Identifying toxic behaviour in the boardroom

Some leaders are set up to fail. They face impossible tasks trying to lead corrupt, incompetent organisations that resist appropriate processes.

However, there is a difference between a failed leader and a toxic one. While failure usually occurs through a lack of quality, toxic leaders can be gifted with charm and determination. However, when something goes wrong their self-confident behaviour can rapidly spiral out of control. 

Leadership is an art. It can test people to the limits of their ability, endurance and stamina. There are cases of exceptionally brave, skilful and wise leaders, but often they are mavericks who have triumphed in unusual circumstances. 

Yet we can learn lessons from those whose stars rise high, only to explode into toxic behaviour, damaging not only their own career but also the organisation they were trusted to lead. 

Some leaders are quite simply not up to the job, and instead focus on their own self-importance. Lacking the necessary capability, they convince themselves that they are great leaders, but in reality they are deceiving themselves and those around them. 

Our research indicates that the effectiveness of leaders depends upon their relationships with others, as well as their ability to conceive a vision of the future, communicate it, and create the conditions to successfully realise that vision. 

There are two key criteria that help reinforce toxic leadership: 

  • Environments which are likely to facilitate toxic leadership, including organisations which are unstable with many perceived threats and a lack of checks and balances
  • A culture that allows a leader to develop a pattern of overt grandiosity, self-focus and self-important behaviour which is clearly exploitative and sometimes parasitic 

Leaders are in a position of trust and organise resources, in effect, without supervision. They also tend to react more strongly to issues which are likely to have immediate effects, rather than those that will impact in the future.

 Toxic results do not just come from leaders, but also their supporters. A leader’s degree of selfishness will affect their followers, whose responses constitute a form of feedback that either moderates or worsens toxic behaviour. 

Blaming others for their problems is an approach some adopt when they lack the necessary ability to lead. They become suspicious and mistrustful of those who are bright enough to cope, and become progressively more paranoid. As this paranoia spirals out of control, their behaviour turns increasingly toxic and they become more argumentative, belligerent, hostile, secretive, stubborn and consumed by mistrust.

 The four types of toxic leader behaviour are: 

  • Deluded
  • Paranoid
  • Sociopathic
  • Narcissistic

The deluded leader is in denial about themself, the constraints around their work and the details of past occurrences. We discovered that the deluded leader displays toxic behaviour in their inability to make timely decisions, and most simply by an inability to get things done. 

The paranoid leader is suspicious of others, always ready to fight seeming threats and with extreme worry for concealed motives and unique meanings. We found that the paranoid leader exhibits toxic behaviour that is characterised by an intense attention to spin, rationalised by an all pervading mistrust of others. 

The sociopathic leader consistently disregards and violates other people’s rights. They exhibit toxic behaviour characterised by indifference to having hurt or mistreated others and a consistent lack of remorse. 

The narcissistic leader is resistant to change. They know that their way is best and have an inability to recognise their many limitations. We discovered that the narcissistic leader displays toxic behaviour that is characterised by a lack of capacity to learn from others or experience, and a refusal to take accountability or responsibility.

By contrast with these four type, capable leaders differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs. Yet they all have one thing in common - they get the right things done.

Why do some leaders become either pathologically toxic or intensely inspirational? In large part, it boils down to the choices they make, and the behaviours they adopt. The worst believe they are special, entitled to more positive outcomes in life than others, that they are more intelligent than they actually are, and better in their exertion of power and dominance than others. 

Participants interviewed as part of our study noted that the toxic leaders they encountered showed no recognition of the moral consequences of their actions, or whether their acts were ethical or unethical. They were, quite simply, selfish and focused on their own needs.

Professor Andrew Kakabadse will share his views on how to identify toxic behaviour in the boardroom in a panel debate at the ICSA Annual Conference.

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