Why toxic leaders can’t grow a business
Why do some businesses grow better than others?
The success or failure of any organization comes down to the quality of its leader. Only healthy businesses can enjoy sustainable growth. What is meant by a healthy business? It’s the collective self-esteem of that business, you could also say the culture, which comes back to having the right leader and right followers on board.
Leadership is very complex and difficult to explain. An ancient Chinese saying is that “the fish rots from the head.” If you have a lousy leader at the top, they eventually destroy stakeholder value. Organizations that don’t enjoy sustained growth, is often due to having two of these four types of people on board.
- Well Poisoners
- Weed Killers
You might be scratching your head saying to yourself, “What does a reference to gardening have to do with leadership?”
Let me explain with this metaphor about the three stonemasons.
The three stonemasons
Think back to the 14th century when the foundations of magnificent cathedrals were being built in central Europe. The Clerk of Works was a monk charged with the task of supervising the work of all the stonemasons and artisans charged with building these cathedrals.
One day, the Clerk of Works was looking down from his tower at the site works below, and noticed three stone masons in particular who seemed to tackle their roles, each with a different attitude. He decided to go down to the work-site and find out more.
He approached the first stone mason and asked, “Tell me brother, why is it that you work?
“Brother” he replied, full of anger and resentment, “You ask me why I work. Here in front of me sits a hunk of stone, three feet by three feet by three feet. With every blow of my chisel, I feel as if I am chipping away a part of my life. Look at my hands. They are callused and hard. My face is lined and my hair is grey. The work is never ending – day in and day out. Where is there any satisfaction. I do it because I have to. Got to eat! Got to survive! I’ll be long dead before this cathedral is finished!”
With that, the Clerk of Works said, “Thank you brother” and moved onto where the next stonemason was working. He asked, “Brother, why is it that you work?
“Brother” replied the second stonemason, “As you see, I sit here before a block of stone, three feet by three feet by three feet. With every stroke of my chisel against this block of stone, I am carving out a life and a future for my family. Look over there, see that house on the far left, I built that house from the money I made from this job. I am able to shelter my family in a house far more comfortable than I grew up in. I can afford to send my children to school and for them to get an education which I never had the opportunity to do. I am grateful for this job as it has made it possible to provide a future for my children. As I give my days to this cathedral through my skills, it allows me to give back to my family.
The Clerk of Works said, “Thank you brother.”
The monk then approached the third stonemason who had caught his eye. There was something different about this stonemason. He had a voice full of joy and a smile that beamed from ear to ear.
The Clerk of Works walked up to him and asked, “Brother, why is that you work?”
“Brother” replied the third stonemason, “As you can see, I sit here before a magnificent block of stone, three feet by three feet by three feet. With every caress of my chisel I know I am shaping my destiny. I look at this stone and know I am bringing out its magnificence and the beauty within. I am not helping to build just a cathedral, I am contributing to everything that I value and believe in. I will be long dead before this cathedral is finally built but I know I am contributing to the future. People will come from many miles away and admire its beauty and craftsmanship for generations to come. I am grateful, that although I will never see the completion of this great cathedral, it will stand the testament of time. It will be a beacon celebrating what is worthy in all of us. I am proud to contribute to this almighty vision.”
The Clerk of Works went away and reflected on what he had heard from all three stonemasons. He slept soundly that night, more than ever before. The next day he resigned his commission as Clerk of Works and apprenticed himself to the third stonemason.
Some organizations have well poisoners working in them. They are like the first stonemason with a chip on their shoulder. They believe the world owes them a favor. If they work in a government organization, they are also likely to feel a sense of entitlement, after all, you can’t fire someone in a government job (or can you?) They are called a well poisoner because they are looking to poison the water you drink from and make others just as miserable as them. Misery loves company. They are also the bureaucrats who love to block progress.
They are negative all the time criticizing, condemning and complaining. They don’t work well in a team. No one wants to work with them. They go about their day simply doing what they have to, nothing more. They arrive at work on time, take every minute of their entitled break and leave 5 minutes before knock off time. You will often hear them say, “I’m not doing that, it’s not my job, I don’t get paid enough to do that!”
They are also angry people and often go on the attack, both overtly and covertly. You might not know you are working with one as they creep up on you one day and stab you in the back and spread rumors and innuendo looking to undermine and weaken you.
If you are the leader, get them off the bus as soon as you can. You do not need people like this in your organization.
Well poisoners are also hostages. The problem with hostages, they can turn into terrorists like the weedkiller.
The weedkiller is a terrorist. They are consumed by self-interest and winning at any cost. They are destructive in the workplace and have no remorse. Cunning, self-centred and terrifying, they are commonly known as organizational psychopaths. They can also be bullies. They want to protect their own self-interests and usually have a massive ego. They decisions based on what’s good for them not what’s good for the organization.
They are seldom stupid and certainly don’t lack talent. Glib and superficially charming, they fool recruiters into putting them into roles of influence. According to John Clarke in his book “Working with Monsters” they are individuals who manipulate their way through life and leave an indelible mark on both their victims and society.
Fortunately, these are the minority in most organizations. The problem is – they are often put into leadership positions where they cause havoc and eventually destroy stakeholder value. They are toxic leaders.
They can make working life hell. They are treacherous and unmanageable looking to build an empire. Watch out if you report to one. If you are not one of their yes people, they will look to destroy you.
If you have the power, get them out of the organization as quickly as you can before they destroy it.
Most people mow their lawns regularly. Could be a week apart, or two weeks apart, usually it’s a pattern and the same pattern every time. They mow up and down, up and down at a steady pace and keep their grounds nice and tidy. They are very much like the second stonemason who enjoys his work and looks to provide a better life for themselves.
They are really good people. Positive and cooperative, they make up the majority of the people in the workforce. They maintain the business and put in an honest day’s work. Steadily they work towards a common goal and are willing to help others whenever they need it. They make great team members as they are willing to go the extra mile and constructively contribute to an organization.
Every organization needs people like this who steadily go about their day doing a good job taking care of business and implementing plans. They buy into organizational goals and values and have a positive attitude towards their work. They are the followers, the maintainers. They have high standards and a great capacity for work and usually make up the majority of the people in an organization.
They are often overlooked for the valuable contribution they make. If you are a leader, make sure you recognize them consistently. If you don’t, they could turn into a well poisoner if they feel under-valued and under-appreciated.
The landscaper is like the third stonemason. Landscapers look at things with a positive light and see a future for generations to come. Landscapers can take an uninteresting block of land and create beautiful gardens with their creativity, hard work and courage.
In the workplace, they have a strong vision for the future and know how to bring others along willingly. They have wonderful followers like the lawnmowers who keep everything ticking over day after day. Together they transform a business into a flourishing and profitable organization.
They are the real leaders in life and in business who can create something out of nothing. They don’t even have to be the appointed leader in an organization. They are true visionaries.
The well poisoners will never become lawnmowers, but lawnmowers can evolve into Landscapers.
How leadership grows a business
If the fish rots from the head, the impact of having an organizational psychopath as a leader is devastating to a business. Within a few short years, they destroy stakeholder value. I say stakeholder not shareholder value because apart from the shareholders, there are many others who have a vested interest in the growth and sustainability of a business. Employees, customers, suppliers and even the community at large.
When you have the wrong people on board, they do the wrong thing by their customers. Imagine the well-poisoner dealing with customers. They have a can’t do attitude, not a can do attitude. Everything is a problem and like to play the blame game. Also imagine what they say about the organization to their friends, family and anyone else who will listen. If they complain about their work, their conditions, their job at work – this is nothing compared to what they say about the organization outside of the business.
The most important role for a board is to hire the right CEO. The most important thing for a CEO is to attract, hire and retain employees and nurture other leaders who are emotionally committed to working together to achieve the organizations vision. As Henry Ford so eloquently says;
Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.
This is how businesses flourish and grow. Having the right people on board who work together to achieve common goals and objectives.
Leaders have a dream
Leadership is not about telling or even selling. Great leaders are like the third stonemason who can inspire others with a powerful vision for the future. If you think about Martin Luther King, he inspired a nation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 where he delivered his famous speech, “I have a dream.” He departed from his prepared speech that day when he began to talk about the dream.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
This is how Martin Luther King inspired a nation. He spoke of the dream and his famous speech still inspires people today.
Great business leaders inspire their followers with a dream or vision of the future, not by reciting the goals and objectives of an organization or citing a strategic plan. Great leadership is about selling the dream.
Leadership is not a given
Just because you hold a position of power, it doesn’t mean your people are engaged. In most organizations, you have each one of these stonemasons, those who do what they to because of entitlement and survival; the well-poisoners. Their negativity impacts good people in the organization because of their lack of corporation across functions. You can’t grow and build a sustainable business with well-poisoners on board.
There are those who are looking to get ahead and see employment as a means to an end and those who are special. Those who believe in your vision and will do anything to help you achieve that vision. They are like the second stonemason or lawnmower. They are there to support you and help you succeed. These are the people you want to attract, hire and retain. These are also the future leaders you should be investing in by turning them into landscapers.
These are the people you want to protect and admire yet so business leaders do so. Why? It might be because they do not know the difference between a leader and a boss.
Are you a leader or a boss
You may have gained a leadership position by appointment. You are the new supervisor, manager or even CEO. So what? It’s a leadership position that is appointed only. It’s known as hierarchy power and as quickly as it’s given to you through an appointment or promotion, it can just as quickly be taken away from you. You only have that power for as long as you hold that appointed position. A change in government, policy, election, board or whatever, your position is never safe.
True leadership is earned. True leadership does not rely on an appointed position. True leadership comes down to people who are willing ready to follow you.
A leader is not a leader if he or she has no followers.
On a final note
Managers are appointed from above, leaders are appointed from below. If you don’t know the difference, then you are not a leader.
In a Nutshell
There are four types of people that can exist in a business
- Weed Killers
Well poisoners and weed killers destroy stakeholder value
Appointing the right leaders comes down to the recruitment process
Great businesses need to attract, hire and retain the right people
Good leaders make sure the wrong people get off the bus
Look after the good people in your business, they help grow a sustainable business