Leadership is scary stuff.
You’re the one that sets out to make a difference…
You show them how it’s done…
You are where the buck stops…
…this and other such assorted cliches, that leaders like to tell themselves!
Is leadership that hard?
Being a leader is scary stuff, I agree but it’s not rocket science. It’s just as hard or as easy as being a good finance manager. Or a good sales person or a good product manager. It is essentially about exhibiting a certain set of skills. Skills that are needed to get a team of people to achieve a certain goal, within a certain budget and a certain time frame.
But unlike the other roles that I’ve mentioned, a leader’s sphere of influence is generally much larger. And accordingly the destruction that they can wreak is much higher in volume. Their good traits can positively influence more people, but then their toxic traits can conversely destroy more careers. And also have a ripple effect by teaching bad leadership skills down the line!
I’ve spent twenty plus years in the corporate and startup space. And in this time, I have had the privilege (and the pain) of having been on the team of some extraordinarily good and some terribly bad leaders. And focusing as always on the bad first – here are the 3 most toxic traits that I have seen confused with good leadership behaviours!
A for Aggression
Workplaces are factories, not battlefields. But somehow we haven’t been break past the terrible, terrible analogy of a leader being akin to a general on a battlefield commanding his troops against the enemy!
There is NO enemy.
And certainly NO Generals.
And yet the cliche lives on. And we consistently elevate to leadership positions people we wouldn’t trust to resolve a dispute between toddlers.
If leadership is about enabling a team to achieve a common goal, then the key skill a leader needs to bring to the table, is an ability to foster respectful collaboration.
And not an ability to start a brawl.
Yet you will consistently see the most aggressive, the most egoistic team members being elevated to leadership positions. All the while the sensible, empathetic collaborative types are relegated to the sidelines. All sadly shaking their heads and resolving to passive-aggressively show their disappointment with the management’s decision.
Perhaps the answer lies in the perceived emulation of success. Most aggressive people have demonstrated success in their solo roles. And in a live demonstration of Peter’s Principle, rise to the level of their incompetence! And become leaders.
V for Volatility
We have all worked with that one leader who’s a powder keg waiting to go off! I had one boss like that too. We would peek over the edge of her cubicle to judge her mood before appearing within hurling distance.
Volatility is exhausting!
Teams are constantly judging moods and changing their stands on issues and ideas on the fly. They do this to ensure that they toe the leader’s line and don’t come in the line of fire. And then good ideas are suppressed because the team members don’t know they will be received in meetings. Frankly, no one wants to be today’s whipping boy! And Yes men abound because the No men leave. While the Maybe men look for jobs.
All this is made worse because, too often, this volatility and unpredictable behaviour is a cultivated tactic. Leaders deliberately do this so that their teams don’t get comfortable with them and start taking them for granted. But this unpredictability is a tactic that backfires big time. Simply because a team that doesn’t trust you to have their backs will never give you their best!
F for Fire!
This is now on fire, team!
This is now top-priority, guys!
This has to be done today, people!
Building pressure and urgency around the achievement of an important goal. And that’s what leaders sometimes have to do! But creating a constant sense of urgency is actually a pressure tactic. One that is endemic to toxic workplaces and toxic leadership styles.
A constant fire situation at work is indicative of a seriously toxic workplace or leadership culture. A culture that believes that people generally are lazy and entitled and left to themselves, will relax and become completely unproductive. And therefore arises the need for an artificial sense of pressure all the time to keep employees productive. Push them constantly so that they are always at the top of their game.
No one can be at the top of their game all the time.
It’s not physically or mentally possible.
And all these constant on-fire situations achieve is to burn out people. And make them disbelieving of truly urgent situations. If you cry wolf all the time…?
All in all, leadership is scary stuff but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as being an empathetic team mate, a kind person and a good friend.
If only we would let it remain that simple.