Toxic Leaders

Organizational toxicity is the result of toxic leadership. Such leaders poison the environment with conflict, blaming, unreasonable performance goals, rewarding people for loyalty instead of performance, creating unhealthy competition to produce “winners and losers,” and sporting an ego that blinds them to self-renewal.

That’s some of the message of The Allure of Toxic Leaders by Jean Lipman-Blumen. Bob Fryling aptly refers to this toxicity and then applies it to our churches and organizations — are we subject to creating the same toxic culture?

This takes place when leaders are self-consumed, agenda-driven, and results-obsessed. Leaders in churches, businesses, and non-profit organizations of all sizes are subject to the problem. I remember meeting with an executive whose “bosses” were so mad at one another they basically locked their doors and refused to speak to each other – for 6 weeks! WOW.

What’s the cure? What can leaders do? Of course, it is not a simple 3-step plan, but there are some actions and attitudes that, over time, can change the culture.

1) Remain Attentive to People and Their Problems. Listening, asking questions, and having an “it’s ok to interrupt me” policy will go a long way.

2) Practice the Old MBWA–Management by Walking Around. We can be aloof, disconnected, and disengaged from the front line people who face customers and congregants all day long.

3) Teach What You Know. It bugs me that some leaders share their best insights with outsiders (other leaders, speaking at conferences, or in books and articles) before sharing it with staff and volunteer leaders in their own organization. Is it because what they teach is not exactly what takes place back home? Or perhaps their perspective is not accurate or would not be well received by internal staff, so they avoid the potential conflict that might result (and thereby miss the great growth that could result!).

4) Encourage and Inspire Others. Not one leader I know has too much encouragement from other leaders. Rising leaders need it from senior leaders. Senior leaders need it from protégés and peers. Create a culture of genuine affirmation and mutual cheerleading. For more on this read The Orange Revolution.

5) Share Real Leadership and Meaningful Rewards. Don’t just delegate. Create an environment for real apprentices to make real decisions, take responsibility, and share the consequences– rewards and failures. (A recent example is GM is trying to share the profits with front line employees and team leaders, not managers and senior executives. Everyone takes pride in producing the product so everyone wins or loses together.)

Is your environment toxic? What can you do to change the culture? 

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billdonahue@churchleaders.com'
Bill served at the Willow Creek Church & Association where he developed leadership strategies and training events for over 2500 volunteer leaders. In addition, Bill launched and led the Group Life initiative, creating tools and resources for leaders in 13,000 churches on six continents, representing over 95 denominations in over 30 countries.