How toxic leaders destroy people and organisations

Good morning friends

In Good to Great, leading business thinker Jim Collins developed the concept of the flywheel. In an accompanying monograph he writes, “No matter how dramatic the end result, good-to-great transformations never happen in one fell swoop. In building a great company or social sector enterprise, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.”

This week I have been reflecting that the opposite is equally true. There are moments where we encounter companies in crisis. Loss of purpose, falling revenues, dramatic staff turnover and burgeoning legal costs all become commonplace. Poor leadership decisions are made and the company lurches from one idea to the next. It appears as if catastrophe has suddenly hit but the rumble of the momentum destroying people and value could have been spotted and corrected. Collins calls this the ‘doom loop’ (for more about how companies end up there, read this).

To keep you out of the doom loop, today’s letter reflects on spotting toxic leadership, building personal mastery and the power of purpose.


How toxic leaders destroy people and organisations

Theo Veldsman is a Professor of Industrial Psychology and People Management at the University of Johannesburg. In this article he describes 5 types of toxic leaders. He provides a useful matrix identifying the behaviours that point to toxicity. It is a powerful cautionary read.

Common to all the types is self-serving behaviour divorced from any sense of greater purpose.

My regular readers know that I believe that a commitment to making the world a better place (purpose) is the foundation stone of any success. This truth is enshrined in our most ancient philosophies and religions and in the latest research from the world’s best business schools.

Unfortunately, the language of measurement – of financial metrics, and of policy often helps to camouflage self-serving behaviour under a veneer of ‘professionalism’.

Veldsman provides some useful organisational markers to help identify whether your business has become poisoned. Here are just two:

  • Low organizational commitment (look for high staff turnover and other markers); and
  • Unproductive work (listen for teams complaining about being dragged into dead-end meetings).


‘Respect Heaven and Love People’

The best inoculation against toxicity is developing personal mastery and employing people who demonstrate a commitment to it.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has this to say:

“Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills, though it is grounded in competence and skills…It means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive standpoint”.

Are you creating or reacting?

He describes the leadership of Kazuo Inamori, founder and president of Kyocera, saying “he taught that Kyocera employees should look inward as they continually strive for perfection guided by the corporate motto “Respect Heaven and Love People”.

Senge says that to make personal mastery a discipline, we need to:

  • “Continually clarify what is important to us”; and
  • “Be continually learning to see the current reality more clearly.”

He clarifies that learning “does not mean acquiring more information but expanding the ability to produce the results we truly want in life.”

He emphasizes that those who demonstrate personal mastery seek to serve a purpose beyond themselves.

If you have leaders who have no track record of successful creation, who aren’t connected to deep purpose and who aren’t respected by their teams, your alarm bells should be ringing.


Sobukwe’s sacrifice

Next Saturday, 21 March is Human Rights Day in South Africa. It is the 60th anniversary of mass protests against apartheid’s pass laws. It had been initiated by the Pan-African Congress, an organisation founded by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. The day was marked the tragic killing of 69 people, and the wounding of hundreds more, by policemen serving the apartheid state.

Sobukwe’s story is told in How Can Man Die Better by Benjamin Pogrund. Sobukwe suffered the torture of six years solitary confinement on Robben Island. Six years that followed him serving his original 3-year sentence, without recourse to the courts. Pogrund’s book does an excellent job of conveying his commitment to personal mastery. Sobukwe was without doubt one of South Africa’s finest thinkers and moral guides – a man of great integrity, courage and purpose.


Each month I make a few 90-minute coaching sessions available for free. You will leave with a clear sense of your current reality and a stronger sense of possibility and intention. They have been described as “probably the most perspective I have ever gotten”. This month I have two slots available, so if you’re interested or know someone who might be, drop me an email.


Best wishes




PS: Please email me comments as always. I also post this letter on my LinkedIn profile. Please share it with your network.


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