The Toxic Leader

The principal parties we will speak about from here on out are the organizational management (“Management”) and the collective voice of the employees, which we will refer to as “Labor”, regardless of whether it is a union shop.  Obviously if it is a union shop or a smaller, closer knit organization, that voice may be much more in-line with the general consensus.  However, in a larger organization, or in unions where the local isn’t necessarily “the voice” of the majority, there will be splinter groups that may be more inclined to concession. This is important because when we are looking at how we can possibly move forward to finding a few common values, it may be that the management and the labor representatives are unwilling to work together, but for the sake of preserving the organization, there may be other relationships, less prone to ego, that can work together and achieve rational discussion.

The interesting situation, however, is that while the labor leader may be prone to inflexibility, that individual does not have as tight of a lock on their situation as does the leader of management.  The reason why is apparent if you think about it; the labor representative can be replaced easily enough if they don’t represent the beliefs and concerns of the represented.  The management leader, however, is most often the Chief of Department.  Unless that individual is getting political pressure to work things out, nobody from the rest of the management team has a chance of overriding the Chief’s decision to gut it out.  They are simply along for the ride; if the Chief decides to play “Chicken” with Labor, they’d better buckle up and brace for the collision.

Therefore, let’s talk about a frequent cause for intractability: the toxic leader.   Since the toxic leader can be found representing Labor as well as Management, it is an important consideration.  And like I said, if the labor representative is exhibiting this kind of behavior and it doesn't represent the group, it won’t be pretty, but the group can work to replace that individual.  On the other hand, if it is the Fire Chief who has toxic leadership traits, the whole situation will likely end up a bloodbath before it gets any better.  If it is both and no changes are made, at some point something will give, and it won't likely be to the advantage of either party.

A toxic leader is one who has responsibility over a group of people or an organization and abuses the leader-follower relationship by leaving the group in a worse off condition than when they first found them.  This leadership style is destructive as they subvert the organizational structure.  Toxic leaders may have familiar traits like aggression or callousness.  They may be inflexible, insular, or overbearing.  In most cases, however, the individual defined as being a toxic leader has evidenced a narcissistic personality, which is as detrimental to esprit de corps as any other factor.  Because this is a deep-seated psychological issue that won’t be overcome by reading an article and thinking, “Wow, I need to work on that!” a leader with this kind of personality is certainly not going to concede that their opposition might have a point in what they are trying to achieve. To do so would be to admit that they were wrong, and that just is not going to happen.  This is an effort to prop up someone’s ego, not to do what is best for the customer.

The article Narcissism and Toxic Leaders, written by Lt. COL  Joe Doty and Master SGT Jeff Fenlason for the United States Army Combined Arms Center’s Military Review magazine, revealed that 80 percent of officers and NCOs polled had observed toxic leaders in action.  Doty and Fenlason argue that most, if not all toxic leaders suffer from being narcissistic.  They explain that these individuals are selfish, self-serving people who crush the morale of subordinates and units.  In the best of circumstances, they explain, subordinates endure and survive toxic leaders.  But the damage they do to eprit de corps takes much time and many resources to overcome.

Toxic leadership is most often characterized as oppositional behavior, as these individuals are not confident themselves and they attack those who they consider a threat to their own power.  Their arrogance may be passive-aggressive or they may exhibit a condescending attitude or be downright hostile.  And as I pointed out, the situation may involve a toxic leader on either side, or a number of these individuals working in tandem.  Intractability doesn’t occur when people are willing to work together after they see the big picture.  Intractability occurs when people just will not see any other point of view except their own.

There is, as I say frequently, three sides to every problem; the sides of the two combatants and the story in between.  Regardless of how strongly you feel you are in the right, there is always a certain amount of confirmation bias associated with your own perspective.  We must, in all cases, open our mind to the possibility that we don’t have the whole story.  If we won’t put aside our ego and be at least willing to listen, we will never find out.

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