The Consequence of Toxic Leadership
Updated: Nov 9
During the years I have spent working as a Management Consultant most of my time has been spent helping organizations understand how to deliver value faster, not sacrifice quality for anything, and to put the customer at the center of their ecosystem.
Though these concepts may seem logical, to achieve the outcome requires overcoming over 100 years of management theory and in some cases decades of experience. The way that an organization behaves is not the fault of any person in particular, but more the result of a system that has not kept pace with the speed of innovation.
The work I do is challenging and rewarding for similar reasons: changing organizational behavior creates happier people, better solutions, and forces all involved to consider the art of the possible.
Through all of this hard work and emotion, I do my best to remain empathetic to the people involved. Change is hard. That is, with the exception of one group. I push without mercy the group who is often least engaged. The group who mandates change, but often does not take make time to understand the change, the group who inadvertently impedes change, the group who is responsible for changing the system.
I am relentless in my challenge to people with senior management responsibilities.
The reason why may be surprising.
It is true that during my career I have seen the consequence of poor leadership. The organization forced to cut thousands of jobs because a small group refused to acknowledge that their business model was changing. The organization that went from being one of the fastest-growing and most admired companies in the world to one brought down by a failure to evolve their fraternity culture as they achieved scale.
I could go on with these stories, but they are not my driving force. Perhaps they are supporting case studies, but not my trigger.
Joe Tackett is my trigger.
During my brief tenure in the US Army, I had the privilege to learn first-hand what it meant to be a servant leader, to be selfless, and to adapt and overcome. I also had the opportunity to learn first-hand the catastrophic consequences of incompetent leadership.
Any time a person accepts the role of positional leadership they must first realize that it is not about them. The responsibility of a positional leader is to provide purpose and vision to the people who they are responsible for and to give them the safety and support they need to execute the mission.
Too often I see people in these positions managing either up (to secure their next promotion) or across (by engaging in systemic competition with their peers, likely to also secure their next promotion.) These people are not visible to the people who they serve, they do not participate in developing strategic intent, and the consequences speak for themselves.
Most organizational challenges result from a failure in leadership.
In June of 2005, I witnessed an event that would forever change the way I view the responsibility of leadership.
My (first) Platoon Leader (PL) was a person with a good heart, but who had no business leading soldiers in combat. He was constantly late, he was rarely prepared for the mission, and he did not take the time to understand the people in our area of operations.
He was dangerous.
In fact, he was so dangerous that I had the personal responsibility of clearing his weapon each day when we returned from our mission. In military culture, for a junior-enlisted solider to have the responsibility of assuring that weapon of his senior officer was secure is unheard of.
I did this each day, except for the day I did not.
On June 23rd, 2005 our mission was to escort high-value Department of State personnel from their base in central Baghdad to one of the most infamous prisons in the country. During that mission, our convoy was attacked with a large improvised explosive device.
Thankfully, everyone was safe (that day.) Our platoon split: I went with the half that took moved our damaged equipment back to base, and the PL stayed behind to assist with interrogations.
With us being split, I did not clear his weapon.
That evening the PL was walking through our camp, which was a building equivalent to the Iraqi pentagon - a safe place when he stopped to talk with Joe.
Joe joked with the PL: “Hey LT, is that thing unloaded?!” PL: Yea! See!
The PL places the barrel of his rifle behind Joe’s ear and pulls the trigger.
It was not unloaded. The rest of that night was a blur of blood, tears, and blind rage.
The next several months were a series of IED blasts, lost friends, and depositions.
As if being in combat situations nearly every day was not enough, I was constantly being interviewed and grilled by attorneys about what happened.
My takeaway from that event was that people charged with the care of others have a supreme responsibility that they must understand. It is a responsibility that is not suited for everyone, and that needs to be ok.
As a person charged with reimaging organizations and management systems, people need to understand the consequence of toxic leaders to be the loss of security, family, and in some cases the loss of life for individuals, and in some cases entire communities.
This is why my expectations of those positions of positional authority is so high. It is also why my tolerance for selfish and narcissistic leaders is low.
Because I have seen first-hand what can happen when incompetent and toxic leadership is left unchecked.
Because I have testified in a murder trial with the sound of mortar shells and bombs in the background.
Because I have mopped the blood and brains of my friend Joe off of the marble floors of a palace a world away.
Because of Joe.
Let us all take a lesson from that June 2005 day in Baghdad.
Let us all challenge ourselves to care for those in our charge, to be present, and to do our best to embody the concept of servant leadership.
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