The danger of being a toxic leader

At the best of times leadership is messy. It’s about a way of being, not doing. It’s nebulous, nuanced and elusive, as much to do with feeling and energy as thinking and planning. It’s contextual and responsive and can never be one size fits all. When great leaders are in balance, they are both ferocious about their purpose, while warmly building strong and enduring relationships. This seeming paradox comes together in what I call Ferocious Warmth. Leading within the tension of both head and heart epitomises the daily dance of leadership.

Yet too often people experience leaders who lead in an imbalanced and uncentered way, focused too much on results or too much on relationships. This can lead to a toxic culture. A recent global employee survey by Leaderfactor showed that 86% of people surveyed had experienced a toxic culture during their career. One toxic leadership style is a win-at-all-costs approach — all head thinking, focused only on results, measurement, strategy, and plans. The other — all heart thinking usually entails indecisive direction and a focus on often unhealthy relationships of the team to the detriment of the higher purpose and strategy. Culture becomes toxic under the reign of these two types of leadership. The 2022 Gallup global workforce survey shows that many people are miserable at work due to the culture, with 19% feeling strongly disconnected and 60% emotionally disengaged. Leadership is a critical factor in these results.

The dangerous and toxic extremities

Only head focused behavior — fearsome leadership

At its worse, the toxic and fearsome leader inflicts trauma on those they lead. When this is the default style, the fearsome leader rules through fear. They are closed to ideation with their teams or senior leaders. There is a lack of psychological safety for those they lead, with people not willing to take any interpersonal risks for fear of retribution. They are the archetypal extreme authoritarian leader — my way or the highway. Their focus is on being right. Their style of feedback is based on harsh criticism rather than growth. Toxic behavior is either brewing or in evidence when transformation is demanded and delivered as an ultimatum and through compliance. People do not buy into change due to a feeling of powerlessness.

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