Toxic Boss, Sick Company: A Clinic for Leaders

One Buddha and a billion buddhus! One visionary and a million patients of cataract. One Baba followed by resounding Baa Baa. Ram Rahim Gurmeet turned out to be the proverbial black sheep. His followers rioted and some got tragically killed even as he was being convicted for heinous crimes. The fury of his followership was matched only by the depth of their delusion. We witnessed how millions of people can outsource their aspiration, their fantasies and anxieties to a socially constructed God man.

There is a lesson to be learnt here: a leader followed by sheep will produce toxic leadership. To convey this in a simple formula: 

Leader + sheep = Toxic leadership 

Follower-sheep that do not use their own god given intelligence are bound to be led by clever foxes. Organizations led by toxic bosses produce cultures of defensiveness and structures of secrecy. You can call them organizational foxholes. Followers bury their antipathy, anger and discontent inside these foxholes. This makes the organization a minefield that is destined to go up in flames someday.

A leadership clinic diagnoses toxic bosses as those that suck energy and vitality of organizations as vampires do. While leaders mobilize energy within an organization for a greater purpose; bosses mortgage organizational energy to promote themselves. Bosses operate from their ego-centres that produce three distinct behaviours: arrogance, bitchiness and cowardice. You can call them the A,B, Cs of organizational toxicity.

Arrogance: Arrogant bosses let flattery go to their head and fear of failures sink into their heart. They claim organizational successes as their own. You can see arrogance in their exaggerated gestures, in the falsity of their claims, in the glare of their gaze and in their relentless chest thumping. Soon however, the arrogance of incumbency encounters the ambush of insurgency. More arrogant the incumbent, the more deviant the insurgent. Behind a toxic boss is often a traumatic childhood! Behind an anxious Managing Directors is often an ambitious mother-in-law. In organizations led by arrogant autocrats, anger and protest go underground--deep inside foxholes. Feedback channels are clogged like choked pipelines. Discussing the boss through winks and nudges go on around inside staff canteens and tea dispensers. Employees are just one alcoholic drink away from letting you know what they think of their bosses. Take that!

Bitchiness: This is a trait that is gender neutral. You can have a bitching boss perpetually breathing down your shoulders to micro-manage every activity of yours. “So, you had a beard trim during office hours?” he might growl. ‘Why not!’ you may argue, ‘doesn’t my beard also grow during office hours!’ But, that argument is unlikely to douse the heat of bitchiness. Very soon he will catch you splitting your attention over Facebook on Company time. Then, the boss shoots off a memo describing you as a distracted but satisfactory under-performer. Bitchiness is the sadistic psychological itch to keep people on tenterhooks.

Cowardice: Fear rules organizational foxholes. Bosses are just scared to take bold decisions. They hide themselves behind power games, precedence and prejudice. There is no such species as an honest coward. For a cowardly boss, fear wears a mask called pragmatism. Cowardice is always a cover for deep insecurities and insincerities within the boss’s psyche. Like a dancing Nataraja, the coward boss clutches onto his own chair with his left hand and mildly shakes the chairs of others with his right. Cowardice gives rise to its exact opposite expression: bragging. The boss loves to be seen as larger than life—at least in the adulating gaze of his subjects.

Returning to the Baba Black Sheep who pulled the wool over our eyes, the syndrome is everywhere there for us to see: in business, politics, in schools and in the field of entertainment and sports. How does a clinic help? The clinic displaces your ego as the centre of your universe, a lot like a spiritual Copernicus who displaced the earth from being the astronomical centre. The clinic has a deep, cleansing effect. In the company of your mentor, you perception becomes crystal clear like freshness of the morning. When you drop out of your ego-centre, you drop into a large universe of possibilities. Your world transforms as your perception shifts.

In the leadership clinic, you realize that a leader is no better than a solitary still frame. However, leadership is like an engaging, energizing movie. A movie is much more than a sum of still frames. The movie of leadership involves a dynamic interplay of energy between a leader and a follower. The minefield called the organization becomes a dance floor when leaders stop behaving like toxic bosses. An inspired and responsible leader then becomes just the choreographer of the dance of possibilities. She mobilizes extraordinary energy within herself and in her followers. This is the energy of shared purpose. An organization that has found a common purpose kisses the sky with effortless ease-- like a fleet of geese!

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