Leadership is tricky business, no doubt. Anyone who says it is easy has never been a leader. Developing positive leadership qualities takes a great deal of time, patience, and intentionality. The difference between adequate and good leaders is immense, and the divide between good and extraordinary leaders is even greater. However, the difference between adequate and poor leaders is quite small, and the deciding factor is often a single characteristic of leadership that can be avoided and, indeed, should be avoided at all costs. That characteristic is toxicity.
Unfortunately, toxic leadership is a real problem in America. From the military to business to academia to public service organizations to the various blue-collar professions, toxic leaders have become a drain on the charitable, innovative, and risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit that once defined our nation. The current "dog-eat-dog, succeed-at-all-costs, anti-personal" leadership culture is not only crushing our country's workforce ethos, but it is also inhibiting organizational growth and creativity. When employees are ramrodded by toxic leaders, they retreat into positions of safety, which usually means they stop demonstrating ingenuity and generally adopt a status quo that avoids both conflict and exceptionality. They simply fade into the mediocre middle.
So, what are some signs of toxic leadership? I'll offer seven, though there are many more.
1. Lack of top-down communication - leaders cease communicating and/or relating with their employees. They become ivory-tower dwellers.
2. Workforce opinions and needs are marginalized - leaders no longer consider the needs, wants, desires, and thoughts of their people. They believe they have all of the answers.
3. No one speaks up at meetings - if no one ever contradicts the boss or offers constructive criticism of organizational decision-making and processes/policies, then there may be a problem.
4. Talented people are leaving the organization - talented people don't leave organizations that respect and encourage talented people.
5. Productivity is low - most people want to be productive. If an entire organization or group of people within the organization is unproductive, then a toxic leader is probably to blame.
6. Sick call rates are high - organizations should check their sick call rates regularly. If a high percentage of folks call in sick per month, consider the leadership culture.
7. A "tyranny of the urgent" clearly exists - when every task or problem is billed as the most urgent matter on the table and completion deadlines are always short, then employees will be miserable.
Of course, you may have other signs you would include, but I think this is a decent list. If you are seeing any of these in yourself or your organization, then beware. Sure, leadership is hard, but it doesn't have to be toxic. Leaders who cannot rid themselves of toxic elements are truthfully not leaders at all. At best they are incompetents, and at worst they are malevolent dictators. Either way, they will end up destroying their organizations and, truthfully, themselves and their legacies.