Take Action To Transform Toxic Leadership

Gold Fish

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. ~ John Quincy Adams

I recently read an article by Maya Orbach called, Watching out for toxic leadership in your organization.  After my initial thought of “Toxic leadership is an oxymoron because true Leaders are not toxic,” I was taken back to the first time I encountered the impact of a toxic “leader”.  Like the article, I went to a military experience.

I spent the 1990s – all ten years – in the U. S. Navy.  Beginning in bootcamp, the concept of following orders and attention to detail is drilled into new recruits for a reason – safety.  On a ship, or in any type of conflict or high danger situation, an individual’s attention to detail and ability to follow orders could mean the difference between life and death.  It’s usually taken for granted that the person giving those orders knows what s/he is doing because s/he has the knowledge, skills, and experience to be there – right?  Well, as we all know, these traits are not always accompanied by the ability to connect and communicate with people on a positive level.  What we often see are simply ineffective or bad leaders, not toxic.  Which brings me to my story.

My last position in the Navy was at the Service School Command, Great Lakes in the legal office as a legal investigator.  The responsibility of this office was to investigate and process any student for any infractions to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  I was known as the “Discipline Petty Officer”.  If anyone, student or staff, was investigated for doing something wrong, they eventually saw me.

One day, a student’s file crossed my desk after he had returned from being UA (Unauthorized Absence).  This file was about an inch thick, meaning this student had been in trouble quite a few times.  As I proceeded through the investigation phase of the process to determine the specifics, I asked the student WHY he had gone UA so many times.  I must have made an impression on him at some point because he shared his story.

While at SSC, his estranged father had reached out to him and was trying to reconnect.  When the student went to his supervisor, a Chief Petty Officer, to see if he could have, a few days to spend with his father, he was treated with disdain and disrespect.  The Chief’s response was something like, “Do you REALLY think your father wants to reconnect with YOU?!”

The student told me it took all his will not to reach across the desk and punch the Chief.

Now I knew this Chief by reputation from a previous Command.  Needless to say, his reputation was not very good.  And yet somehow, he had managed to get promoted.  But because this Chief was still at SSC, the student didn’t stick around very well.  He ended up going UA at least two more times while I was there.  The last time he stayed away for 31 days – grounds for discharge from the military.

When he returned, I made up my mind to try to help him.  I met with him weekly to “check in”.  I also went to our senior enlisted supervisor, the Command Master Chief, to see what could be done about the Chief’s behavior toward the student.  I was basically told that there was nothing to be done.  That said, I put my focus on helping the student weather the process long enough to be discharged so he could move on with his life.  And he did.

I’m sharing this story for a reason.  Even after more than 15 years, this is still a vivid memory for me because of the toxic nature and impact of the Chief’s behavior.  The blatant disrespect for another person was bad enough.  But lack of accountability from senior leadership for this behavior made the situation even worse.  This student may have been a fine Navy leader someday. However, he left the Navy because of a toxic leader who was allowed to continue on in a position of authority.

My point is that it isn’t enough to be able to identify toxic leaders.   Organizations need to take action.  Actions such as,

  • Enforce accountability and consequences for toxic behavior – Leaders need to be held accountable for fostering an environment where employees at all levels feel their potential is maximized. This means going beyond 360 assessments and employee surveys and doing something to help leaders change toxic behaviors, or remove him/her from the leadership position if necessary.
  • Take responsibility to develop the right leaders – Dr. Marla Gottschalk, in her article, How Not to Choose a Manager, shares some very good tips for helping to identify who is right for leadership, such as don’t “assume they want the job,” and don’t “believe it’s the only path to compensate top talent.”
  • Provide the development necessary for leadership success – Provide leaders with the tools they need to LEAD.  A leader’s “toolbox” should contain a variety of resources from multiple mediums:
    • Education-based: courses, books, lectures, seminars.
    • Experience-based: rotational programs, action learning, practice.
    • Relationship & feedback – based: mentoring, coaching, feedback.

I’ve seen the impact of toxic leadership in corporate life as well.  High attrition and low morale are the least of the impacts.  I’ve seen people suffer health issues and heard first-hand stories of breakdowns and heart attacks.  Some people who have had enough just simply walk out.  And I’ve also see the difference made when a toxic leader realized what he was doing and made a conscious effort to change.  Today he shares his story with young leaders and is an inspiration to these leaders as they embrace their potential for future leadership.  Not all toxic leaders are “born” that way.  Sometimes s/he is just a product of their “upbringing” and doesn’t know any other way to be.

But as I was recently told, change will happen.  It may take 10 years, but it will happen.  New leaders are being developed with a focus on leading the “whole person”, the body, head, heart, and soul.  As the late Stephen Covey said,

“Unleashing the potential of this age will require a fundamental break from the control paradigm.  It will require leaders to embrace … the whole-person paradigm.”[1]

These are the leaders of tomorrow who know how to connect with people at all levels.  True leaders who, in the best definition I’ve seen because of its simplicity, others CHOOSE to follow.

What is our part in this?   Be honest, let your voice be heard, and inspire the true leaders among us so they can continue to inspire others.  What else do you think you could do?

Images courtesy of Flickr.

Riding the Waves of Continuous Improvement

Hamster on a Wave

True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.” ~ Tom Robbins, American Novelist

Having recently completed the five week course, or MOOC, on Exploring Personal Learning Networks, I found my way to the follow-up community, Learning and Change, hosted by Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott.  Already the conversation has inspired my thinking!  This week my thoughts are inspired by a post from community member Vahid Masrour.  In his post in Designing for Change, Vahid poses the questions such as:  How do we deal with the ever-evolving-organization challenge?  How can we shift to being fluid and flexible while still being manageable?  How can we cultivate innovation when our organizations are grounded in stability and predictability through processes?

And how does learning and development fit into all of this?

The connection I made as I thought about this is that much of our corporate structures and environments actually “mirrors” our education structures and environments.  Granted, both education and corporations have become more creative and innovative in the past few years.  And I’m sure we all have had that one teacher, professor, manager, or colleague who was creative and inspiring.  I know I did!  And organizations are starting to see more and more value in encouraging creativity and innovation.  But look at what our K-12 education foundation is built on – structure and process.

I’m often reminded, as a visual, of the video for Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall where students go into the “machine” as individuals and come out as duplicates, or copies, of what the system is cranking out.  Or even Supertramp’s The Logical Song.  (If you can’t tell, I like my British rock music.)  We enter the “system” coloring our trees orange, the sky purple, and the grass blue.  Then we are taught to “color inside the lines” and use the “correct colors”.  We need to be what “society” wants us to be.  We are conditioned to “think inside the box”.  So we carry this mindset with us into the workforce, where we are told to, “Think outside the box!  Be innovative!  Be creative!”  After 12-20+ years of conditioning, easier said than done.

That’s why I’m thankful for the people who managed to keep their creativity, their curiosity throughout school and into the work environment.  They have the mindset we need to push the limits and make the changes that are needed.  They have what we need in our environments to invigorate us and keep us moving forward.  And I’m thankful that I have friends and colleagues in my network with this mindset!

So going back to the question of how can we deal with the ever-changing-organization, I go a keynote speaker at the 2013 Southeast Wisconsin Learning Leaders Conference I attended earlier this year hosted at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI.  Matt Levatich, COO for H-D, spoke about the four strategic pillars for the Harley Davidson company: Growth, Leadership Development, Continuous Improvement, and Sustainability.  What Matt had to say about Continuous Improvement is what inspired me the most.  What H-D has built into their culture is the mindset of continuous improvement – not managing change.

Change has a beginning and an end.  Change is about process.  And processes need to change to keep up with new discoveries and ideas in science, health, technology, and more.  When we are faced with change after change after change, many of us can get tired, frustrated, disengaged.  Also known as Change Fatigue.  But with a mindset of continuous improvement, we see the potential and possibility.  We see opportunity for making something better, for ourselves and for others.  And who doesn’t want things to be better?!  The perspective on change has…changed!

But how do we do this?  How do we shift the mindset of hundreds, even thousands, of people to look at never-ending change as continuous improvement rather than the latest change project?  And how can learning and development play a part?  There are many ways we can go about this.  But I’ll share three:

  1. Start with the Self – We shift our own mindset first.  And when we do, those around us will pick up on this.  This can be something as simple as building in affirmation rituals, reading books and articles, attending seminars, or talking with others with this mindset.
  2. Play – Play with our kids, play games, play with toys!  As L&D designers and facilitators, we can build play into classes and facilitated sessions.  I’ve used Tinker Toys many times to encourage play and demonstrate a point.
  3. Renew & Reflect – Take intentional down time.  Disconnect. Do something that reenergizes you and gives you a chance to reflect.  Reflect on what you do, see, or hear about.  Reflect on potential and possibility.

If we can just try these three things as a start, then, maybe slowly at first, the mindset may spread.  So rather than trying to boil the ocean, we toss in the pebble and let the ripples take effect.  And we can do this through learning and development.  Opening ourselves up to learning new information, new ideas, new technologies (even social technologies).  And then we help others learn, maybe casually, through our networks.  Or even formally through the sessions we design and/or facilitate.  Or somewhere in between.

I don’t have all the answers.  But I do know that much of my current mindset is a result of opening myself up to learning from the various, diverse people in my network.  Most of these people I consider true friends.  As one of those true friends just reminded me, we are constantly learning from each other.  And in times of seeming instability, even complete upheaval, our strengths in our learning and our relationships, will help us to keep our balance and embrace the changes – um, improvements – ahead.

This is just a start.  But I am reminded of a perspective I shared a couple of years ago as our organization was going through some major changes.  Stability isn’t about digging in your heals and holding your ground.  Stability is about being able to keep your balance, even picking yourself back up, as the ground beneath your shifts.  This way we can be fluid and flexible, get off the hamster wheel, and ride the waves of continuous improvement.

What are your thoughts?  What is your mindset?

Image courtesy of Flickr