Why do so many companies still seek a toxic leader? Why does our culture idolize the narcissistic, autocratic dictators that dehumanize business, celebrate the individual and care little for the tactics used to drive results? We can learn much of the allure of the toxic leader in business through comparison to a similarly detrimental force in our society – pornography.
What is a Toxic Leader?
When describing a toxic leader, I generally focus on the principles of toxicity and how they apply to certain leaders. To be considered toxic, a force generally contains four key attributes:
1. Powerful: It has the ability to create a great deal of change, often in a short time period.
2. Extensibility: It has the means of being extended beyond the immediate source.
3. Selfish: Toxicity has no concern for others.
4. Detrimental: It ultimately is harmful to the effected entity, although this may not be immediately evident
Therefore, the Toxic Leader is an individual perceived to have a great ability to effect drastic change (Powerful), proliferate their principles throughout the organization (Extensibility) but have no authentic concern of those impacted (Selfish) and ultimately have a negative impact on the organization (Detrimental). The problem is, as toxic leaders are promoted or recruited from the outside, the selfish and detrimental effects of their drastic style are typically overlooked for their power and extensibility.
What is Pornography?
Although more difficult to define, (just search for “I Know it When I See it“), pornography still shares the same four key characteristics:
1. Powerful: The content is memorable and typically has a lasting impact.
2. Extensibility: There are numerous variations, once started, often leading to other derivatives.
3. Selfish: The content is typically aimed at meeting the needs of individuals.
4. Detrimental: It ultimately is harmful to the effected entity, though it may not be immediately evident.
While I do not claim to be an expert on the topic of pornography and some may object to my definition, this summarizes many of the key attributes. Pornographers have a great deal of influence over their consumers and each consumer’s community (Power), they drive their consumers to seek more (Extensibility), seek profits at any cost – especially low personal investment (Selfish) and ultimately hurt their stake holders (Detrimental).
So why do so many organizations still recruit and promote Toxic Leaders? Consider the parallels that Toxic Leaders and Pornographers share:
1. Easy Money: A leader coming in with power can effect significant change and is expected to be able to extend their influence quickly throughout the organization. By implementing this single change in the organization structure many believe they can quickly increase revenues, cut costs or otherwise generate money. Similarly, pornography can quickly generate revenues at a very low cost.
2. Good Press: The flashy, dynamic and outspoken toxic leader is a darling to Wall Street or at least, The Wall Street Journal. Making a high profile executive change with one who generates strong emotions will therefore incur a great deal of press for the organization. Likewise, pornography has a tendency to generate a lot of press – especially if you consider any kind of press to be good press. Questionable material or even clearly displeasing content will undoubtedly drive countless discussions.
3. Addictive Nature: The toxic leader, with a high profile lifestyle and self-centered, materialistic values, drives others to desire their lifestyle and attention. As a result, their communities and stake holders are often influenced to generate the same, selfish nature in themselves in the pursuit of mimicking the leader’s actions. As for pornography, much has been written on it’s addictive nature.
For all the perceived benefits, toxic leadership is often pursued as a quick fix to a significant problem. However, the reality is, like pornography, toxic leadership generates artificial results, damages relationships and is not sustainable.
1. Artificial Results: Most toxic leaders quickly execute new reporting structures and drastically cut costs. These are very visible changes that will immediately generate cost savings. While those changes may be necessary, sustainable change is driven by process improvements and investing in people. Pornography also delivers artificial results by providing temporary pleasure but providing no improvement to the consumer’s self-esteem, relationships or their stake holder’s needs.
2. Damages Relationships: The lack of value placed on the people, community and other stake holders by toxic leaders damages all sorts of relationships. Your staff becomes disengaged and delivers less. Similarly, your partners experience decreasing support and responsiveness. As a result, partners begin to demand more and deliver less, emphasizing contractual commitments over real partnership. This is also visible in pornography, as investment in the artificial pulls the consumer’s mind and body away from real and authentic relationships.
3. Not Sustainable: You can only cut costs, rely on charisma or base your future on other toxic leadership characteristics for so long. Sooner or later, you must invest in your people, organization and development or else you will sell out or go bankrupt. Likewise, pornography will continue to drain the consumer’s relationships. Expanding investments in pornography will draw more and more from family, personal relationships and faith.
Just as there will likely always be demand for pornography, so to, there will likely always be demand for toxic leaders. The best we can do is raise awareness of the real pain and damage toxic leaders cause in the long-term results of organizations. I’ve joined this effort by promoting the awareness, adoption and support of servant leadership. My hope is that we can spare more organizations the pain of learning this lesson the hard way. I hope you will join me.
Question: What experience have you had with a Toxic Leader? How will you promote the awareness, adoption and support of servant leadership?