Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all toxic, at least some of the time. Who has never blown up at a co-worker, found a way to “get back” at the boss, let a friend down, or simply procrastinated to the detriment of someone else? Sure, we all have! In fact, there is a common toxicity inherent in mankind. It is part of our fallen, sin natures. It is built into our DNA. We can’t avoid it.
Yet, the matter of toxicity is not as straightforward as one might suppose. Toxins in the physical world are those chemicals that do harm to the body. They are solids, liquids, or gasses that interact in negative ways with our human cells to cause temporary or permanent damage and, in some cases, death. Generally, then, we want to avoid toxins. Few people would contend with this point, nor would many people dispute what types of substances are considered toxic. Who disagrees that carbon monoxide gas is dangerous?
However, when the term toxicity is applied to interpersonal relationships, especially those between leaders and the individuals whom they lead, things get a bit dicier. Leaders are regularly called upon to make difficult decisions and hold subordinates accountable to organizational values and moral-ethical norms. To perpetrators, this may seem toxic. Terms like “unfair,” “bossy,”and “dictatorial” are often applied when supervisors do what is necessary to maintain the standards. Some may even call such bosses “toxic”; yet, doing so is a misapplication of the term.
True toxicity is not demonstrated when standards are upheld or when the boss “runs a tight ship.” Good leaders are standard-bearers and diligent captains! But when the standards become unrealistic or the leader operates as a tyrannical skipper, then true toxicity is present. Toxic leaders are those who stop focusing on the mission and standards of the organization and start focusing on personal ambitions, preferences, and/or frustrations. In other words, when the supervisor substitutes personal desires for organizational goals, then he is entering the realm of toxic leadership.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, we all have a penchant unto this type of leadership. When project deadlines are pressing down on us, who doesn’t get a little anxious and self-absorbed? When the promotion period is coming up, who isn’t tempted to push their workers just a little too hard in order to ensure results? When the receptionist is late for the third time in a week, who doesn’t feel anger welling up inside of him? Toxicity is common to all of us. Left to our own devices and without any checks and balances, you can bet all of us would be toxic leaders!
But most of us are not. Why is this? Well, quite simply, it is because we have been taught social decorum and respect. Most of our parents taught us the Golden Rule or some derivation thereof. The mantra drilled into us was, “If you can’t say something good, then don’t say anything at all.” We were brought up to respect other people and treat them honorably. And if we were raised in the church, we were taught that everyone is made in the image of God; as such, everyone is deserving of human dignity.
Nevertheless, life is hard and filled with painful experiences. From the time we are first disciplined by our parents, through adulthood where people regularly break our hearts and disappoint us, to our twilight years when disease and old age start to take their tolls, hurt and frustration are part and parcel of our existence. For most, such pain is negotiated with resiliency and decency; it is absorbed and dealt with constructively using various emotional, mental, and spiritual modalities. For some, however, the pain is largely reflected rather than absorbed and, instead of being dealt with constructively, is used destructively to exact similar pain on others, most of whom are undeserving. And this is essentially what happens in the genesis of a toxic leader; their pain becomes others’ pain and their frustrations, anger, and disappointments are used as weapons on those around them, sometimes with vicious and unrelenting aggression.
As an Army officer many years ago, I had a Brigade Commander who was an extremely toxic leader. He would regularly humiliate staff officers and subordinate commanders, so it’s no surprise that weekly command and staff meetings were, as we used to say, “significant emotional events.” I remember one staff meeting where he disapproved of a document I had created (simply because the date in the top, right-hand corner was wrong), so he physically threw the piece of paper at me and said, “When it’s corrected, you can give it back to me.” Needless to say, I felt both angry and shamed. Should I have made sure the document was correct before handing it to my boss? Absolutely! Should he have treated a fellow professional with such contempt and dishonor. Absolutely not!
In another situation, as a college dean at a major Christian university, I found myself being excluded from meetings of which I clearly should have been a part. My exclusion was not based upon any personal incompetence or inability to work as a team player. I was excluded because my supervisors wanted to ramrod bad ideas through the university’s legislative system, and they knew I would constructively oppose those ideas. So, in a demonstration of passive toxicity, they stopped sending me meeting invitations. This not only hurt emotionally, but it also offended my sense of justice. Who were they to exclude me when I had every right to be there and voice my opinions!
Of course, most readers probably identify with me at this point. You’re “on my side,” as it were. And I bet you’re thinking of the time or times when you’ve experienced a toxic leader. So, our immediate temptation might be to launch off on a witch hunt for toxic leaders! But before we do so, let’s be sure we’ve dealt with our own common toxicity. That is to say, we must first get our own house in order before we start renovating the homes of others. Or as Jesus admonished, we must ensure we take care of the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in another’s eye. Look in the mirror, then, and see what you see. Do you like the person staring back at you, or are there some changes that need to be made?