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Advice To Aspiring Leaders: Don’t Be That Guy!

March 4, 2015
A consultant and lifelong student of leadership reveals the five behaviors of particularly toxic leaders.

As an operations executive, consultant and lifelong student of leadership, I have counseled with many hundreds of senior level executives over the last 40-odd years. Statistically speaking, the overwhelming majority under the bell curve have been well-meaning strivers who simply lacked certain emotional, intellectual or experiential skill sets. To their credit, most were willing to look in the mirror, face their deficiencies with some degree of integrity and at least attempt to effect positive change. Some were successful; many were not. But for the vast majority it can be fairly stated, they possessed enough self-awareness and courage to delve introspectively past the ego and into that scary place we all tend to avoid…The Authentic Self!

In addition to the aforementioned large percentage of “well-meaning strivers,” there exist populations of outliers at both ends of the bell.

On one end reside the truly enlightened, “conscious leaders” who understand intuitively the indispensable nature of relationship, authenticity, vision, and the need to serve first, then lead. These folks simply “get it,” and as leadership consultants all we can do is tip our hat, learn as much as we can from them, and of course, steal their inspirational methods for our next blog.

At the opposite end you will find the cohort about whom this blog is written: the “not worth the effort…turn and run away as fast as you can” manipulators. Although not often physically violent, these folks sometimes exhibit sociopathic behavior and are therefore capable of immense emotional and psychological violence. Listed below are five behaviors I have found repeatedly characteristic of this type of toxic manager:

  1. Inability to conceptualize or commit.

    The result is a failure to understand anything in theoretical terms. This trait can be especially destructive in C-level executives, due to their unwillingness to commit to any decision or action plan past the end of the week. This makes it virtually impossible for them to get on board with any sort of vision or long-term plan unless it can be expressed in the form of a multi-tab spreadsheet computed to the third decimal place. Even if you think you have received a firm commitment from this individual, a few weeks down the road they will swear you never had the conversation.

  2. Distrust and a compulsive need to control.

    Distrust of others' motives and a belief in their own superiority prompts them to keep all manner of minutia rounded up neatly in front of them, arms wrapped tightly around. This behavior reinforces another abusive form of game-playing -- "The Gotcha Game" -- wherein I tease information out of you, so I can immediately prove how wrong you are. Especially fun to play in front of co-workers.

  3. Lack of empathy.

    No concept of how destructive their abusive words and actions can be to people at whom they are directed.

  4. Prejudging and pigeonholing.

    Your value and status as a co-worker or as a human being is determined very early on by these folks, and it will be virtually impossible to change that status for the better, as time passes.

  5. Jekyll/Hyde Personality.

    Can be the most outgoing, gregarious truly likeable individual you have ever met; outwardly caring and generous to a fault; a real “Disney Dad.” That is of course until someone demonstrates the ability to be more articulate or influential within the organization, with competing ideas that happen to catch and hold the attention of other decision makers. It is then one must be most wary. Mr. Hyde can emerge in an instant and strike with reptilian viciousness and cold indifference to the damage inflicted.

Managers who fall into the category of “not worth the effort…turn and run away as fast as you can” tend to demonstrate one, two, or at most, three of these traits. It takes an especially self-deluded and toxic individual to exhibit all five.

So, for all aspiring leaders I repeat the piece of advice noted in the title of this blog: “Don’t be that guy!”

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