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Toxic cultures and leadership affect us all, whether at home, at work or on the global stage.
I was surprised to learn how lead, the metallic element, poisons the body not just by its active toxins but also because it takes the place of the nutrients that are critical to life such as zinc, iron, and calcium.
It reminded me that to combat something toxic, we must think not only of eradicating the poisons that cause the organism to fail but also about how to bring back life-giving nutrients.
When is an invasion not an invasion?
Toxic leadership and the cultures it feeds are sadly much in evidence in our lives today. When, at first, you notice the shift of culture towards toxicity the differences are noticeable and unthinkable. “Surely,” we think, “people will see through that blatant untruth, that hypocritical behaviour or that twisting of the facts.” As a toxic culture takes hold, the delineation between a sustainable culture (one that is positive for all stakeholders) and the emerging one becomes more blurred. You begin to be sucked in: “Does any of this really matter? It’s just a question of perspective!” Right and wrong are turned on their head. Phrases such as ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ are uttered without irony. The ability to create alternative definitions becomes very important: when is a party not a party? When is an invasion not an invasion? Toxic cultures are created by leaders looking for their own gratification – short-termism, greed, and self-interest. The stronger our association with these leaders, the more our own values are put aside and our perspectives curtailed.
The important thing about toxic leadership and resultant toxic cultures is the systemic pain and failure they bring.
Both paralysis and devastation ensue. Paralysis is when nothing important gets done. Why not? Simply because the wrong things matter: internal competition trumps sharing best practice; ego withers collaboration; blame mentality stifles creativity. Devastation includes the erosion of our values, our supportive systems, of anything generative and sustainable.
What about those critical elements that are squeezed out of a healthy organism? What is the equivalent to the zinc, iron and calcium which flourishing organisations need to absorb into their blood streams to prosper in the short, medium and long term?
I believe those to be elements such as collaboration, trust, accountability, transparency and integrity. We need leaders who embody those values, characteristics and qualities and who don’t fear them in others.
A healthy culture replaces collusion with collaboration, mistrust with trust, blame with accountability, hidden agendas with transparency and compromised standards with integrity.
How do we create sustainable cultures?
What are the antidotes to toxic cultures?
These questions are central to our book Leadership Through Covid-19 and Beyond. How to create an integrated 21st century organisation. Because the flourishing cultures that support people’s wellbeing matter, now and for future generations.
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