Detoxifying Leadership

“One brave person without a system of support cannot solve the problem of toxicity. After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, then most certainly it takes an organisation working together to change the tide of toxicity.” Kusy and Holloway, 2009: 50

As the quote above suggests, the task of detoxifying is an organisational and systemic responsibility. Organisations require mechanisms for the detection of toxicity. Whilst there is a growing body of literature on toxic leadership, there are still very few significant works focusing on empowering stakeholders and organisational structures to identify, address, and transform toxic leadership dynamics. Many of the suggestions put forth by scholars and leadership development experts stress the importance of “toxin detectors” – that is, systems of organisational monitoring - the various ways that organisations can give voice and appropriate channels of communication, evaluation and review by peers, subordinates, and other stakeholders. Subordinates can be the best detectors for toxicity. Lack of effective monitoring or evaluating mechanisms in organisations leaves subordinates without a voice, subsequently enabling toxic leaders to thrive. Tavanti (2011) suggests a revisiting of organisational priorities by including in the assessment of a leader’s performance their respectful behaviour at work and the long–term impact of their conduct on stakeholders and subordinates. If we were to take up this advice in our management of promotions, our notion of ‘performance’ would shift to include behaviours and conduct beyond just meeting KPIs and/or mission accomplishment.

Perhaps that is the paradigm shift that is required in order to halt the risky trend of promotion based solely on performance?

Noble visions versus grand illusions

Lipman-Blumen’s book The Allure of Toxic Leaders (2005) includes several strategies for surviving and overcoming toxic leaders. In her view the true antidote to toxic leaders is represented by the South African (Zulu) concept of ubuntu, caring for each other’s well–being. One of her suggested strategies is to appreciate the more “disillusioning” leaders instead of the “paradise–promising” toxic leaders. By disillusioning she means realistic. She explains that our vulnerability to toxic leadership is related to our “tragic choice to live by illusions rather than confronting both our fears and the hard realities that generate them”. She urges organisations to resist the initial charm of toxic leaders, to be wary of those who “throw us a lifeline temptingly baited with grand illusions”, and rather seek out leaders who offer noble visions – those “cooperative ventures in which leaders and responsible followers, contributing different talents and strengths, struggle together to achieve their goal”.

In contrast to the toxic narcissistic leader who comes bearing grand illusions, a humble leader comes with a noble vision and works to create collaborative environments - improving the performance of a company in the long run. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback.

These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organised group that works for the good of the collective.

In recognising and promoting humble leaders and their noble visions, Lipman-Blumen claims that we will “learn to draft “reluctant leaders” whose competence, integrity and wisdom we recognize”, and in doing so be free from the grand illusions of toxic leaders.

It can take a lot of work to enhance and/or rehabilitate organisational culture. Organisational archaeology – that is, the uncovering of the parts of an organisation as a means of getting to the heart of the issues that are compromising the overall quality of the organisation – can help detect and de-toxify. Organisational archaeology requires shining a light on toxicity, bringing the dark side of leadership into the light and in so doing begin the comprehensive and worthwhile process of detoxification.

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