We see it happening time and time again: grossly incompetent individuals who are toxic to their teams and yet keep being promoted. They keep being given more power and more people to make miserable.
We all know it and yet nothing seems to be able to stop them. Why does this keep happening? The simple summary to the complicated answer: because every single person on their path has more to lose than to gain by stopping them... It's the good old tale of fear above courage.
What is a toxic leader?
I’ve seen more than my fair share of both good leaders, and bad leaders - even though sadly I have seen more of the latter.... But while it is unpleasant to have an ignorant, unmotivated or absent leaders, it is incredibly challenging to have to deal with a toxic leader.
Toxic leaders are ones who poison their teams and everyone around them through incompetence, malfeasance, malice, and/or neglect. These are the people who not only are not able to give you guidance but even push you to do mistakes, either because of their lack of interest in your matters or out of plain trickery to make you fail. These are the people that not only don't coach you, but even instill in you a sense of doubt and lack of self-confidence by constantly undermining your achievements and contributions.
These are people that make themselves look great by pushing others down - they know they don't have a lot to offer as such, so they have to make sure that others around them (even though they are more experienced or knowledgeable) will not dare to claim the spotlight. Their work life is a constant race to be the first to shine in front of stakeholders and to make sure others never get the chance to.
When I think of a toxic boss, one particular example comes to my mind. The boss I am thinking of was a terrible leader, and was regarded as grossly incompetent by nearly everyone in the organization and many people outside of it. She was hated (yep, that much) by her leadership team and by many of her peers.
She had arrived in our organization under the sponsorship of the new General Manager, and was spending all of her time with stakeholders - and none with us as her team. Instead of a full day monthly team meeting which was the norm in our organization, we would have one hour - out of which she would speak most of the time, leaving no space for our questions.
This boss was a petty tyrant, who hoarded information and played favorites. She would be very involved in the topics which could make her shine, and would not give any attention to the other parts of her team, merely asking for a one-page brief whenever she needed to attend a meeting where she would have to pretend she knew what she was talking about.
This former boss was afraid to make decisions because, you see, decisions are risky, and our boss didn’t want to do anything that might cast any shadow on her carefully polished image (as fake as it was).
It seemed utterly inexplicable that at the next reorganization, our former boss would get pulled up to an even bigger territory and a more content-driven job, despite a miserable performance in our team. Unable and unwilling to learn for the last 3 years, how could she be given the full scope of responsibility on such a delicate, science-driven and prone to crisis category?
Are the people enabling her crazy?
Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of toxic bosses these days, and many of them keep working their way up, to the surprise of people who know what they are talking about and can pierce through the veil of appearances the toxic leader puts up.
But why doesn't upper management see through this fraud? Surely someone somewhere sees the problem. At the very least HR has a trail of sick leave, resignation and people being exited with no apparent reason as evidence, right?
The unstoppable ascension of the toxic leader
My toxic boss divided everyone and everything into two camps: “high shine” and “low shine.” High shine was anyone or anything that involved a flagship project or high ranking stakeholder, or something which might make them look bad and was important enough to be reported high up. High shine are topics which could help or hurt my toxic boss’s chances of eventually getting her next promotion. Everyone and everything else was low shine, things and people of meager importance, not worthy of her precious time.
High-shine moments involved countless power point versions and multiple useless rehearsals for a business review (a planned visit of a higher stakeholder), presentations at the board or adding her name on any document which would have the possibility to be circulating for credit (good news, product launches and otherwise). Low-shine events, and people, were utterly ignored.
My toxic boss, whom most of us agreed is probably a triadic leader (Machiavellian narcissistic sociopath), seemed utterly incapable of connecting with another human being at any meaningful level. Every relationship and every interpersonal engagement with them was superficial and transactional. If a person or situation could be used they were valuable; if they were a threat they were important; if they were neither valuable nor a threat, they were useless.
That's one of the few pieces of coaching she offered to me once - how she had trouble with one of her marketing colleague and decided to make her a friend on the private basis so as to improve their working relationship. That's at that moment that I knew I was dealing with a worryingly calculative, not-to-be-trusted, selfish person.
Those facts were transparent to everyone who knew what her job was expected to be, and could see what she was making of it instead.
I have never been in a more disjointed team that the one lead by my former boss. All of the basics - safety messages, work-life balance, trust, psychological safety, training, coaching, recognition, appreciation, even the mandatory HR processes like end-of-the-year performance inputs in the system - were sacrificed at the altar of “high shine” topics.
In complete opposition with the established company's values and culture of humanism, openness and proximity, she would twist everything to her interests. There was no empowerment on the high shine topics, but complete abandonment on the low risk topics. There was no team spirit and no shared engagement behind a vision for our team - one because there was no vision (remember, a decision could be wrong!) and two because of the old adage - 'divide to better reign'. A divided team has less power to turn against its leader...
I for one (but some of my peers too) started to actively avoid her. She did not want to spend time with me or show any sort of interest for what I did and whenever she meddled in my stuff, she made a mess of it - because of her lack of knowledge and background. And also because any encounter with her were invariably unpleasant.
I remember once her calling me after a business review presentation to a high stakeholder - she first congratulated me on my presentation, only to tell me that it was actually thanks to her since she had pushed me. The truth is - she did nothing at all except asking me to change yellow for purple because "she doesn't like yellow". Wow, how useful - not.
In short, my former boss was a terrible toxic leader. Yet that individual is now in a more prestigious position, with even more responsibility and more people to terrify. How the hell did that happen?
Appearance over substance: the core skill of a toxic leader
As it turns out, what our boss did do a great job of was shining in the spotlight, and dedicating most of her time to finding ways to get into the spotlight. All the time that would not 'be wasted on us' would be dedicated to trying to impress people who could serve at some point in time in the future as her sponsor.
She knew she did not have the content to be credible in her own function, so it turns out that her technique (as I realize after 2 years of observing her connivance) was to try to impress people in the business functions by injecting many complicated terms and timely buzzwords into her speech.
My former boss was very, very manipulative and very, very good in social settings. If you met this person in a social setting, without knowing what was behind the mask, you would probably like them. She throws a hell of a good first impression - that's he skill!
If you saw the output of the team, you would think that the team's success was because of that individual’s leadership, not in spite of it, because you would never bother to ask any of that person’s subordinates for a one-to-one meeting where you could ask them, without the boss as chaperone, about how things were going or what they were experiencing under her leadership.
You would only see the smile, hear the fancy words, and see the types of hyper-polished presentations that you think only high-performing teams do. Our boss was terrible. We all knew it. The adjacent teams that worked with us also knew it.
But higher-ups only saw the leader speaking a lot of great things accomplished by our team and were not asking further. Because we performed well as an organization in the few areas that our higher-ups saw, they assumed that everything below the surface was going well too.
But they were wrong. Our boss was focused on appearance over substance, and projected fake excellence to mask incompetence. It was brilliant. Despicable but brilliant. And it worked. That’s what toxic leaders do. And the more years of experience they accumulate and the more push-backs they dodge and the better at it they get.
As it turns out, toxic leaders are not limited to the corporate world. Apparently (and unfortunately) toxic leaders are so prevalent in the military that the Army has created a definition for the “toxic self-centered abuser” as follows:
“These leaders are also usually bright and energetic, as well as goal-oriented and boss-focused. Capable of producing spectacular short-term results, but are arrogant, abusive, intemperate, distrusting, and irascible. They are typically distrusting micro-managers never burdened by introspection.”
This described my former boss perfectly, except for the fact that she was not, in fact, bright. My previous boss was actually not really smart at all, despite thinking it about herself. What she was was fast - she was always one-step-ahead of her own boss, who realized that they had been manipulated in having to be submissive to the higher-up business sponsor she had convinced to protect her for the last two-years or so, but too late. By that time, she was already moving on to another position...
The word I would use instead of smart is therefore “cunning.” While unable to grasp the nuances of our highly-technical work environment, and being incapable of any form of emotional intelligence, our boss nonetheless cunningly deceived our superiors into thinking that she was excellent, when she was, in fact, completely incompetent.
It's a very well-spread phenomenon but quite taboo; hard to prove and hard to act upon, toxic leaders are usually left free to play the game their ways - until it's too late. The Enron scandal comes to mind: by focusing on style over substance and ignoring the basic things that the company was supposed to be doing, everyone thought Enron was a highly functioning organization and that its leaders were geniuses. They weren’t. They were toxic leaders who ruined their own company and the lives of their workers and investors.
The settings of each company or organization might be different, but the technique is the same: hide the truth, exploit the system, climb the ladder, leave the mess behind.
My boss is a toxic leader - what should I do?
So with these types of toxic leaders, because all the proverbial boxes are ticked, outsiders looking superficially in will not notice the problem. And since most people in organizations are genuinely busy and already having to deal with visible problems, they are not going to be searching for more problems to be solved. 'Don't awaken a sleeping dog' is unfortunately a common paradigm - and an easy excuse.
But even people who are suspicious of the team's well-being or who have been alerted of the trickeries at play may not be willing - and quite frankly not even able - to take action against it. Because of the appearance of performance and because of the network of supports throughout the organization, someone raising their voice against a toxic leader will end up with a case of 'he says - she says' which at best would bring zero change and at worst would destroy the (career of the) whistle blower.
Most times, it’s not even obvious there is a problem in the organization until the new leader comes on board and starts to expose the state of the team and the lack of foundation having all basic neglected for a number of years. By that time, the toxic leader is gone to another place... and organizations are usually not really good at keeping track records, since everybody plays a big game of musical chairs every two years.
So what should you do in practice if you have the bad luck of being assigned to a toxic leader?
First priority - whatever you do, do not make him or her your enemy. They are toxic already if you are neutral to them, they turn radioactive if they seek revenge... and they are powerful by their network, inside and outside the organization you are in now. In all cases, stay neutral and protect yourself.
Second - document everything. In the low probability that someone would genuinely ask you one day what's going on with you and the team around you and under you., you can produce some records. Sadly enough, it may also be useful if ever there is a maleficent attack thrown against you and you need to defend yourself.
Three - run! If there is another opportunity inside or outside of your company, take it. There is no fighting a toxic leader, not unless your organization is somehow showing the courage to clean up the place - and just one person trying to pick up the fight is not enough!
Believe in Karma though - what goes around comes around, and find comfort in the fact that these people may have the big job with the power and the status; but they don't know what it is to have a team that trusts them and would go through the fire with them. They will never know the comradery that comes with mutual respect and the feeling of satisfaction of overcoming challenges together. Hell they will probably also never know happiness, because what kind of a husband, wife, son, daughter, father or mother does a toxic leader make...
You may be feeling temporarily miserable under their suffocating leadership right now - but you have a way out. They however will feel miserable in their lives at some point and will realize they cannot get out of it.
Never forget - life is a long-term game!