Some years ago I was coaching a number of very talented people who all reported to the same brilliant boss who was President of R&D for a global manufacturing company. While there were differing development needs among these coaching clients, they had one over-arching issue in common: dealing with their boss effectively. One project leader said, "I get paid for my science not this bad leader crap but we just keep our heads down and focus on the work hoping our results will transcend everything else we're enduring here."
As brilliant as this boss was scientifically, he was seriously flawed interpersonally. His mood fluctuated daily between expansive euphoria and the hostile denigration of others. He was rarely satisfied with anyone's work and had an almost sadistic habit of criticizing people openly in front of others—including high visibility events when the CEO and/or Board members of the corporation were present.
Everything about this boss was big and loud—his size, his voice, his possessions, and most of all his opinion of himself. Needing to always be the smartest guy in the room, he dominated meetings, short-circuited discussions by imposing his views onto others, and routinely described other senior executives in the company, as well as his direct reports, as stupid and inept. Reportedly, he had had an infra red lighting system installed on one of his Humvees so he could watch desert tarantulas mate at night. Some believed this hobby captured the essence of his personality: dark (nocturnal), twisted, and voyeuristic.
In short, the behavior of this boss met the criteria of what I have recently described as a Toxic leader.
These criteria include:
While I have identified three primary leadership types—Remarkable, Perilous, and Toxic—business leaders are conceptualized as moving along a behavioral continuum of these three types. Examples of business leaders who were more Toxic than not include the infamous Al ("Chainsaw") Dunlap (Scott Paper and Sunbeam), Ken Lay (Enron), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), and Dennis Koslowski (TYCO).
MANAGING THE TOXIC BOSS
If you are experiencing the daily torment of working for a Toxic boss—and for practical/personal reasons cannot leave your job—here's some guidance that might prove helpful:
Surely Toxic bosses are difficult but there are proactive ways to try to manage them. While you might be thinking, No way—nothing's going to help with my boss—you might also be surprised by how incremental peerage and/or escape-planning efforts could really help make your time at work more tolerable.