How to Identify the Signs of Toxic Leadership


Steve Tobak, a strategic consultant and a former senior executive in technology industry, wrote for Fox Business and puts it right there: Good leaders are hard to find and that’s because gray hair, managerial smoothness, and charm can go only so far. He reminds us that “success breeds complacency,” and insists that good leaders are “always challenging the status quo.” Finally, he closes by saying “winning is everything” and that “competitive markets are a zero-sum game.”

None of those are easy to come by.

According to Mike Myatt, a contributor at forbes.com who writes on leadership myths, just because there are leaders, it doesn’t mean they are the “right leaders.” As companies struggle to find good leaders, they are forever embroiled in the hard task of separating the good leaders from the bad.

Then, there is toxic leadership – the kind that burns through the exchequer, brings down companies, and causes bankruptcy.

Bad feedback, too little, and too late

Good leadership dwells on communication skills. On one hand, it’s true that good leaders also find it infuriating to witness slow pace in performance and are often flummoxed at how “others just don’t get it.” On the other hand, however, great leaders take it into their stride, use exceptional communication skills, and communicate effectively across mediums and various levels within and outside of the organization as well. Good leaders are blessed with (or train themselves in) active listening, fluid thinking, and crystal clear communication. Good leaders know when to dial it up, turn it down, or turn it off.

Why you could be a hypocrite and not even know it

If you wanted a job that demanded new skills, and let’s say you really wanted this job badly enough, what would you do? You’d pick up the skill, wouldn’t you? Leadership demands virtues. It demands certain moral stands, beliefs, traits, and principles. It calls for skills and a masterful execution of those skills. Now, the question is, how easy is it to feign these desirable traits? It’s easy.

That’s why we have toxic leaders in the first place. Many leaders are hypocrites and most don’t even know it. In the rush of commerce, the bustling demands of business, and the need to keep the job, it’s easy for many people with leadership positions to “fake it.” Thankfully, they won’t always “make it."

Why won’t they make it, you ask? Real leadership needs chutzpah. It demands courage. It requires people to take responsibility (for what they do, and even for what they don’t). Good leaders make themselves accountable. They don’t blame others and they stay fully invested to lead others and solve problems.

Bad leaders won’t be able to do all that if they remain who they were. It’s just too much to ask of them. Period.

The plague of vague

The “plague of vague” is endemic. While it applies to everyone, it burns fiercest at leadership levels. Gad Allon, Achal Bassamboo, and Itai Gurvich of Kellogg Northwestern University did an entire paper on the “vagueness” of a simple statement:  “We’ll be right with you.”

They insisted that making statements like these is managing customer expectations with vague promises and cheap talk. Leadership chronicles are full of such vagueness. For instance, Robert Cyran of NY Times reports that Dish TV’s bid to buy Sprint was filled with vague promises. Most political figures around the world live the tale with vague promises and larger-than-life statements that they could barely justify let alone bring to fruition.

Good leaders are anything but vague. They back up their ideas with proof of delivery. They’d put their hands where their hearts are. They work extra hard to make sure that they communicate ideas and promises almost as if each promise needed a factual report of execution (complete with deadlines, delivery planning, resources, etc.).

Taking the credit and passing the blame

They say that the best kinds of leaders are those who bring out the best in others. So, along those lines, the worst thing a leader could do is to let others do the hard work but actually take all the credit for the work done if the team effort succeeds. If it fails, they’d quickly pass the blame. Good leadership is completely the other way around. According to Tobias Fredberg of Harvard, “Good leaders pass the credit and take the blame.”

Most of the leadership spectrum – filled with people who shouldn’t even be leaders in the first place – makes “blaming others” an everyday thing, and forget about even giving credit to someone else. Most governments and businesses suffer from toxic leadership and this problem of taking credit and passing the blame is almost always the common thread.

The control conundrum

The “control” aspect of leadership is often misunderstood. Leadership involves a delicate balance of control and surrender. Now, the act of surrender isn’t as simple as the definition itself. Good leaders don’t surrender due to a weak will or because they can’t do what’s required of them. They surrender because they are not control freaks.

Good leaders believe in others. They understand that excessive control inhibits talent, kills innovation, restricts growth, and severely curtails initiative.

By surrendering, great leaders bring out miraculous results. They foster collaboration, remove friction within workflows, ease up the workplace, and avoid frequent turf wars. They engender trust. The “control” factor determines the company culture, allows leadership to scale, have dialogues, open doors for faster growth, and let others do what they are best at.

Often leadership requires firm insistence, tighter control on management, and a much more streamlined, focused role– a role that most good leaders can readily take up on demand. In the usual course of business as usual, however, it’s often a matter of balancing control with freedom. It’s about controlled progress, innovation, and collaboration.

How do you identify signs of toxic leadership? What do you do when you know that you are talking to a good (or a bad) leader?