There is a lot of literature about leadership, there even is a lot of literature about political leadership, written by political scientists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, neuro-scientists ...
- but which of those books are the classics, which maybe the most innovative or most insightful, which the most controversial or most influential?
And there is a lot of talk about leadership, in the media, at the pup, even at work ... , almost always demanding more, better, stronger or just questioning current political leadership.
We are concerned about and we talk passionately about leadership, we write about and research political leadership - but what do we really know?
And why is it even important to understand?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jean Lipman-Blumen, [2006]

The Allure of Toxic Leaders:
Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians - and How We Can Survive Them.

Quote:"The dictionary defines toxic as, acting as or having the effect of a poison.' Toxic leaders do indeed have poisonous effects that cause serious harm to their organizations and their followers, but the multiple toxins they can dispense create varying degrees of impairment." [p.17 / pos.424] 

Abstract: Jean Lipman-Blumen, one of the grand dames of modern leadership research, best known for her model on connective leadership (published 2000 under the title of Connective Leadership: Managing in a Changing World) analyzes toxic leaders, their followers and why toxic leadership is able to persist despite the pain it causes and how to recognize toxic leaders early on and maybe avoid getting into such a potential toxic relationship or resist a further souring by keeping toxic leaders in their position of power.

Key-Words: leadership - toxic leadership - connective leadership - nurturing reluctant leaders - the leader within

Definition of Leadership: "We should view leadership as interaction between leaders and their followers. What goes on between leaders and their supporters is perhaps far more significant for the course of history than simply what leaders do to followers." [pos.416/p.17]

The above definition can be labeled as relational.

  • toxic leadership
Lipman-Blumen reminds us that there are (and always have been) many examples of toxic leaders, of toxic leadership but that most leaders do not start toxic or even always act toxic but that none the less many turn toxic over time and leave their followers, their organizations ultimately worse off than they had been to begin with. But she also reminds us that they do so with the help of their supporters, their followers who often keep them going by either passively tolerating or actively colluding and secretly admiring them despite recognizing their growing toxicity, even actively ignoring or badmouthing whistleblowers. Even the media thanks to its traditional watchdog function and its profit motive tends to focus and as a result feed off such toxic leaders. 

Lipman-Blumen defines toxic leaders as "leaders who engage in numerous destructive behaviors and who exhibit certain dysfunctional personal characteristics... (which)...must inflict some reasonably serious and enduring harms... ."[p.18/pos.443] Such destructive behaviors include e.g. leaving their followers worse off, violating human rights, peddling illusions, playing to fears, stifling criticism, lying, subverting existing control systems, scapegoating, ignoring cronyism and corruption. Dysfunctional personal qualities are "cynicism, greed, corruptibility, moral blind spots, stupidity, narcissism, paranoia, grandiosity and megalomania (...) malevolence and evil intent." [p.21/pos.490]

  • Why do followers seek out (toxic) leadership?
Whereas we all probably know or at least can think of an example of toxic leadership the more interesting question is why do followers crave toxic leadership. 

Lipman-Blumen mentions 6 psychological needs/fears that let us seek leadership, needs and fears that are part of our social being (ingrained and trained): need for parental (authority) figures, for security and certainty, for feeling chosen/special and for belonging, as well as fear of ostracism and of personal powerlessness to challenge a bad leader (control myths). Human beings are experts in followership, "adept at micromanipulation" [p.31 / pos.626]  as well as at obedience. 

Parent-children relationship is seen as a first and priming experience for later asymmetric power-relationships and early bad experiences are accused of becoming negative role models for toxic leadership resulting either in quasi masochistic acceptance of toxic behavior (followers) or in copying experienced abusive behavior (leaders). Therefore Lipman-Blumen's answer to why we seek toxic leadership is that we have been conditioned to do so.

On a positive note the author acknowledges that negative role models can also prepare us to later resist such abusive relationships.  

  • How to fight (toxic) leadership?
Self-organisation (winning by numbers) is, according to the author, the best way to fight toxic leadership even in a complex world, in times of accelerating change, even in times of crisis. 

Awareness of inherent dangers, like ceding personal responsibility, high expectations, neediness and inviting authoritarianism, can help to avoid turning leadership toxic. Speaking out in favor of others as well as of oneself, taking action or confronting a toxic leader takes courage but may be necessary.

Institutional safeguards such as term limits, protection of open and democratic policies, practices and procedures, but also improvements in selecting procedures and creating respectable departure options as well as educated and well-informed constituents may help to prevent toxic leadership: independent and proactive constituents are especially needed within democratic systems, constituents that are able to feel "solidarity and reciprocity with the Other" [p.243 / pos.435] . Leadership-roles should not be for the self-selected few (often those who crave power) but for the many, selected by their peers, reluctant leaders, ready to put the community before self-interest.

In the era of Trump understanding Toxic Leadership, as described in the book, has become even more relevant. "Ironically, our growing independence and autonomy, the very circumstances that can set us free, also increase our vulnerability to the lure of toxic leaders." [p.73 / pos.1434]  

The author stresses the importance of followers, that help turning their leaders toxic on the one hand or that can prevent or unseat toxic leaders on the other hand. She reminds us that both are responsible within a leadership relationship, the leader and the followers and that toxic leadership is not an inevitable fate one has to endure but something we can resist.

She also gives 10 questions that should help to quickly recognize toxic leadership in its early stages. 

First Sentence: "Toxic leaders cast their spell broadly. Most of us claim we abhor them. Yet we frequently follow - or at least tolerate them" [p.ix / pos.69]  

Last Sentence: "Less driven by endless anxieties, overweening competitiveness, insatiable egos, endless needs for self-esteem, a pernicious achievement ethic, and calls to false heroics, we finally can assert our autonomy and set ourselves free. Then, autonomy and freedom, we can find the inner strength not simply to escape, but to reject - resolutely and repeatedly - the allure of the toxic leader.[pos.4584/p.255]

Language: english - needs time to read

Assessment: Eerily topical assessment of the perils of toxic leadership - giving lots of examples (corporate and political) and even citing interview excerpts.

Link to Author's Sites: 

*: The book has been originally published in paperback in 2006 by Oxford University Press, the quotes have been taken from the kindle edition.

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