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Toxic at the Top

Does it seem like there are a lot of problematic bosses out there? This week, I thought I would take on this topic because it seems to come up a lot. 

Toxic at the Top

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Why are there so many bad leaders out there? Because there are so many bad ways to lead. Here are a few examples that might be familiar:

The Iron Fist: Some leaders insist on having everything done their way. Deviations are viewed as insubordination or incompetence. The team “isn’t good enough” and that the next layer of leaders is “too soft.” The go-to excuse is hiring/recruiting. If we just bring in better people, they reason, everything will improve. 

The Insecure Micromanager: The insecure micromanager is driven by their own fear and anxiety. They try to control everything because they just don’t believe that the work will get done right without intervention. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the team learns to be “helpless” without constant input. 

The Inconsistent Meddler: These leaders give their teams a false sense of autonomy, “Make decisions. Include me only when you need to.” Then they swoop in at the last minute, often unpredictably second guessing all the decisions already made. This is  particularly demoralizing … Lucy yanking away football from Charlie Brown.

The (Clueless) Enabler: My brother often says, “Bullies serve at the pleasure of the CEO.” These leaders often seem supportive, but only because they’ve outsourced the dirty work of bullying, threatening, and cajoling. Sometimes the leader doesn’t realize what’s going on, but more often they know and encourage the bullying or they’re aware but in denial. 

The Neglectful Absentee: These leaders are often too busy with special “passion” projects to worry about guiding the team. Sometimes this scenario turns into a corner case of the Clueless Enabler. More often, a chaotic free-for-all fills the void. Everyone is rowing in their own direction making the business inefficient and rife with contentious infighting. 

Often these scenarios persist because they work, however inefficiently or unpleasantly, up to a point. Then, some external shock happens - a new competitor, a supply disruption, a pandemic. The leader is at a loss as to how things fell apart so quickly. 

Why do these scenarios happen in the first place? 

In part it’s because companies don’t train leadership, reward dysfunctional leaders, and/or the toxicity starts at the very top. 

The more challenging reason is that none of the above leadership styles are wrong per se. There is a time and a place for an absentee leader or an iron fist. The problem comes when the same leadership approach is applied to every situation indiscriminately. 

As an HR leader recently shared, “situational leadership is the best model we have.” Leadership styles must be flexible, adapting to the context - not just what is going on, but who the team is and how ready they are to address the situation. 

If the team knows what to do, get out of their way. If the team is new to a problem, be more directive. In other words, there is no perfect leadership style. Rather, you have to be an Adaptive Coach with a flexible style whose goal is to foster learning and growth. 

Please share this newsletter with other middle managers in your life. I’m looking to build a thriving community of middle leaders. 

And check out the book, “The Middle Matters: A Toolkit for Middle Managers” on Amazon.

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