Over my nineteen years in higher education, I have worked for some pretty phenomenal leaders. These leaders have mentored me, supported me, and have created environments where I (and others) could thrive. On the other hand, I have worked for some pretty toxic leaders in the same time period. Because of these leaders, I have felt insecure, anxious, uncomfortable, and even powerless. Interestingly, I have learned from both types of leaders. In fact, I would argue I have learned more from the toxic leaders than the good leaders.
Now, please know I am not contending everyone should work for a toxic leader to learn about leadership. As someone who has worked for toxic leaders, I definitely would not recommend experiencing this phenomenon. What I am saying, is that I think it is important to learn about toxic leadership to improve our understanding and awareness of what “good or positive leadership” is. I argue this for two reasons:
First, research supports this notion. Specifically, toxic leadership researchers and theorists share that not all toxic leaders are “bad” people. Yes, we have sociopaths and narcissists in leadership positions and we often consider these leaders toxic; however, sociopaths and narcissists are not the only leaders people consider toxic. Jean Lipman-Blumen (2005), the leading theorist in toxic leadership, argues many destructive leaders are simply individuals in leadership positions who are not equipped with the necessary leadership skills. These individuals engage in counterproductive behaviors because they do not know better or because they learned about leadership from a toxic leader. Thus, I contend if we discussed toxic leadership more, some of these unintentional toxic leaders could be prevented.
The second reason is more personal. I argue we need to talk about toxic leadership more because learning about this form of leadership saved me. When I was working for a toxic leader, I was young, trusting, and naïve. I believed leaders were good, cared, and were right, and that it was my job to learn from my leader in order to advance. Inside I was breaking down and struggling in more ways that I can share in this short blog. Luckily for me, a friend of mine introduced me to toxic leadership. I spent days researching this and realized, after gaining this knowledge, I was not the problem. This realization gave me the courage to leave my position and, eventually, share this experience with others. As a result, I contend we need to talk about toxic leadership to empower those individuals reporting to toxic leaders. As we all know, knowledge is power, and I argue we need to equip individuals with knowledge about toxic leadership to give them more power to use their voices.
Based on these two reasons, I believe we need to teach individuals about negative leadership for many reasons, two of the most important ones are listed below.
- Learning about toxic leadership helps leaders learn what not to do in leadership
As I discussed above, not all toxic leaders are inherently bad or want to be toxic. Some toxic leaders are just not aware their behaviors are toxic or are harming others. Lipman-Blumen (2005) shares a range of toxic leadership behaviors including the following:
- Circumventing systems of justice/Undermining legal systems and authority
- Engaging in criminal/unethical activities or violating basic human rights
- Feeding followers false allusions to make them seem more powerful
- Lying to mislead followers
- Pitting others against each other (inciting them to treat others poorly)
- Using followers’ fears to incite action
- Identifying and using scapegoats
- Not allowing criticism of any kind (even constructive)
- Being incompetent—misdiagnosing problems or not addressing incompetence
- Failure to develop and mentor/teach other leaders
I would argue, and suspect you would agree, some of these behaviors everyone should know are negative. However, some of these, such as failing to develop others, may not be as apparent to a new or unexperienced leader. By teaching potential leaders and current leaders about how toxic leaders act, I argue, along with many others, we could help prevent toxic leadership.
2. Learning about toxic leadership aids individuals in spotting toxic leaders
In addition to potentially preventing toxic leadership, I also believe teaching individuals about toxic leadership helps individuals in identifying toxic leaders in organizations. Specifically, if someone does not know what bad leadership is, would they feel empowered to report the leader or leader’s actions through the appropriate channels? Organizations should have checks and balances in their organization. Meaning, they should have ways for employees at any level to express concerns. But to report these concerns, individuals often need to know their concerns are legitimate. By educating all employees what bad leadership is, I contend we are equipping them with more knowledge that would help them feel empowered to report toxic behaviors. This reporting would hopefully allow earlier interventions that could prevent more damage to organizations and individuals.
Join Stephanie Hinshaw on Tuesday, February 25 at 1:00 p.m. Central for a live online seminar, Understanding Negative and Toxic Leadership and How to Overcome It. During the program, individuals will learn about toxic leadership, its impacts, and strategies to prevent toxic leadership at their own institution.
Stephanie Hinshaw is the senior vice president of Academic Affairs at American College of Education. Hinshaw considers leadership development one of her primary accountabilities in her role. Additionally, she is completing her dissertation at Creighton University. Her research centers around the lingering effects of toxic leaders on their followers.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders. Oxford University Press.