I am going to write about the two other elements that make-up the Toxic Triangle, susceptible followers and a conducive environment.
Toxic leaders cannot exist alone. They need an environment in which they can flourish and followers who don’t challenge them. If you see toxic leadership within your organisation, you’re going to see elements of the following.
The Conducive Environment
For toxic leaders to be successful, they need an environment where they can thrive. There are four elements that contribute towards a conducive environment: instability, perceived threat, questionable values and standards and an absence of governance.
Toxic leaders will take advantage of – and seek to create – these types of environments.
When there is instability, people accept that decisive action needs to be taken to restore order and stability. They become willing to sacrifice slower democratic decision-making in favour of rapid, unilateral decisions.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When the Roman Republic was under threat, the senate leaders (Consuls) elected military leaders (Dictators) to protect the Empire. Quick decision-making will often bring decisive action. This can return stability to an environment.
This relates to the former issue of instability. An external influence or actor creates a sense of ‘being under attack’. When people feel threatened, they become fearful. This leads to a willingness to accept toxic leadership.
Fear is the most powerful human emotion. Politicians have been taking advantage of this for years. Toxic leaders will seek to create an environment where there is a perceived threat – so that their behaviour and actions can become justified because of the external pressures.
When managing change, people often talk about creating a ‘burning platform’ in order for people to change their behaviour. This is usually effective and it might be necessary but it does contribute towards an environment where toxic leaders thrive.
History is littered with toxic leaders that have stoked fears to lead people in a direction that they want. Toxic leaders will blame broad groups of people such as migrants or religious groups for the challenges faced by society and seek to exploit the momentum that follows it.
It is the perception of a threat that creates the environment for the toxic leader to thrive. The threat does not have to be real.
Consider the large number of people killed every year by drugs and organised crime – and the relatively small amount of money that the government spends combating that activity.
Contrast that with the relatively small number of people killed by terrorists every year in the UK – and the huge counter-terrorism budget.
Perception in this instance matters more than the reality.
Again, I am not trying to make a political point. I am seeking to highlight the environment that allows toxic leadership to thrive so that you can spot it and hopefully challenge it.
Questionable Values and Standards
Toxic leaders ignore values and standards. They see them as something for the boardroom wall rather than ways of thinking that drives their behaviour.
Enron is the perfect example of this. These were their values.
- Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
- Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
- Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
But they were different from the actual values of the organisation. The core value that drove the organisation – the value that got people promoted and was rewarded – was greed.
When Colonel David Hackworth took command of a Battalion in the 9th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War, it was in terrible condition.
Conscript soldiers on the front were neglected by their leadership and in turn had neglected their duties. Poor standards had led to soldiers not cleaning their weapons or looking after themselves.
This had affected their ability to fight the enemy – consequently, they were getting hammered. One of the first things Hackford did to change the environment was a relentless focus on was standards – getting the basics right.
Absence of Governance
One of the core tenants of Lean is ‘Genchi Genbutsu’. Literally translated as ‘Go, Look, See’. Toxic leaders will thrive in an environment where they are not properly governed – where the leaders above them don’t ‘go, look, see.’
Hackworth’s Battalion were in poor shape and combat ineffective because their leadership didn’t go and see what was going on – or they didn’t do anything about it.
They were either negligent or incompetent.
Good governance requires leaders to go and speak to the guys at the front or on the shop-floor. You can’t lead from behind a laptop and you can’t just take the words of your management for granted without ‘getting your own data’.
Toxic leaders require people to follow them. There are two types of follower – conformers and colluders.
These people are passive in the face of toxic leadership. They usually lack confidence and need an authority figure to provide them with security and certainty. They are focussed on self-preservation and are unlikely to challenge toxic leaders, seeking the path of least resistance.
These followers are more proactive than the conformers and will comply with and accept toxic leadership. They are usually ambitious and will imitate a toxic leader’s behaviour – putting them on the fast track to becoming toxic leaders themselves.
Conducive environments and susceptible followers complete the toxic triangle. These organisations will fail at some point or suffer from some form of scandal – it is just a matter of time.
Consider the damage done to VW’s brand because of the actions of a software engineer. Whilst the individual must hold a certain level of accountability for ‘fiddling the emissions software’, his leadership should have known what he was doing. They were either complacent or incompetent.
Toxic Leaders are much easier to spot when looking up the organisational pyramid – rather than looking down. This creates a challenge as it makes it difficult for the leaders of an organisation to identify and rectify the problem.
At the recent Army Leadership Conference, Colonel Chris Croft explained that the US Army is starting to use 360-degree evaluations to try and weed out toxic leaders. This process includes being evaluated by your peers, subordinates as well as your senior officers. It isn’t perfect but it’s a great start and will give the Army a better chance of creating ‘thinking, adaptable agile decision-makers’ which it will need to fight the wars of the future.
Next week, I will cover the 10 diseases of Leadership as identified by Professor Richard Holmes.
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Roderic Yapp is a specialist leadership consultant and accredited coach. He supports major business transformations by improving the capability of leaders so that they can execute the transformation strategy.
Roderic is an International Coaching Federation professionally accredited coach who has specialist experience in developing people in sectors where ‘leadership failure’ usually results in death or critical injury.
He has significant experience in leadership development, major business transformations and operational excellence with companies such as Deloitte, Fidelity, HSBC, the John Lewis Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Urenco and the NHS.