Toxins are a hot topic these days, as they seem to be cropping up everywhere– makeup, the environment, food, etc. But, there’s a new kind of toxin in town that is highly dangerous yet easily overlooked. From the boardroom to the classroom to the family room, toxic leadership is spreading quickly and destroying everything in its path.

Sure we’ve all heard about toxic friendships, but toxic leadership speaks to a far wider challenge. Take a moment to think about all of the various leaders in your life: bosses, parents, teachers, coaches, religious figures, etc. Toxicity among such prominent figures is all too common and a sure fire way to destroy relationships, crush morale and wipe out motivation. Or, perhaps you’ve started to notice people in your life shying away from you or whispering about you in the hallways because YOU have become a toxic leader. Either way, something’s gotta give.

So, what does toxic leadership look like?

  • Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on group members, the organization, and overall performance (groups and organizations referring to everything from the family system to a friendship circle to a company).
  • This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects.
  • The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest.
  • Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves.

AND YET, many people can’t help but be attracted to these leaders. Despite all the frustration and complaining, individuals often succumb to the allure of a toxic leader. How can we explain this complicated paradox?

There are a few key reasons for our attraction to toxic leaders (TLs). First, by associating with a TL there is often something to be gained. For example, employment by a TL may help to pay the bills while friendship with a TL in a clique may bring popularity or status. These benefits are so enticing that people willingly overlook the toxicity. Second, a variety of basic human needs motivate individuals to stay the course despite their deep dissatisfaction with TLs. For instance, the need for certainty is incredibly powerful, and in a world where uncertainty and disorder are the norm, individuals go to great lengths to attain even a modicum of certainty. Leaders, even toxic ones, who promise a predictable and controlled world can be incredibly appealing when everything else seems to be falling apart. Lastly, although personal accomplishment supports the development of self-esteem, many people fail to achieve their goals, resulting in insecurity and shame. To buffer against such negative feelings, individuals often join up with successful TLs in order to feel vicariously accomplished and purposeful.

It’s clear that TLs are attractive, but also deadly. So how can you break the hold of the toxic leaders in your life? And, as a leader at home, school, work, etc., what can you do to ensure that you don’t become toxic? Try these strategies on for size!

If You’re the Follower:

1. Do Your Homework: Look at the leader’s track record. Do they have a history of toxic relationships and leadership positions? If so, use that information to make a smart, self-honoring choice about your involvement with them.

2. Speak Your Truth: Approach the leader to share constructive feedback. Frame your concerns in terms of organizational impact, or how the leader’s decisions and actions have negatively affected the organization and people in it (friend group, family system, work team, etc.)

3. Cut Your Losses: When the toxicity level is extreme and the leader refuses to change, it might be time to move on. Choosing to let go of the relationship can be empowering and freeing.

If You’re the Leader:

1. Practice Servant Leadership: Simply ask yourself and those around you, “How can I be of help?” By positioning yourself as interested, supportive and helpful, you set yourself and your team/family/organization/group up to succeed.

2. Get Real: To successfully build trust and influence those around you, it’s critical to minimize phoniness. Honesty and integrity are the cornerstones of solid leadership, so make them a priority.

3. Be Other-Focused: Making everything about you is the fastest way to turn your team against you. Seek opportunities to connect with others while exercising compassion, empathy and generosity.

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