Unhealthy environments lend themselves to the emergence of what have been described as “toxic leaders” (Lipman-Blumen, 2004). Toxic leaders are subtly or overtly abusive, violating the basic standards of human respect, courtesy, and the rights of the people who report to them. They tend to be power-hungry and appear to feed off of the use and abuse of the power they have. They play to people’s basest fears, stifle criticism, and teach followers never to question their judgment or actions. They lie to meet their own ends and tend to subvert processes of the system that are intended to generate a more honest and open environment. They compete with rather than nurture other leaders, including potential successors, and tend to use divide-and-conquer strategies to set people against each other.
Brian recalls a conversation with a colleague:
I remember some years ago talking to someone from a facility that had some major incidents and ended up with a cottage that was totally out of control. The unit was obviously run by someone with major problems, and he was permitted to behave in really terrible ways in an effort to maintain control. Things like making children strip to their underwear, depriving kids of sleep, and other forms of coercion were commonplace. Several of the more aggressive residents became the “lieutenants” of the lead staff person. He gave them special favors and position in the pecking order. These kids then kept the children and sometimes the staff in check through a more overt campaign of fear and intimidation. The cottage code becomes “what’s done here stays here.” People bought in because it was the safest way for them to proceed. The program became more and more corrupt and because everyone was sworn or pounded into secrecy, agency leadership might not know what is going on. Nothing was reported and to the casual observer, things appeared to be in check. Unfortunately when things are in check, we often don’t pay much attention. In the case I discussed earlier, the sad ending came when two children were arrested for sexually assaulting a third child and a staff person was arrested as well for allegedly holding the child down while his peers assaulted him. How on earth can these things happen in a treatment program? They happen when values deteriorate and the organization becomes too stressed and too preoccupied to even see the drift. The temptation to look for authoritarian solutions is very seductive.
In order to distract attention from their own misbehavior, toxic leaders will not hesitate to identify scapegoats and then direct followers’ aggression against the designated scapegoat rather than themselves. They frequently promote incompetence, corruption, and cronyism and exploit systems for personal gain (Lipman-Blumen, 2004). We both have seen our share of toxic leaders in organizations. In for-profit companies, toxic leaders may eventually be extruded because of their detrimental effect on worker morale and ultimately on the bottom line. Unfortunately, in the public and nonprofit sector, toxic leaders can hide for a very long time because their impact is often less directly tied to inefficiencies or negative behavior on the part of workers. Instead, the worker becomes the problem. Additionally, the lack of ability to consistently judge outcomes based on worker or consumer satisfaction tends to create situations where it is less clear exactly what managers are accountable for. And command-and-control agendas within organizations support behavior that often leads to toxic behavior on the part of leaders.
Under what is arguably the worst conditions, an organizational leader, predisposed to authoritarian behavior and acquiring power, may evolve into what has been described as a “petty tyrant” (Ashforth, 1994). A petty tyrant is someone who arbitrarily and in a small-minded way, exercises absolute power oppressively or brutally. Petty tyrants believe certain things about their employees, a set of beliefs that have been termed Theory X—that the average person dislikes work, lacks ambition, avoids responsibility, prefers direction, and is resistant to change (McGregor, 1960). They do this in definable ways. They use their authority in ways that are unfair and that reinforce their own position or provide personal gain. They play favorites. They belittle subordinates and humiliate them in front of others. They lack consideration and tend to be aloof, cold, and unapproachable. They force their own point of view on others and demand that things be done their way. They discourage participation of others and discourage initiative. They are likely to be critical and punitive toward subordinates for no apparent reason.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. and B. Farragher (2010). Destroying sanctuary: The crisis in human service delivery systems. New York, Oxford University Press.