The Toxic Leader

By Grant Wattie
President, N2Growth Australia

There is a new definition of leadership in our lexicon. The seagull leader is someone who flies in, s**t’s over everything, and leaves. I’m constantly amazed when working inside organizations that the names and examples of such people come up constantly in the conversation. Yet rather than being weeded out, they seem to survive and thrive in an institutional ethic that values by choosing short term greed over longer-term value and culture.

LET ME ASK YOU A QUESTION

Let’s say you have the choice to make between choosing one person for a senior leadership role over another. One, let’s call him the ‘seagull’, has produced great performance short term by moving in changing everything, slashing costs and people, then leaving. Almost everyone dislikes this person. However they will make you look good and keep the stakeholders happy by getting the numbers, in the short term.

The other has values and ethical standards that fit with the corporate culture; she is relational, collaborative and brings out the best in all around her. Performance has been solid.

WHO WILL YOU CHOOSE?

In my experience, more often than not, leaders choose the seagull. Why? because he’s the safe bet, and they always have had someone like this in the past, so why change things? Why rock the boat.

While we all too often look to the characteristics of what a good leader is, they seem to be few and far between. Perhaps we need to focus more on the characteristics of bad leaders to expose this problem. After all, we are experiencing an epidemic of this in our organizations as evidenced by the recent Gallup polls.

The recent Gallup survey revealed there is only 30% of the working population today who admit to being fully engaged at work. Over the past year, Gallup researchers interviewed nearly 150,000 workers. These are people nationwide in all industries, and discovered that a seismic number are miserable in their jobs.

Several other studies in recent years also have shown a large number of people believe they work for a Gigantic Jerk.

SO, WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES OF LEADERS THAT BUSINESSES SHOULD NOW BE LOOKING FOR?

According to Gartner’s Harter, it begins with a combination of being results oriented and authentically concerned about the development of every worker. Essentially this means the most effective leaders are deeply relational and caring while still being highly competent and producing great outcomes for all the stakeholders. They are collaborative, have a clear vision of the future and a compelling passion for what they do, they accept responsibility for maximizing each person’s full potential.

John Gerzema in his ground-breaking research asserts “The most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, collaborative and nurturing – And both men and women from Medellin to Nairobi are adopting this style, which emphasizes cooperation, long-term thinking, and flexibility.”

So why have we got this all wrong? Perhaps it’s because we still cling to the great man theory of leadership. After all, the majority of leaders in organizations are men. What we need is a different measuring stick in our selection criteria.

Shakespeare, perhaps one of the first great commentators of leadership, debunked the “Great man” theory of leadership long ago.  In Henry IV, Glendower boasts to Hotspur, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” And Hotspur retorts back, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call them?”

Leadership is founded in a relationship between the leader, and those being led. What any great leader has in common with the others, is they all have willing followers.

HERE ARE 5 ESSENTIAL THINGS LEADERS MUST DO TO IMPROVE ORGANIZATIONAL ENGAGEMENT:

  1. If you have a seagull in a leadership role, replace with a real leader, someone with strong caring, relational and collaborative traits.
  2. Match character and values to the position: put people into roles that fully leverage their passions, talents and strengths. Ensure a selection process that focuses on values, character and alignment of capabilities with the job role.
  3. Communicate clear expectations: Most leaders are poor communicators. The Gallup survey suggests only half of people surveyed have clarity on what’s expected of them, and this causes enormous frustration.
  4. Equip people: with the tools, equipment, support, and knowledge to do their jobs effectively. Giving people greater autonomy and control over their workday has profoundly positive effects. It leads people to feel trusted, and influences them to do much more for the organization.
  5. Praise and recognition: One of our basic human needs is to feel appreciated and valued. Many leaders understand, but forget how critical this is and the impact recognition has on lifting employee spirits.

On a more optimistic note, there are many great leaders and organizational cultures such as Hyatt Hotels, Charles Schwab, Wegmans Food Markets and many more who have done much to inspire high engagement. What can you do to encourage greater engagement in your organization?

I would love to hear your comments on this topic.

Follow me on Twitter @grantwattie