Toxic leadership as a concept was coined by Marcia Lynn Whicker, in her book: "Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad". This is all about the abuse of power and its destructiveness.

This is bad enough in every day business, but for an organisation undergoing any form of change initiative it is potentially catastrophic. In change management terms, having anyone in a leadership or a management position in your organisation who displays these characteristics is like a poison that needs to be identified and eradicated at the earliest opportunity.

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In my experience and in my view, toxic leadership contaminates and infects an organisation beyond the immediate reach of the person creating it.

Marcia Lynn Whicker describes toxic leaders as "maladjusted, malcontent, and often malevolent, even malicious. They succeed by tearing others down. They glory in turf protection, fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers."

In "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters" [2004] - writer Barbara Kellerman suggests that toxic may manifest in seven different categories:

- Incompetence

- Rigidity

- Intemperance - lack of self-control

- Callousness

- Corruption

- Insularity

- Evil

Personal experience of surviving toxic leadership...

Personally, I have twice in my career had the misfortune of working for a toxic boss. These guys were terrible to work for and made people's lives an absolute misery.

In business terms their "games" were always counter productive as everyone expended far more energy in trying to pacify or avoid them than in undertaking productive useful work. Each time was a nightmare, because:

- These guys were bullies and like all bullies were fundamentally weak and insecure individuals.

- They led by "divide and rule" by setting people against each other.

- They lied and were duplicitous and untrustworthy in their dealings.

- They engendered a culture of fear and mistrust.

- The general atmosphere they created can best be described as evil because of its insidious nastiness and destructiveness.

Here are 3 of my best strategies for dealing with toxic leadership if you have the misfortune of working for a boss like that.

(1) Neutralize their assaults on you

Neutralize their assaults, or to [use a cricketing term] "dead bat" them, by never being seen to react to any of their games. Because, these people feed off of the negative energy they create - it energizes them - so a non-reaction to their games deprives them of energy. Or to put it another way, evil feeds off of evil!

(2) Always wait before responding

These toxic people thrive on the reactions that they create. I have always found it best to never ever respond immediately. I learned to wait until I had calmed down, and then acted from a calm rational position. So, recognise and allow for the fact that it may [depending on your temperament] take you 24-48 hours for your emotional and nervous system to recover and re-stabilize after you have been on the receiving end of one of their assaults.

(3) Respond factually, accurately and supportively.

I have always found that a factual, practical and supportive response makes it easier and [more likely] for them to make the "right" decisions for my areas of business responsibility. It might seem counter-intuitive to act supportively, but the fact is these are fundamentally weak people and responding in this manner addresses their areas of weakness and insecurity and thus goes to the root of their toxic behaviour.

Spotting toxic leadership amongst your subordinates

As a director of your business or organisation you are in the privileged position of being able to identify any areas of your organisation where toxic leadership may be manifesting and to be able to do something about it.

The best defense for a director is to pay close and regular attention to the culture[s] within your organisation. Undertake regular "cultural audits" of the divisions, departments and operating units and subsidiaries in your organisation and as part of that process, take the emotional temperature and assess the energy of the working environment in each operating unit.

This should be an integral part of the preliminary stages of planning any change initiative. The 70% failure rate of all change initiatives would suggest that you are facing enough difficulties without harboring the poisonous complications of toxic leadership within your organisation, and this issue is closely linked to the core reasons for this failure rate.

Toxic Leadership and Change Management - How to Spot it, Deal With it and Avoid It

For more on this: "Avoiding toxic leadership"

Equip yourself to avoid the 70% failure rate of all change initiatives with the "Practitioners' Masterclass - Leading your people through change, putting it all together and managing the whole messy business."

Stephen Warrilow, based in Bristol, works with companies across the UK providing specialist support to directors delivery significant change initiatives. Stephen has 25 years cross sector experience with 100+ companies in mid range corporate, larger SME and corporate environments.

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