Have you ever had to suffer under a toxic leader in a business setting? You know, the one who puts their individual interests ahead of the company or organization they serve? Of course, toxic leaders don’t come equipped with a warning label. They are usually hidden under smiles and friendliness. But it rarely takes long for that feeling in your gut that something isn’t right to be justified.
Oftentimes, you figure this out when what you thought was straightforward turns out not to be, or when you’re told something you later learn was a lie. The problem with toxic leaders isn’t just that they are poisonous to the culture around them, it’s that they are typically very good strategists. Toxic leaders might be bullies, but schoolyard strategies don’t work.
When I was in grade school, I was a scrawny kid. I learned to deal with bullies at an early age. Once, our local newspaper snapped a photo of me in karate class. It was a great photo of a small, skinny kid in full kick. But when the paper ran it, suddenly all the school bullies decided to test their skills on me. At that time, my best strategy was to be fast. I vividly remember a particularly large kid yelling, “Hold still so I can hit you!” Really?
“Don’t let bad people turn you anti-social. Just become anti-jerks.” – Karen Salmansohn
As an adult, it isn’t in me to give in to bullies. When someone is misrepresenting themselves or lying at the expense of others, it ignites every feeling of wanting to create justice in an unjust situation. Initially, when dealing with toxic leaders in my career, I followed the same strategy that has worked as a kid. I worked fast to out-maneuver them.
They lied, I told the truth. They did backdoor campaigning, I immediately spoke openly. They misrepresented facts, my fact checks were rapid and came with backup. They got rid of impediments to their rule, I stood up for people who were being ousted unfairly. The thing is, it’s exhausting. There is great personal cost because it takes all of your energy.
And often when everything was finished, the results were exactly the same as if I had done nothing. Toxic people get to leadership roles because they are good at strategy. And I found that I often underestimated just how far they were willing to go to get what they wanted.
Will you cross your own personal lines to win the game?
Stephen Covey shared in his book, The Speed of Trust: “When keeping your commitment becomes hard, you have two choices: You can change your behavior to match your commitment, or you can lower your values to match your behavior.”
I found that in dealing with toxic leadership, the question I had to ask myself wasn’t: “What happens if they win?” Instead, it was “Who do I want to be?” I could be someone who became consumed with winning, or I could drop the rope and end the game of tug of war.
This willingness to let go is one of the hardest things to do, because you don’t know what will happen to the company, group, or organization you love. Toxic is a synonym for poison, and make no mistake, poison has one function. Perhaps, you stay in too long and get consumed with angst trying to patch up the collateral damage that toxic leaders create in their wake.
So, how do you know when it’s time to drop the rope?
The timing gets clear, when you look inside. There is always a moment when staying will require you to cross a personal line. When you get to the point where the only move is one that will compromise your integrity, you’ll know you’re done.
You wave the white flag and pack your bags. You leave, giving up whatever it is that you’ve built that you’ve been so afraid to lose. It’s the counter-intuitive move to let the toxic leader win that is the very thing which creates positive motion.
And often, there is great personal cost to make that move. But here’s the thing, that’s only in the short term. Toxic leaders always make the same mistake that costs them in the end; and it’s inherent in the nature of the toxicity itself.
Healthy leadership focuses on the people they are leading. They look at the impact of their decisions on others. They build people up, and engender loyalty which results in influence. The focus of toxic leadership is on themselves. They go for ego-based wins not realizing that those short-term wins lose them followers. Leverage gets mistaken for loyalty.
The myopia causes toxic leaders to miss that they don’t have a following. In fact, it often produces deep frustration for them because they don’t understand why their actions don’t create momentum. The surprising reality is that toxic people don’t think they are toxic. Most are genuinely astounded—not to mention defensive—when confronted with their toxicity.
“Over time, you start noticing that some people just aren’t worth it anymore.”
The win you get from letting go
You can’t win the “you’re toxic” argument. Evidence doesn’t work because they won’t believe it. Not only that, but they enjoy the fight because they believe they are fighting a just cause in protecting themselves. You can’t bank on their empathy for those they are leading. It doesn’t exist.
Toxic leaders enjoy the fight, and no amount of strategy will allow you to protect yourself (or your reputation) against someone who doesn’t act with integrity. So don’t. Let the toxic leader win. If you stay too long, your creative energy is drained in the conflict—and often the results are the same as if you’d left earlier. Go use that energy to build something life-giving somewhere else. Besides, you can afford the short-term loss. The win is in protecting your integrity by not playing the game.