Enough is Enough:
It is Time to Call Out Toxic Leadership

In management language, the death of a thousand cuts is the slow painful torture of an abusive leader who attacks your self-esteem, destroys your motivation, breaks your confidence, and even dries up your soul until you inevitably burn out and die emotionally.

Abusive leaders cause deep psychological and spiritual harm. Boards need to realise that they are ultimately responsible when abusive, toxic leadership is allowed to continue.

Yet these narcissists rise to the top of many organisations. They are legends in their own minds. They deceive. They accomplish little that is truly measurable. They avoid accountability. They remove feedback loops and isolate their boards from voices that provide different perspectives.

We get it, being a leader can be tough. Lots of demands and frustrations. However, an effective leader will be calm in the midst of a storm. Helping others feel safe, reducing anxiety, and stabilising the organisation.

In contrast, abusive leaders thrive on conflict. They delight in playing one group off against another. They lie and manipulate, usually under the guise of a good cause. They are selfish and entitled which poisons the safety and productivity of all around them. This poison seeps into the soul of an organisation, a toxic culture.

Toxic leaders are often blind
to their own psychological neuroticism.
In the culture of fear they have created
anyone who speaks out is punished or destroyed.
Feedback is disloyalty, an attack.

Great leadership begins on the inside. The inner life of the leader is what flows out and is experienced by others. It’s very hard to fake integrity, openness, care and hope. Yet that’s the kind of leader people want to work with.

Driven to Protect Ourselves

The issues of toxic leadership are not new. Karen Horney (1937) in her classic work, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, discusses her perspectives on the internal factors that influence our behavioural patterns. She sees ‘protecting ourselves from anxiety’ (1937, p. 102) as a major internal driver.

While we are all different, we all share basic desires to feel safe, secure, valued, respected and loved in some way. If we think that any of these things are unlikely to continue, we may feel anxious and then make choices or adopt thinking patterns designed to protect us from that anxiety.

Horney describes four ways of protecting ourselves from anxiety:

  1. we may go to any length to be loved or approved by others;
  2. we may become overly compliant, not risking potential conflict through non-assertive behaviour;
  3. we may strive for prestige, power or possessions to assure feelings of security and worth; and/or
  4. we may emphasise personal independence and shut ourselves off from other people.

Horney believed these elements may be present in various combinations in all of us and not indicate any form of neurosis. However, when they take on a protective function, they bring a new significance. She illustrates this with an analogy:

“We may climb a tree because we wish to test our strength and skill and see the view from the top, or we may climb it because we are pursued by a wild animal. In both cases we climb the tree, but the motives for our climbing are different. In the first case we do it for the sake of pleasure, in the other case we are driven by fear and have to do it out of a need for safety. In the first case we are free to climb or not, in the other we are compelled to climb by a stringent necessity. In the first case we can look for the tree which is best suited to our purpose, in the other case we have no choice but must take the first tree within reach, and it need not necessarily be a tree; it may be a flag pole or house if only it serves the purpose of protection.” (Horney, 1937, p. 102)

Being driven requires constant energy. It is exhausting. It diminishes the feelings of pleasure that are attainable because they not so much satisfying as reassuring. It relieves anxiety but does not produce joy. The relief from tension is pleasant, but it is not satisfying in the same way as choosing a behaviour based on free choice.

In many situations where there are scarce resources and competition for the resources that exist, some have focused on building their own independent fiefdoms. They can control information. They can control the story that is shared about them. They can take control and ensure that no one can tell me what to do and thus minimise the threats of destitution and diminish the anxiety around losing income (Horney, 1937, p. 162).

Thus, striving for power is reassurance against helplessness; striving for prestige is reassurance against humiliation; and striving for possessions is reassurance against destitution.

It Will Not Go Away,
It Will Only Get Worse.

The Colloquium Group has helped many organisations have challenging conversations about shifting from a toxic to a healthy culture. Organisations get stuck and are unsure how to change things that have become entrenched in the psyche of the group. It all starts with dialogue and commitment to surfacing the challenges that most people already know are a problem. Enough is enough. Boards and executives are responsible for allowing toxic personalities to survive and thrive. It is time to boldly build cultures that do not allow toxicity.

As George Orwell put it, “A people that select corrupt leaders… are not victims… but accomplices.”

Reference: Horney, Karen (1937). The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.

The Neurotic Personality of Our Time