. A large portion of their mindset is spent evaluating, training, and reinforcing leaders under them.

The training is not centered on classes or consultant seminars. There will be some of that, but the bulk is personal coaching and mentoring by the leader. The best leaders spend 30-50% of their time trying to enhance the caliber of leaders on their team. Why is this? When you improve the capability of leaders working for you, the whole organization is improved. You are leveraging your leadership.

In my line management role, my job title was Division Manager. I saw my function, just as I am doing in this series of articles, as “growing leaders.” I found that spending time and energy on growing leaders gave a better return than spending time inventing new HR practices or supply chain procedures. John Maxwell, in “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” called it the Law of Multiplication. He makes the distinction between developing followers or leaders as:

“Leaders who develop followers grow their organization only one person at a time. But leaders who develop leaders multiply their growth because for every leader they develop, they also receive all of that leader’s followers. Add ten followers to your organization and you have the power of ten people. Add ten leaders to your organization, and you have the power of the ten leaders times all the followers they influence. That’s the difference between addition and multiplication.”

Develop leaders in as many layers as you have under you. If there are three layers between you and the masses, then develop three layers of leaders. It is not enough to work on the group closest to you. They will get the most attention, simply by proximity and need for interface time. To be effective, you need to work at all leadership levels and make it a personal priority.

Jack Welch is probably the best example of this in industry. At his famous School of Leadership at Crotonville, he was personally involved in mentoring and coaching the thousands of leaders in General Electric. Jack believed that teaching was what he did for a living.

“It was easy for me to get hooked on Crotonville. I spent an extraordinary amount of my time there. I was in the Pit once or twice a month, for up to four hours at a time. Over the course of 21 years, I had a chance to connect directly with nearly 18,000 GE leaders. Going there always rejuvenated me. It was one of the favorite parts of my job.”

Do the mentoring and development yourself. Do not hire a consultant to do it. It is fine to have help for certain specific skills, but is a big mistake to let the professional trainers take over. Leadership development must be your passion, one that you take seriously enough to consume a significant part of your time. You don’t send people to a one-day seminar and expect them to come out good leaders. The combined snake oil of 100 consultants cannot transform your team into effective leaders as well as you can. Warren Bennis summed it up as follows:

“True leaders… are not made in a single weekend seminar, as many of the leadership-theory spokespeople claim. I’ve come to think of that as the microwave theory. Pop in Mr. or Mrs. Average and out pops McLeader in sixty seconds.”

Teaching must cover all aspects of leadership. Modeling the way, as well as doing formal training, is the balanced approach that pays off. I always considered leadership training a great way to engage in serious dialog with my team about things that really mattered. I would always come away with new insights. Frequently, it felt like I was receiving more than giving. It is a way to “sharpen your own saw” while you mentor others, a real win-win.

As you use this technique, keep notes on what works best and what you are learning about leadership. Keep a file and develop your own trajectory of leadership. Share this with your team and gain further insight through the dialog. Try different situations and reactions, keeping track of your success. In other words, manage your own leadership progress. You will become fascinated with this and gain much from it.

If you are a young leader, you may not feel qualified to mentor others. My advice is to start as soon as possible anyway. Since this is part of your lifelong pursuit of leadership, the sooner you begin teaching, the more you will know. Teaching is the best way to learn something. I suggest you teach what you already know and seek to learn what you need to know. Don’t come across as a know-it-all in your mentoring, especially if you are inexperienced. Rather, ask people to go on an exciting journey with you toward more effective leadership.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on “The Successful Supervisor.” I have tried to cover topics that would be helpful for incumbent or aspiring leaders at the supervisor level. I am not inclined to compress this series into a book or video series. I think it is best left to posterity as a blog series of articles that can be read and re-read and passed around to others at no cost to you. Best of luck to you on this wonderful journey called leadership.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763