Is toxic leadership contagious?

man-110307__340 What better time than Labor Day to discuss a hot issue for workers everywhere?

A Boston Globe story last month, “A Golden Age for Toxic Bosses” by Katie Johnston, confirmed my growing concern about the management style the current U.S. President exhibits and the example it sets to leaders everywhere—especially in business, where tyrannical management sometimes festers. The article points out:

    While there has been some movement toward kinder, gentler, more empathetic leaders, some fear the president’s headline-generating hostility may again make it seem OK to be a bad boss.

It also quotes a survey in which “more than half of workers say their superiors are toxic, prone to explosive outbursts, berating employees.” Meanwhile, the volatile outbursts and tongue-lashing of subordinates by the US Prez are reported almost daily. There’s an obvious downside to this, as the piece continues:

    Publicly humiliating employees can create a chaotic environment and cause other workers to lose confidence in the boss, workplace consultants say. The more petty the attack, the more employees will feel at risk. This can create less-loyal employees who are prone to act out and, say, leak damaging information to the press.

Not coincidentally, leaks to the press from White House employees—usually harsh criticisms of the POTUS—are at an all-time high.

Before I go further, I should add that much of my concern about autocratic and abusive leadership goes back to the beginning of my rock & roll days. In my twenties I witnessed several bands who were ruled by tyrants, most of which went nowhere because band members eventually quit.

But I had the good fortune to play in democratically run bands and observe in close quarters the creativity of some famous ones, including The Grateful Dead. I was quickly sold on the idea of a “democratized workforce,” decades before the term came into vogue‚ for reasons I’ve enumerated previously (for example, here and here.)

Perhaps most importantly, the collaborative creativity of team members who interact with each other with mutual respect usually prevails in the end. When leaders of bands, businesses, or governments hold themselves inherently superior to others—and, in the case of this American President, above the law—that's when trouble begins. (The autocratic tendencies of the current US Prexy are actually a small part of his leadership deficiencies, but we can discuss his lack of vision, intellectual curiosity, ethical compass, emotional intelligence, psychological stability, and spiritual core on another occasion.)

It’s too early to tell whether young and impressionable organizational leaders can ignore the example that our Leader of the Free World sets, but the longer he remains in power the risk grows. And the Globe article is not reassuring:

    But with Trump as a highly visible and highly combative role model, leadership experts wonder if this movement toward more mild-mannered bosses may be derailed. Just as incidents of hate-related violence and harassment increased after Trump was elected, could there be an uptick in bosses behaving badly?

Stay tuned.

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  1. Toxic leaders, especially at the top, are less likely to be challenged in privately owned companies, like The Trump Organization.

  2. Lack of integrity is also a key element of toxic leadership. Charles Blow in The NY Times just wrote: "Before Trump's bigotry, race-baiting, misogyny, corruption, bullying and vindictiveness, there is the lying. One could even argue that the lying is a core component of all the rest." This is the most dangerous aspect of Trump's leadership.

    1. I've heard it argued before that Trump's assault on "truth," "facts," or objective reality can do the most long-term damage, because it undermines how people receive and verify information through news sources.

      I just found the NYT article.


      The Washington Post calculated that Trump made 492 false or misleading statements in his first 100 days — “That’s an average of 4.9 claims a day” — and that there were only 10 days without a single false claim. There were five days with 20 or more false claims.

      Trump is quite literally overwhelming our human capacities with his mendacity. It is not only hard to imagine that any person could lie this much — let alone the leader of the free world — it is also impossible for us to keep pace.

      This is not simply about a flawed man, this is about the function of our democracy and American positioning in the world. How is one supposed to debate policy with someone who almost never tells the truth? How can a liar negotiate treaties or navigate international disputes? Without truth, everything falls apart, or more precisely, nothing can be established.


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