The word “toxic” may be the worst possible one to associate with a business leader. It immediately paints a picture of an extreme lack of leadership, self-centered interests and negative or unethical behavior that harms the business and staff.
Toxic CEOs can quickly infect the attitudes and efforts of those around them. Though these leaders may succeed in business, the pattern of behavior will usually emerge at some point. An infographic by GetVoIP, as shared by Business Insider, reported that nearly 40 percent of CEOs are dismissed in their first 18 months in the role.
Here’s a look at several different kinds of toxic CEOs.
Bullying in recent years has had a national spotlight, particularly when it comes to children. This kind of behavior can be terribly harmful, creating constant torment and badly damaging self-esteem. So it’s unfortunate that some adults don’t evolve past this, and then employ a grown-up version of bullying in business. Martha C. White examined this in a story for Time, writing, “… In the adult environment of the workplace, bullies can be even worse because they’ve refined their techniques over the years.”
“Unlike the stereotype of a bully as a ham-fisted thug, bully bosses have sufficient social skills to figure out who and how they need to coerce to get ahead on the job — which many do, writes Darren Treadway, an associate professor in the school of management at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Bullies crave power, Treadway says, and they have no compunctions about behaving aggressively to get it. In their drive to the top, they don’t care who they run over.”
The effects of bullying can be significant, even beyond the hurt feelings and bruised egos it causes. In a story for chiefexecutive.net, Susan Lucia Annunzio describes the fallout that can be caused by a corporate bully “who comes across as polished and sophisticated.”
“Everything about him sends the message that he is the smartest guy in the room — the one who will make the decisions and get the credit,” Annunzio says. “Although he may ask for others’ opinions and give lip service to their ideas, it’s clear to everyone that it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ In a corporate setting, that adds up to lost opportunity. Employees’ voices go unheard. Product defects are covered up; unethical practices continue unchecked; untenable financial risks are ignored; brilliant ideas never see the light of day. People are intimidated into keeping quiet.”
A certain level of risk-taking is expected from business leaders, and a measured approach can be more highly regarded than an overly aggressive one. Those that take a conservative track may lose out on a potential jackpot, and those that constantly swing for the fences may put the business’ long-term future in jeopardy. Finding a middle ground, in which opportunities are thoroughly explored before making a financial plunge, can be a better way. Gamblers are included in GetVoIP’s infographic:
“Over-optimistic, brash, and irresponsible, the gambler CEO plays fast and loose with the fortunes and lives of his shareholders and employees. A cool head and the ability to bluff an opponent now and then are great assets, but this type takes it too far. … Risk-taking is a large part of what it takes to get to the top, but distinguishing between a calculated wager and a wild gamble is a must.”
We’ve all encountered self-absorbed people, and witnessed how a pompous attitude can affect relationships. When a CEO’s ego is ever-expanding, it can get in the way of employee and client relations, and become a glaring sign that he or she is veering into toxic territory. A story by CEO.com explains that pathological narcissism is the “personality disorder most commonly found among executive leadership.”
“To be fair, it takes a small dose of narcissism to successfully climb the ladder in the business world,” the story states. “When feelings of confidence develop into grandiose fantasies about themselves, however, leaders risk alienating their employees by acting selfish, entitled and attention-hungry.”
The passive-aggressive CEO
Just as a narcissistic leader can offend with loudly self-centered ways, so can a passive-aggressive leader with silence or subtle behavior that derails progress and makes employees uncomfortable. As the CEO.com story explains, “The passive-aggressive leader is one who expresses negative feelings indirectly and avoids confrontation at all costs. Outwardly accommodating, these types of leaders will agree to a plan and then quietly obstruct those decisions they don’t agree with. They express their resentment by missing deadlines, showing up late to meetings, making excuses and undermining team goals.”
Being ‘above the truth’
The CEO that shows toxicity with words and tone is one thing. Going outside the boundaries of ethics and law takes it to a higher and even more dangerous level. Tor Constantino discusses this in a story for Entrepreneur, writing, “Truth and ethics matter in every aspect of life, including business.”
“The demands of a top-leadership position can poison a CEO’s self talk to believe an internal [monologue] such as, ‘Those rules don’t apply to me,’ ‘I’m above those policies,’ ‘I’ve earned the right to take a pass this time,’ ‘I’m unique in this regard.’ That insidious internal conversation that tells them they’re different than everyone else is how leaders fall. Those flawed thoughts can lead to flawed actions.”
It’s disheartening to see anyone in business dangerously cutting corners or trying to misrepresent numbers to further their goals. The CEO that aims to twist reality for his or her own benefit won’t inspire much confidence. And those that use similar techniques in managing people will likely find themselves with an unhappy staff. Author Paul White writes about this for Rescue a CEO.
“Toxic leaders are masters of manipulation — both of information and people,” he says. “They’re masters of image control, making things look good by maintaining close control of all of the actual raw data. For the sake of ‘the larger cause,’ toxic leaders will use and sacrifice those who work for them, no matter how loyal.”
In any walk of life, people who don’t think before they speak can look foolish. When it’s a CEO, knee-jerk reactions can hurt employees and clients, and send the business down a destructive path. The GetVoIP infographic points out that ego plays a large role in a CEO preventing a damaging blunder:
“When your opinion is always the one that matters, it can be easy to lose perspective on when to talk and when to shut up. The loudmouth CEO has an inflated sense of the importance of his own ideas, and isn’t afraid to share them, no matter how harmful they may ultimately be. … As the public head, face and voice of a company, a smart CEO watches his words.”