When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 1: Ignoring Problems

I might smack the next person I hear say, “No one saw this coming.” And I feel okay saying that since I won’t be able to reach them through the internet, and this is unlikely to be something I would actually do. So, please understand this is mostly a humorous sentiment meant to convey how bothered I am by this statement and the seriousness with which I regard the situation. 

Chances are, you’ve been duped about what leadership is, what it requires of those with the responsibility, what exactly is so hard about it, and why it takes all of us for it to function effectively.

As a result, our standards are low as a society, even nonexistent in some cases. We do very little to ensure the quality of the leadership we receive, far less than we do for a doctor, or airplane pilot. Yet, I would argue, the vigilance regarding standards, qualifications, capacity and competence to occupy positions of power and influence, should be just about as important.

We take leadership outcomes for granted assuming a perception of human decency suffices. We make excuses for incomprehensible failures, and are made to doubt our expectations.

We are at yet another precarious point in the story of the world, with many issues to be decided upon that put current and future lives to hang in the balance. So today has to be the day we decide to act decisively to end leadership that neglects to ensure the welfare or earn the loyalty of the people being lead, while denying that things could have been done differently through denial and gaslighting. This is leadership toxicity.

And as a society, whether in the corporate world or politically, formal expectations and standards around the behaviors and outcomes we expect from our leaders, will help us get the outcomes we deserve.

Until then, our leadership experience will be much like what I describe in this series.

The Dupe

“No one saw this coming”. It’s the most recent example of things an inadequate leader might say to sidestep the matter of accountability in the face of criticism or mere questions about actions and outcomes. Yet, if you think about it, most of the time, it does not work as an excuse. Not because it does not lessen blame. It certainly does negate responsibility in scenarios where the outcome could not have been predicted. But the reason it does not work is that it’s usually not true. 

In my experience with what I choose to call “toxic leadership culture”, where positive “people outcomes” are not ensured or adequately prioritized, not seeing or acknowledging likely or perfectly predictable outcomes is quite typical. 

Foresight and strategic planning tend to be neglected and even devalued where those in charge believe they can only make time for the immediacy of urgency or chaos. Their thinking? If it’s not happening right now, or happening to them, it’s not happening. 

And you might ask, “What’s wrong with this?” Well, when things raised well in advance are not addressed, they eventually become matters of urgency, creating chaos. And when the game of whack-a-mole ensues, the chaos wreaks havoc on everyone who has to deal with the ramifications. 

Like the healthcare practitioners who have to work in a system that seems underprepared to handle a pandemic. And the general public who have had to find ways to avoid physical and socio-economic peril.

Using the example of the Phoenix Pay System disaster, it’s not too hard to imagine that if you rush produce software that manages government-wide employee pay for several hundred thousand employees, and you don’t sufficiently test it or consult with due diligence the people who will use it, or put the priority on whether it works to deliver positive outcomes for people, rather than the timeline and the cost, that it might function poorly. 

It’s not hard to imagine that it might be a complete disaster and ruin some people’s lives due to delays in payment. That it might cost billions of dollars to fix rendering the money-saving aspect of the whole thing entirely pointless. 

Yet “not understanding the impact or implications” was an excuse (or reason, I’m not sure of the intent) put forward for why decision-makers in this situation failed to do as they should have.

Even if we buy the provided reason or excuse, acting without adequate understanding implies incompetence, laziness, fear, or evil. With toxic leadership culture, more than one is possible. But, no one at all seeing the potential outcome isn’t true. Various parties saw it, raised their concerns, and were not heeded.

Regardless, the potential risks were rather obvious, and if they truly weren’t obvious to decision-makers, that deserves a separate essay about leadership incompetence and the systems and criteria in place to select and evaluate their performance.

But specifically, in the case of a pandemic, no person at all having seen it coming could also never be true. There’s nothing to see. It’s a known hazard. It’s an eventuality. 

Is the fact that a building could catch fire not an eventuality for which it and its occupants are usually equipped? Do we just enjoy watching a catastrophe unfold on feature film and assume there is no reality informing that creativity? Are we idiots for expecting someone somewhere is thinking about these things and has a plan? Of course not. 

But perhaps we are idiots for assuming expectation will match reality if our leaders may of their own accord decide what is and isn’t a pressing matter. This is likely without actual prescribed standards and outcomes to outline our expectations.

If we as a society are not careful to be sure about how exactly they approach their service, it may just come down to two things: what’s easiest or least costly for them personally, and what they think will bring them the most shine. 

This post is part of a six-part series. 

Click here for part 2 “When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 2: Gaslighting” 

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