Toxic leadership is not uncommon in the private sector, but it’s emerging more often in the public space too, as is all too evident in the US and in South Africa right now. The good news is that it can be overcome.
Toxic leadership is characterised by a number of familiar traits: unwillingness to take feedback, lying and/ or inconsistency, cliquishness, autocracy, manipulation, intimidation, bullying, and narcissism. The toxic leader can – if s/he is allowed to run rampant for long enough – destroy organisational structures over time and bring down an entire organisation.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that a toxic leader may influence organisational culture through aversive action that is, by flouting organisational processes, rewarding loyalty over competence, normalising socially unacceptable behaviours like infighting, and by breaking down trust and eroding clear lines of authority.
But the other, more insidious influence of the toxic leader is to be found in what they do to the relationships of those around them. Babiak and Hare, in their extensive study on the subject of aberrant advancement, describe how two factions typically develop in an organisation once the deviant leader’s ascent has begun. One faction consists of supporters, pawns and patrons; the other, of those who remain true to their principles, realising they have been used and abused and that the organisation – whose ultimate goals they still support – are in danger.
If it sounds familiar it’s because South Africans are spectators to exactly this kind of factionalism playing out on the national stage. Both in the ANC and within the tripartite alliance, pro- and anti-President Jacob Zuma factions have been involved in an energetic mudslinging match in recent months. Zuma, who for better or worse has been resistant to the feedback of his critics, remains at the helm. Whether one is for or against the president, it remains that he is at the very least a controversial figure, and criticism of him can lead to reprisals. For many, he represents the quintessential toxic leader.
By a similar token, US President Donald Trump’s reign has been characterised by a slew of resignations, barely 100 days in. In addition, several of Trump’s opponents have simply been removed from office – like the recent axing of the FBI Director – or asked to resign, in a manoeuvre not unlike the new South African national sport, the Cabinet reshuffle. Within the public sphere, leadership should be consistent enough that even where there is political disagreement, there can be cooperation. But where there is toxic leadership, this cannot occur.
The toxic environment
Where there is toxic leadership, the ethics of the working environment are compromised. Typical behaviours are theft, abuse of privileges, violence, verbal abuse – the list goes on, and any number of these may be recognised from news reports both local and international. Tenderpreneurship scandals, the mismanagement of taxpayer funds and the maintenance of corrupt relationships are an all-too-familiar occurrence.
Of course, the presence of the toxic leader does not absolve those who choose to engage in deviant conduct. Ministers and private sector employees who pursue personal gain or corrupt relationships remain responsible for their own choices. However, it is that much easier to make the wrong decision when one has seen examples of operating in an environment without consequences. Such behaviour may be rooted in financial gain, or lie within the culture of an organisation, where the motivation to achieve results may spark greater numbers of people either actively harming or passively ignoring the welfare of others in order to achieve their desired end.
The removal of the psychopathic leader therefore does not guarantee the eradication of toxicity as it is likely to be entrenched at lower levels of organisational leadership by the leader’s sycophants.
Fighting from the bottom up
The good news is that toxic leadership can be overcome. When it is understood, it can be dismantled or reformed. We can expand our understanding of leadership styles, particularly in times of change, and derive relevance for our own organisations.
The responsibility to move against it does not lie with an individual, but concerns the organisation as a whole. In the case of the public sphere, this responsibility extends to society as a whole.
Crucial to overcoming the toxic leader’s negative impact, is for other members of the organisation to remain firm and loyal to their principles, and to take a united stand. It is not for nothing that business schools are increasingly emphasising the development of the whole person and encouraging students to reflect on their principles and values as well as to polish up their technical skills. Being in management or leadership today, whether in the public or private sector, requires much more of people than just the ability to understand a balance sheet or hone a marketing strategy; they need to be able to manage relationships and get results with integrity. And, as is so often the case in life, it is only in tough times that the importance of these skills really becomes apparent.
If people are able to stand together against a toxic leader, s/he may leave of their own accord. But the rest of the organisation must be able to distance themselves from the leader’s negative actions, remain calm, and not respond to threats, since it is fear that fuels such a leader. Without this key tool, s/he may self-destruct.
A second strategy: find out who s/he answers to, if it is not immediately apparent, and appeal to this authority. Bullies are not always swayed by open dialogue or whistle-blowing, but may answer to a higher law if this is done formally and armed with the facts. In the case of an errant public servant, this may be achieved through, for example, the judiciary and institutions like the Public Protector.
If, however, the above measures fail, there are ways to manage the situation with the toxic leader in position. We need to understand the leader’s history to analyse how s/he got to this point, and share this with key decision makers, as a core aspect of the solution is establishing a working coalition of like-minded individuals who understand the leader’s negative impact. The coalition should not take a punitive, antagonistic approach, but rather a supportive one, using appropriate benchmarks and timelines that reflect the goals of all key stakeholders.
Continued transparency, also, remains key. Crucial to avoiding long-term negative impact is setting finite term limits for leadership, as well as using 360 degree review processes (preferably anonymous) where subordinates, superiors and external stakeholders rate the performance and behaviour of the leader. In the political sphere, this approach can be invaluable and would support the call for a secret ballot in the upcoming motion of no confidence in President Zuma.
Learning from each other
Much of what we observe in the corporate sphere can be applied to leadership in the public sector and vice versa, bringing a valuable level of accountability into the workplace and to service delivery. The accountability of leaders can be increased through forums like town-hall meetings to force leaders to think deeply about their behaviour and decisions. Where politics is concerned, such visible performance management can do wonders for the well-being of citizens.
It is also critical to establish mechanisms to protect people speaking up against leaders – the whistle-blowers – as their actions should be free of fear, such as losing the economic base to cater for their families. With protection mechanisms in place, employees and citizens alike should be able to freely raise issues and protect both themselves and their ideals, whether their concerns relate to a private company or a government department, from harm.