By Crosa (Flickr: Scream) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Crosa (Flickr: Scream) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all worked for them, ineffective or “toxic” leaders. As long as there have been leaders, there have been the kinds who bully and belittle their people. Most leaders who act this way don’t even know they’re doing it. How can we understand the difference between an effective leader who motivates and enforces standards and one whose tyrannical style actually detracts from the mission? My goal today is for all of us to engage in a little self-reflection on our own leadership styles.

Everyone has their own leadership philosophy; what’s wrong with a boss who might be harder on his folks than someone else? Isn’t a little “tough love” warranted now and then? There are indeed times when a strong stance is required. Good leaders are able to keep a balance of holding followers accountable without completely demoralizing them in the process. Ultimately, toxic leadership is counter-productive and undermines the very goals you’re trying to achieve. You don’t get maximum performance from your team; you get just enough to keep you from flipping out on them. Once you reach this point it’s difficult to lead them back to a place of excellence.

So how do we keep ourselves from reaching that point? As I mentioned before, self-reflection is the key. There are a few ways you can tell if you’re exhibiting “toxic” behavior as a leader.

First, have you found yourself becoming reactive and defensive to feedback from your followers?

Have you found that personal initiative within the organization declines and you end up micromanaging every activity? Has “Just tell me what you want me to do” becomes a common refrain from your subordinates?

Have people stopped bringing you bad news? Or any news at all?

Even if you answered no to all of these questions, there are a few things we can all do (and remind ourselves to do) to keep ourselves from going down a road towards being ineffective leaders.

Set clear priorities and communicate your intent. Empower subordinates to act within the bounds of both. Taking advice from T.E. Lawrence, it’s better when your people do something “tolerably than that you do it perfectly”. Recognize when they do perform admirably within the parameters you’ve set, even if it’s not the perfect outcome you had hoped for.

Foster Ideas and allow people to speak freely. Ultimately decisions are yours to make as the leader, but you’ll get more innovation and creativity out of your people if they feel like they will be heard, even if you don’t choose the solution they put forth.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Bad stuff happens. Correct it and move on. If disciplinary action is required deal with it fairly and don’t take it personally.

Don’t be afraid of honest mistakes, they happen. Thank people for pointing out their own mistakes and work with them to develop corrective action. This is not the case for cases of theft, fraud or dishonesty. Allowing these to happen can ultimately cause your endeavor to fail and must be dealt with as a matter of discipline (a topic for another time).

Finally, put the success of your people achieving the goals you’ve given them above your own personal success. If the goal is achieved, your own success will come along with that.

One final note (actually more of an opinion on my part): Being stuck in a “toxic” mindset is frustrating, stressful, and ultimately no fun! Take some time to do some self-reflection, if for no other reason, to help you be more relaxed and less stressed.

What other aspects of leadership do you self-reflect on?

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