Leadership is not a learned skill. Why do I say that? Because the essence of leadership is about caring about other human beings and their needs, and a true desire to help them grow and develop to their fullest potential. That requires leaders to focus on others, not on themselves and that isn’t a skill you can teach, at least not by the time someone is ready to step into a leadership role.
The hard truth is that there are people in management roles that should never, ever have been given that role. Perhaps they are technically the most competent person for the role, but leadership isn’t about technical competency, it’s about the human aspect. Turnover is most often due to the challenges someone faces with their manager, not because they feel they are underpaid or lack opportunity within the organization. When people are not treated well they stop caring, become complacent and will eventually leave.
What are the signs that someone is a toxic leader? Here are the five behaviors I have encountered over the years.
- Blaming others for mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes mistakes are made because of carelessness, sometimes because of lack of understanding but that doesn’t change how a leader should respond. A true leader accepts responsibility for his/her team and the mistakes they make, and will work on helping the staff member understand the mistake and learn. Incompetent leaders blame their staff and are willing to throw them under the bus to make themselves look better.
- Too much control. Managers who micromanage every action creates an environment that not only is stifling but one that says “I don’t trust you”. Without trust employees will quit caring and do only what is asked of them, and nothing more. You won’t realize their full potential and what they can bring to the organization. Leadership is not about control, it’s about scaffolding to support those around you and still allow for flexibility. No one can learn and grow when the management style is autocratic.
- Abusive language or ways of speaking to people. Do managers get frustrated with staff of course they do, they are only human. And when the conversations are abusive, offensive or insulting it demonstrates a lack of consideration for others. Managers can and should share with staff what they want different or how they want something handled or where someone totally blew it, and in a way that is respectful. You don’t have to be unkind and cruel to get your point across.
- Treating people as objects, not people. People are hired to do a job, I get that and there are rules and structure that needs to be in place to prevent chaos and define clearly expectations. When rules and structure define how we treat people we have moved from using them as tools to using them as whips. Viewing people simply as objects and not assets means the leader doesn’t care about them as people, has no compassion for them and will rule with an iron fist. Employees want to be treated as human beings, otherwise they will quit caring and productivity will suffer and turnover will result.
- Narcissistic behaviors. When a manager comes across as someone who is self-centered, egotistical and it’s all about them, those around them shrink into the background. Managers who rush out of their office and ask staff to stop what they are doing and respond to their needs right now, without consideration to what they are working on create havoc and stress. Leaders who don’t effectively plan and then expect others to work into the wee hours of the night or weekends say to people “I’m more important than you”. Who wants to consistently work for someone who delivers that message time and time again?
You can’t teach adults how to care about others as human beings. People come to the table with that gift, or not. Sure we can improve how people communicate and manage their own stress but I don’t believe you can teach people how to be human. Leaders that display the above characteristics will eventually run off the best and brightest and damage the organization. Between hiring them and them leaving there is a lot of room for lower performance and productivity due to how you treat them.
If you want to retain your best people, if you want the most from them and to see how far they can grow you must focus on the relationship and how you interact with them. Give them the tools they need to succeed AND connect with them at a deep human level.