Lipman-Blumen, Jean

Jean Lipman-Blumen is the Thornton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Organizational Behavior at The Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, Claremont Graduate University. A co-founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Leadership, she has served as assistant director of the National Institute of Education and as special advisor to the Domestic Policy Staff in the White House under President Carter. She has published six books, including The Connective Edge: Leading in an Interdependent World, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent book is The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Survive Them. asks …

Let’s start with the basic question: what is a toxic leader?

JL: A toxic leader is somebody who has a seriously negative effect on an organization or the people in it. You might say a poisonous effect. That’s the short definition.

You write, “We tend to prefer toxic leaders for a host of tantalizing reasons. When we don’t have them, we go to great lengths to create them.” Why is that? It seems counterintuitive.

JL: It is. It is. I first wondered about this when I saw people not only accepting toxic leaders but letting them stay in power for a long time … knowing full well that the leader was toxic. That’s what made me begin to ask, “How can this be? Why would anybody do this?”

The more I studied it, the more I saw that toxic leaders do something for people. They’re onto something. And one of the things that they’re onto is the exhilaration that people feel when they’re engaged in what they believe is a noble task. For example, military people often experience such exhilaration when they’re at war.

People describe how exhilarating war was, sometimes in a very negative way, but sometimes—at the same time—in a positive way. They feel their lives have meaning. People feel they are ready to lay down their lives for their comrades, and they’re ready to go out and kill the enemy. That creates a total awareness of everything about life, including valuing it and feeling a sense of exhilaration.

That’s one of the things toxic leaders feed off of. They try to create for their followers a sense of exhilaration and meaningfulness, a sense of purpose. That doesn’t mean that non-toxic leaders don’t do that, but toxic leaders usually seem to choose or create what they consider a noble vision that has some pretty toxic qualities. For example, diminishing the other party in order to make yourself great. It’s never a win/win situation with toxic leaders. It’s definitely a zero-sum game.

I think toxic leaders get to their followers for some very primary reasons … psychological, existential, sociological and cultural reasons that are all part of our being human. And they know how to manipulate our needs.

You bring this back to childhood, our first experience of authority, and how we tend in our lives to continue to focus on the bad rather than the good. So if we had negative role model parents or some other figure in our formative stages, we continue to seek that out.

JL: Yes, and I see two primary reasons why we do that. One, it’s a familiar melody, and we start dancing to it without realizing what the end steps are. We recognize it, and we’re into it before we know it.

The second reason is that when people feel free, totally free, they also feel a little bit adrift. And that’s a scary feeling. That is true for individuals as well as for societies, as we saw during the Reformation. So we look for someone or something to tell us how to be, how to act.

A contemporary example would be teenagers. When teenagers start to make their own decisions, when they try to throw off the controls of their parents, you would think they would want to be themselves and do their own thing. But the great majority of them become enslaved to another set of authoritarian leaders, such as leaders in the peer group, who tell them what to do, what to wear, and how to cut their hair.

As Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom, 1941) understood a long time ago, there’s something about being totally free that makes people uneasy. So we look for people or situations that give us a rationale for accepting authoritarianism and accepting somebody else who tells us what to do and what to think.

What I liked about the book is that it is really focused on followers.

JL: You are quite right. It focuses on the followers because we’re asking, “Why do followers tolerate, seek out, prefer and sometimes even create toxic leaders by pushing otherwise good leaders over the line?”

I think a lot of people have a hard time accepting the message of this just because of the whole psychological bent. Is that some thought that you had while you were writing this?

JL: Yes, I think it’s hard to accept this message. Because we like to feel we’re in control of ourselves and that we don’t do irrational things. We like to think we seek out positive leaders, not negative ones.

But often the drives or needs that push us in this direction are drives and needs that we submerge in our subconscious because they’re painful. We don’t want to deal with those issues. And when you push something down, out of sight into your subconscious, it has more power over you, not less power.

So if you’re feeling anxious about your security, if you’re feeling anxious about how long you’re going to live or whether you’re going to be part of an important organization, then it’s easier to push it down and not confront it and just soldier on with your life.

But when you do that, you run the risk of letting those unaddressed needs and fears run your life without your even noticing it. And then you give yourself excuses for why you’re behaving this way, so it seems perfectly rational to you.

For example, recently I was talking to somebody whom I had interviewed for the book. I asked for an update on what was going on. And this person said to me, “Well, I had a real confrontation with this leader, and I almost left. But then I thought, ‘Why should I give him the satisfaction of getting rid of me?'” And I sat there in disbelief.

I’m sure I’ve felt that at some point in my life.

JL: I think we all do. I think it’s hard for us to own up to the things we do that are really driven by more irrational forces or deeper forces within ourselves that we don’t want to confront. Kierkegaard talked about the school of anxiety and how much we learn from confronting our anxiety.

But it’s very painful to do that. It’s much easier to push that down and say, “I’m not worried about getting killed on the freeway. I’m not worried about a terrorist breaking into my kid’s school. I’m not worried about those things,” and go on.

But if you don’t confront those issues and ask, “What would I do? How should I behave?” then they are nonetheless giving your life a certain direction or lack of direction, as it may be, to which you attach other reasons. That is how we become vulnerable to a toxic leader, who’ll tell us what to do and make us feel safe.

I mean, here’s this person saying she wouldn’t give the toxic leader the satisfaction of her leaving. But she makes her own life miserable continuing to work for him.

Can you give me a brief overview about how one would stay alert for a toxic leader?

JL: I think you can recognize toxic leaders in several ways. One, you can recognize them if you have the opportunity to watch them over time. You can recognize both qualities of character, or lack thereof, and actual behaviors.

What qualities would you look for? What qualities would characterize a toxic leader? To me, a primary quality of a toxic leader would be a lack of integrity. To me, that’s bottom line because that marks the leader as someone you can’t trust, someone who is cynical, hypocritical, and probably corrupt.

I think another quality is inordinate ambition so that the leader will always put his or her own well-being, glory, power, whatever, above yours or the organization’s or other followers’.

One thing that’s very troubling is why we set up leadership so that the people who have that insatiable ambition are the ones who elbow themselves to the front of the line. Why don’t we set up the selection process so that those kinds of people are rejected?

I’m talking about people with enormous egos who are so blind to their own shortcomings that they can’t change their own behavior. We can recognize still other toxic leaders who are avaricious, who put money and everything that money can buy very high on their priority list.

Leaders who are amoral so that they literally can’t distinguish between right and wrong also make the toxic list. I think that you may not know if someone’s amoral by watching just one piece of behavior. You really have to observe someone over time to make that determination.

Another quality of character that marks toxic leaders is recklessness regarding the consequences of their actions, both to themselves and to other people, and to the organizations or the society that they are leading.

Toward the less evil end of the spectrum of toxic qualities, I’d mention cowardice. This covers leaders who are too fearful to make difficult choices or to act in ways that require bravery.

And finally, at the less evil end are incompetent leaders, who don’t understand what challenges they are facing and therefore they don’t know how to make decisions that are positive for the organization.

There is also the issue of the leader’s intentions. You can have a very toxic effect from a leader who doesn’t necessarily intend to have a toxic effect. That’s one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum are the Hitlers or bin Ladens of the world, who deliberately intend to create a toxic outcome—although they may not recognize it as toxic. Like Hitler, they may consider their goal noble.

Those are the qualities that are reasonably enduring, qualities of personality or character. I think you can also recognize toxic leaders by their behavior. For me, the bottom line on behavior is that the actions of toxic leaders leave their followers—and other people, too—worse off than they found them. They violate people’s basic human rights. They feed their followers illusions that make the toxic leader seem all-powerful. They damage their followers’ capacity to act independently. They mislead followers by deliberately lying and misdiagnosing problems. They find scapegoats. They undermine the structures and processes that promote truth, excellence, and justice. And the list goes on.

Recognizing toxic behavior sometimes requires a longer view; you have to hang around for a while and watch a person’s behavior and see what happens to their followers. For example, look at Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, in their heyday. Many of the employees did well, but many didn’t. Many were made to feel that they weren’t among the best and the brightest, and that they were “losers.” And they were dropped out. In the short run, they thought they were worse off because they had been thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

But they would see that as meaning they weren’t good enough—I mean, that was a very competitive atmosphere, right?

JL: Yes. It took a while to realize their leaders had created a toxic environment that would implode.

Anybody dropped out would just say, “I wasn’t good enough to compete with the rest of these folks.”

JL: Yes, but most of the people who left Enron didn’t drop out. They were thrown out. Most people who were there felt they were in the most perfect center of action, that Enron was the new business model, and that it was the place to be. And that’s another very compelling draw for toxic leaders. They make you feel that where they are is where all the important decisions are going to be made. All the key choices that will affect the world are going to be decided here, whether it’s Enron or it’s in the Executive Office of the President, or it’s IBM or Microsoft or wherever.

There are some places that do have more impact on the world than others. So, if a leader can convey that to his or her followers, it makes the followers really want to stay. That doesn’t mean that every time a leader does that, the leader is toxic. But I’m just saying that when a leader uses that, not to enhance the follower, not to help the follower grow, but to undermine deliberately, to intimidate, to seduce, to marginalize, to make that person feel inferior, then that’s acting in a toxic way.

I was impressed that Tom comes out as a small hero on this Enron subject.

JL: That’s absolutely correct. I think it’s quite interesting that at a major Enron event he gets up and says, “Whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Where are you going with this?” I think he caught on that there was something radically wrong. And then Skilling totally disregards the warning that Tom has just given.

But there’s a somewhat Oedipal thing going on there because Jeff Skilling was Tom’s student, in effect, at McKinsey.

JL: Yes, I understand that. All the more reason to pay attention to this as an example of how toxic leaders can act. Do you gobble up your mentors?

That was interesting.

JL: There are other behaviors that toxic leaders exhibit. For example, one of the things they often do is create illusions for their followers. They create illusions that they are the ones who can keep their followers safe, they are the ones who are going to do great things, they’re going to change the world. They tell their followers, “If you stick with me, you will be part of it.”

That’s very attractive to many people, particularly when we try to be heroes ourselves and we don’t quite make it. So if we can be in the entourage of a hero, we can feel quite grand ourselves. When leaders don’t simply have a vision, but expand the vision into a grand illusion and become dream merchants, then I think that’s another way you could recognize a toxic leader.

But it seems it takes an inordinate amount of perception to see that happening. Here again, it’s one thing to stand back and look at that, but you have the whole Lou Gerstner example about vision.

JL: Gerstner’s followers—including Wall Street analysts—wanted a new vision from him. And he said, “The last thing they need is a new vision. They need to get the vision straight. They need to figure out how to implement the vision.” And they didn’t like that. They wanted the leader to come in and have a new grand vision that they could all turn around and follow.

In a way, when the leader convinces you that his vision is “the” vision and that your vision somehow is less, then that tells you something about whether this leader is toxic or constructive. If I’m a leader and I have a vision, I could say to you, “What’s your vision? Where does that intersect with my vision? How do we put them together?”

That’s what I call being a “connective” leader, where I connect my vision and my dreams to yours. And maybe we won’t be able to accomplish all of it, but we’ll be able to accomplish more than we would have otherwise. And it may not be the pure idea that I had or the pure idea that you had, but it may be something that’s actually better that we’ve achieved by bringing these two visions together.

But toxic leaders are only interested in their own visions. Hitler had a vision of a thousand-year Reich, a government that was going to last for a thousand years. He was going to purify the race. He was going to purify Germany.

This is another theme that often plays out: the toxic leaders are going to purify, make the organization or the system or the country better than ever. And part of being heroic is helping the leader to get rid of those impurities.

That’s what Enron was doing when they got rid of people they considered “losers.” They were eliminating what they saw as the impure part of the organization and distilling this exquisite, grandiose vision. Toxic leaders stifle criticism and convince people that they know best and others shouldn’t question them.

I’m sure you’ve heard about Harold Geneen of ITT, whose people were so terrified when he asked them a question that they would shake. They wouldn’t sleep for nights before they had to make a presentation before him. Much of the fear came from how he tried to project himself as someone who knew so much more than anybody else. And his employees knew they had better not give him answers with which he disagreed.

This reminds me of an organization I was in that was coming apart at the seams. The bottom line was, “We have to create something that will make the boss happy.” A lot of folks are in that situation on a daily basis.

JL: I think that happens routinely. When people would ask me what I was writing about, I was shocked that no one asked me what I meant by a ‘toxic leader.’ They knew from their own personal experience. The other shocking thing was that people would say to me, “Would you like to interview me?” Most of the time, it works the other way around. People are leery of being interviewed for books. But people wanted to be interviewed because they all had their horror stories.

Let’s talk about the group who, in dealing with a real jerk of a boss, just took the power unto themselves and created a different dynamic. It meshes in many ways with what Tom often talks about—you’re only powerless if you think you are.

JL: Precisely. The woman I interviewed decided, “We’re just going to do an end run around this guy.” So they did the budget, and then he was, of course, revealed when he passed it off as his own work and couldn’t answer his superiors’ questions about it.

I thought that was a very important story. It’s giving an example to people in the workplace that you can overcome the jerks.

JL: Absolutely. There’s another story in the book about people who decided they would meet at noontime. They wouldn’t meet during work time, even though they were meeting about work issues. They all went out to lunch and figured out what they needed to do to get the work done, to make the place run well. They realized also that if they had ever asked for that time during the regular working day, the boss wouldn’t have given them the time, and he would have felt very threatened.

They had to do it in this rather surreptitious way. I’m not arguing for dealing with the boss surreptitiously. I’m also not arguing for solo heroes to take on the boss.

I think it’s important to talk to other people in the organization whom you trust. I wouldn’t want to consult people who were then going to put it in the company’s newsletter. Talk to people you trust, people who are opinion makers in the organization, and try to take a sounding from other people. Because after all, maybe you’re psychotic, maybe you’re the toxic one, and you don’t realize it.

But if you’re suffering from all these toxic effects and you talk to other people, by and large, you will probably discover that there are other people who are suffering in the same way, but everybody’s too intimidated to do anything about it. They feel that they don’t have the personal power to take on the boss solo.

That’s probably quite wise. In my research, again and again, when people went in as single individuals, they didn’t have as much success in dealing with the toxic leader as they did when they brought other people with them.

For one thing, it’s nice to have witnesses. It puts the toxic boss on notice that this is not something that can be distorted because there’s a witness to the conversation. If you bring along one or two people from the organization who have the respect of other people in the organization as well as the respect of the boss, you’re much better off in trying to confront a toxic leader.

Right, meaning there again, it’s always wise to be politic.

JL: Absolutely. George Simmel, the German sociologist, understood what happens when the third person enters the scene. He wrote about the instability of triads. The minute you get beyond two, there are politics. And you have to attend to politics, because politics can work for you or against you in the organization.

But they are always at work.

JL: Yes. Yet the people who are successful in organizations over the long run are often the people whom other people know are not out for themselves, people who have what I call “an organizational perspective.” Those are the people who might say, “It really would be better for the organization if we gave ‘x’ amount of our budget, to this other shop within the organization for the next six months because that’s where it really needs to go for the whole organization to do well. We’ll get ours later.” This displays not only an organizational perspective, but political astuteness, as well.

Haven’t you found in organizations that people respect those who are fair, who take this organizational point of view and don’t spend their time looking out strictly for their own part of the organization?

Yes, absolutely, I think people perceive them as fair. But my experience has been they won’t always get backed up depending on how the other people feel in the power structure within the organization.

JL: Well, they may not get backed up if they don’t do their homework. And that comes back to being political. Being political in the positive sense involves doing your homework. And that means finding out where other people stand on issues. If you’re going into a meeting, it’s important to know how many people will vote with you on a particular issue.

Of course. There’s always the meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting.

JL: Exactly.

But sort of the upshot of this then seems to me that a follower can’t be just a follower. Is that a correct statement?

JL: You couldn’t be more correct. This is part of the issue about why we get stuck with toxic leaders. We want them to make us feel taken care of, we want them to tell us that we’re in a place where we’re going to have all the resources we need, we’re going to have a job forever, whatever.

Instead of that, it seems to me that the only way you really can have any sense of certitude in an uncertain world is to know that you have to be responsible for yourself. If you turn the responsibility for your life over to somebody else when you don’t have to, then you will always be worse off because they can never walk in your shoes. Even a non-toxic leader who wants to have your best interests at heart can’t necessarily understand your needs from your point of view.

It’s really critical for people to recognize that they have responsibility. They have the responsibility to address their own anxieties, their own needs, and to see to what degree they are allowing themselves to work in a dysfunctional situation in order to have somebody else meet those needs.

We have toxic leaders in organizations because we don’t want to do the hard work of leadership ourselves. Even if somebody else is a little bit toxic around the edges, if he or she will do the budget and sit in the endless meetings to put the budget through and get the resources for the organization, then we are free to do the things we love and find fulfilling. I think that’s a bad bargain to make. There is no free lunch in terms of leadership.

Yes, I absolutely agree. At one company I was with, they would bring in lunch every day. On the one hand, it was nice to get a free lunch. On the other hand, you ended up being in your office all day, you couldn’t get out. There was actually a huge downside to that.

JL: But you don’t notice it, particularly when it’s being presented, as “We’re being so generous. We’re taking care of you.”

Sometimes, it isn’t a lot of fun to take care of yourself. It’s time consuming, it uses resources, etc. But nobody can take care of you the way you can take care of yourself. The price you pay for somebody else to take care of you is always too great.

I think that’s a great ending for this interview. Thank you, Jean.