Transforming Toxic Leaders

Making the Impossible Possible in Troubled Organizations

Botox Leadership: Beware When a Toxic Boss Rules

A nasty boss degrades employees when he rejects a Botox reflection in the mirror

Toxic bosses emanate. Their poison spreads out into every inch of the workplace. A case in point is Mr. Angel Pettigrew. He is a narcissistic boss who is so self-indulgent and subsumed with his recent Botox facial procedure that he unknowingly distorts workplace realities. His underlings do not know whether to smile, bow down deeper or just jump out of his regal way when he stampedes through the corridors. The dirty scoop is that Mr. Pettigrew recently checked himself out in his full length office mirror and did not like his Botox reflection. In the stark and crazy bright office lighting the wrinkles around his eyes appear to be even more pronounced than they were prior to the procedure.

Pettigrew is impatient. Prior to the Botox treatment he has had five facial plastic surgeries. He is a fifty something perfectionist and three times divorced lady’s man and he is certainly not happy when he does not get an instant Hollywood result from Botox injections. So proceed at your own risk. Whenever boss man’s narcissistic eye does not like himself or his reflection it is time to take cover. Subordinates will pay a hefty price. What’s right and wrong with Six Sigma, productivity, team work and R&D is all directly linked to how the mirror is treating Pettigrew on a given Wednesday morning.

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Burdened by his not so well concealed Narcissistic Personality Disorder (he was diagnosed with NPD, 11 years ago) the gentleman at the top of the pyramid wildly fluctuates in his leadership style. When Pettigrew is madly, truly, deeply in love with himself he is a conceited and occasionally loveable and fascinating stud. On the positive side of his toxic leader continuum, you find yourself under the wing of a nurturing, smug, self-consumed and adoring Prince. In contrast, the troubled, not-so-pretty-Pettigrew-in –the-mirror brings on the wrath of the wicked tornado winds of Kansas and the venom of a tortured snake about to consume his next victim, whole.

On the dark side of his leadership profile we find that this boss is all about the surface, fleeting facial and bodily images and the creepy omnipresence of his mirrors. A defective image means that the Dragon Man treats his employees in a condescending, arrogant, abrupt and cruel manner. Logic is a footnote. Reason is witchcraft and erratic proclamations are the dysfunctional norm. Underlings have a very basic choice under the terror of Mr. Pettigrew. You must aggressively support his every move and breadth no matter how repugnant or be publicly skewered, demeaned and humiliated.

When a toxic boss rules be prepared for dehumanizing edicts and reprimands. Loony, erratic and holier-than-thou leader tirades can define a boss who turns an organization increasingly toxic. In the case of Mr. Pettigrew, he intimidates and coyly threatens his top dogs. He also wields an untimely and ferocious influence on the flat-footed employees who smile and cower without backbone. Mr. Angel Pettigrew is a one man wrecking crew who metastasizes many times over and helps create deadly, destructive human clones throughout a company at his beck and call.

Creativity and innovation are stifled. Research and development is trivialized. Pledging allegiance to the narcissistic boss is the one commandment that dominates Pettigrew Unlimited. Devoured in trashy, belittling corporate doublespeak the employee productivity sinks to new, unprecedented lows. No legitimate vehicle allows for criticism of the toxic Pettigrew. The stronger employees whisper but keep their public mouths shut. Weaker organizational members twist and squirm when their intoxicated leader turns deadly destructive. Over 90% of his corporate soldiers cower at the thought of him. Those corporate soldiers who lack a mind of their own succumb to unethical and unscrupulous behavior to sustain and satisfy the Devil Man. Survival requires that you do not under any circumstances question his ruthlessness or dysfunctional vendettas. To stand up to Mr. Pettigrew is to face a beheading.

But wait, there’s more. Loss of face is at the nexus of what the Pettigrew toxicity is all about. Make the targeted employee a public spectacle and shred their every behavior, motive and accomplishment into smithereens, publicly denigrating them down to the bone marrow. This poisonous boss shames employees who have the audacity to not lick his boots or applaud his boundless charisma. If you fail to pay deep homage there is only the dark, darker, and darkest of alternatives. Pettigrew devours and destroys the renegade employee and burns them at the stake. Overwhelmed by his own importance the Pettigrew specie of boss publicly makes memorable spectacle of the non-compliant employee. Non-believers and non-subscribers are very high, higher, and highest on the toxic leader’s agenda. For the sake of blustering up his shaky ego and identifying a guilty party, this narcissistic personality disordered leader almost literally burns his targets at the stake. Only the most extreme and vicious varieties of defacement and public humiliation will do for that individual subordinate who dares to defy the illustrious one. Unyielding to Mr. Pettigrew’s mountainous charisma the plebian employee must be brought down to his knees, exposed and eliminated in a social murder of the first degree. Not one shred of self-respect should be left after the unworthy ones are eliminated. This toxic boss is a social murderer. Identity and reputations are subject to annihilation under the wrath of this extremely toxic boss.  

Toxicity means poisons spread. Emanating from a highly destructive and dysfunctional leader there are no limits to the reach and depth of venomous behavior.

What are the antidotes? First and foremost, don’t be naïve. No matter how bad the boss or how egregious his destructive behavior think carefully and cautiously research your options before you spew out “the truth.” Unfortunately, in the thoroughly political world of organizations it may in fact be quite dangerous to single out the toxic boss. Proceed at your own risk and peril. What is needed is what few organizations truly develop and utilize. Companies need an utterly discrete and anonymous system for providing critiques, reviews and complaints of their leaders. Unfortunately, most organizations nurture along broken, sham feedback systems that wind up chastising candid and outspoken employees. I can testify to the fact that there are an alarming number of bosses who are in bed with strategic players in human resource departments. If a naïve subordinate tells the truth about his boss that information is secretly divulged to a Mr. Pettigrew and your employment days may soon be over for officially bogus reasons. Suffice to say that very bad behavior at the top of the organizational hierarchy is typically guarded and reinforced like the gold reserves at Fort Knox.

The challenge is to devise mechanisms and channels that provide 100% protection for employee feedback allowing for the eventual identification and inevitable scrutinizing of the toxic boss. The toxic boss threat is quite formidable and is unfortunately representative of the human condition in the first half of the twenty-first century. Protected by the niceties of a relatively democratic, free-wheeling workplace, ruthless leaders are in our midst – sometimes harmlessly sharing their bad day – but in the more extreme cases they are contaminating and destroying employees due to more serious, long term psychopathology.  

In the case of Mr. Pettigrew, the whispers and anger of employees grow. They full well know that despite his prestigious MBA and wild Fortune 100 achievements that something is deeply and fundamentally wrong. Not surprising, they are quite correct. Over 11 years ago Mr. Pettigrew received a dual diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Intermittent Explosive Disorder. But in the wisdom of the mental health community – these diagnoses are privileged and protected. He maintains 100% confidentiality. This privileged status is only suspended and his identify and condition revealed if at some point he is officially declared a Danger to Self (DTS) or a Danger to Others (DTO). As it now stands, Mr. Pettigrew’s psychological condition is the driving force, the engine and the source of his destructive leadership practices directed at employees. And most recently Pettigrew’s dark side has been brought to the surface via his explosive, narcissistic response to Botox treatments. But unfortunately, this confidential information is only known to his treating psychologists. The outside workplace is clueless as to the source of his excessive and abusive behavior.  Meanwhile his employees are his daily targets and victims. Reason and logic are of very limited use. Something is wrong with this scenario! What say you?

Alan Goldman, Ph.D., is a professor of management and faculty director of the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University West.

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