When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 3: Taking the Easy Way Out

This post is part of a six-part series. 

Click here for part 1 “When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 1: Ignoring Real Problems” 

The hardest part of the job

Leadership is hard and it’s supposed to be, precisely because aside from your capacity to do the job as the situation requires, it’s not really about you. 

But what’s interesting, is that how hard it is, tends to be mentioned with regard to why things unfolded poorly and why the rest of us aren’t worthy of venturing our criticism. 

Not happy with an outcome? “Why don’t you try it and see if you could do better?”

It’s not normally mentioned (unless you’re talking to an academic or consultant, perhaps) to argue for why greater vigilance is needed in assessing, selecting, electing, evaluating or preparing our leaders.

It’s not mentioned when we just decide to go with the easiest, obvious most convenient option, or when organizations take no systemic, deliberate, conscientious approach to selecting and developing their leaders. 

It’s not mentioned to push for why organizations, especially large ones, need to work to develop a deliberate and conscientious leadership culture and selection process.

One that prescribes the values and behaviours leaders are expected to exemplify, as well as the traits they should ideally possess, as opposed to relying rather heavily on a rhetoric around leadership “style” and preference that causes leaders to put limits on their responsibilities and results in inequality, unfairness and inconsistency in experience for everyone else.

Accepting responsibility is probably the hardest part of leadership.

When something goes wrong, it’s not so much that a leader is absolutely to blame for it, but that people are looking to their leaders for a real and honest answer about what led up to that outcome and how they may have directly or indirectly contributed to it. They’re looking for to see that there has been a reflection upon what could be done better.

In the case of the Wells Fargo fraud scandal, where employees of the bank created fake bank accounts, did the former CEO John Stumpf need to say “I’m sorry, it was all my fault.”? He never said that by the way. And he did not need to say that. 

But saying it was a few “bad apples” who just decided to commit fraud because they were bad employees, is extremely ignorant for a CEO and avoids accountability for the part that is his responsibility. The aspirational culture of the organization and the leadership that should facilitate it.

And also, guess what? It’s very easy. Easy to fire the “bad apples” and say that it’s over. Voila! Problem solved. But is it really? 

Ideally, his responsibility should have included ensuring non-toxic leadership culture throughout the organization. A leadership approach that acknowledges the relationship between the values leaders are expected to model and promote and the actions their employees take to exemplify those values and achieve success. 

An approach that considers the way it impacts customers whose loyalty you claim to desire but try to attract or demonstrate in a cheap manner. 

For someone who has worked in banking for decades, it is highly unlikely he had no inkling about such things happening in banking, or that it might be happening within his organization. But as we discussed, if we cannot recognize issues until they are urgentchaotic and toxic, then, it’s not a risk to be minimized.

An explanation that perhaps he had neglected this aspect of his role and had focused far more on the business-outcome side of his responsibility, would have been acceptable to my mind. And I’m not saying that’s what happened. The truth could well be that he genuinely does not really care about his employees or his customers. 

But my point is that if in explaining what occurred a leader acts as though it isn’t their responsibility, and there is “nothing to see here folks”, it should inspire little trust in their leadership. 

Not shockingly, the people who act as though the job is so difficult they shouldn’t be criticized quite so much (and you probably couldn’t do it any better), try to avoid the actual hard part of it as much as possible. The only way they know how to stay afloat is to deny, deflect, obfuscate, and deny.

Not rocking the boat

Personal experience: I used to buy the gaslighting I received about my feelings and observations until I started asking questions of the people I worked for, respectfully. 

I could write a television sitcom around some of the things I heard. Some knew their reasons for not doing what they should have done were absurd but said they weren’t going to do anything about it because they were more interested in being liked and not rocking the boat.

Does it have to be noted that leaders should not be people who are pretty much allergic to rocking the boat? Or people who think any movement at all might be considered rocking the boat and have nearly zero capacity to determine whether it would or would not be worth it?

Note, it’s not that they should aim to rock the boat. It’s that the irrational fear of doing so renders them useless as stewards and advocates for other people.

Emotional Intelligence for Dummies

In the corporate world, part of the problem is a lack of ability with soft skills, particularly emotional intelligence, and the inability to navigate conflict effectively or balance the desires of various stakeholders. So the least powerful get the least. 

But too many leaders think they possess emotional intelligence because they organize office mini-putt to help you “de-stress”, or because after you’ve told them how you’re being negatively impacted by something, they say something that sounds well-meaning like, “Thank you for telling me this. I want you to always be comfortable speaking with me about anything that is on your mind.”

Then they proceed to do nothing, nor explain why they are unable or unwilling to do anything (which would go a long way to validating us and letting us know they actually tried to consider our feelings). Or they tell you they will “handle it” but day in and day out, you see zero evidence of that.

Or perhaps they hear you’re leaving the job and they ask to talk to you to “hear your concerns,” so they can make you think someone is listening to you, instead of just letting you go with God. You’ve suffered enough and they know they won’t do a thing to make it better.

But, you must stay … because you’re a hero for working through the crisis they created, and did nothing to prevent or make easier to diminish,

Do frontline and essential workers want to be called heroes while being made to withstand a poorly managed crisis?  

Lip Service 

But to many leaders that’s enough and all you need. Some lip service to make you stay. To make you think they care. But they don’t plan on doing anything about your concerns and are chock full of excuses they think you will buy. 

They won’t stick their neck out. You see, it’s about the appearance of caring without any action to back it up or an acceptable explanation for inaction. 

These are the people who hold post-mortems and retreats to talk about “lessons learned”, but tell you not to say anything “negative”. 

How they “resolve” conflict is to get you to forget there is one. Your problems are not any more solved than they were before, of course.

In politics, it’s not any different, It’s probably worse. Say whatever needs to be said to obtain your vote. Rather than create the outcomes you desire, they speak of those outcomes as if they are already a reality.

But have your problems been solved, and how far does your vote really go to changing anything?

Click here for part 4 “When Leadership Becomes Toxic Part 4: The Role We Play ”  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s