What to do About a Toxic Leader
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
Question: I saw this recently and wondered how you would respond. "New York City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn has an idiosyncratic leadership style that involves hurling invective at those around her, threatening to mutilate opponents and yelling so loudly that subordinates were forced to soundproof her office to avoid scaring visitors. Quinn says her robust approach is an effective strategy for breaking through red tape and getting things done.”
Bob: This “leadership style” doesn’t even deserve the “leadership” label. Leadership depends on connecting with people emotionally in a way that moves them and causes them to act. Screaming is not the way to make connections with others. At best, you might say that this is a “management style,” but even there it’s not likely to be one that’s effective, especially in the long term. The abusive manager may “break through red tape” occasionally but not for long – because each of their efforts to break through red tape also severely damages relationships.
One thing to consider is whether the style the leader is exhibiting is just “blustery” or whether it is truly “vindictive.” We all know people who appear noisy and aggressive, but “have a good heart.” There may be hope for these people to be rescued and to become effective leaders. An “intervention,” hopefully undertaken with several others who feel the way you do, may be effective in turning things around. Leadership educators and personal coaches can also help.
For the truly vindictive person, there is little hope. If you have a manager like this, you might consider talking with her and pointing out the problems she is causing. But, of course, there’s a risk in that. A vindictive boss might well turn on you and pressure you to leave the organization. Even a modest intervention may result in retaliation.
Some employees will stay because they so believe in the "cause" that they will be willing to take the abuse themselves or stand by as it is directed at others. And others may stay because they are enchanted by power and the thrill of the "kill." (These people may need serious psychological help themselves.)
But, as this plays out, most employees are likely to react first by quietly undermining the abusive manager, then engaging in sabotage, next posing more direct objections, and finally by mounting a full-scale revolt.
For the rest, you might try an “intervention,” again with others who feel as you do, but at some point, you may simply have to look for work elsewhere. You don’t need this in your life.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance of Leadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.