top of page

Toxic leadership: A tale of the elephant in the room

"Leadership development is personal development... Organizational change doesn’t happen unless the leader’s energy changes. It’s that easy. It’s that difficult. Because any healing, change or transformation, be it intellectual, emotional, physical or spiritual first requires awareness." This insightful article by Paula M. Parker, the founder of business consulting firm Parker Advisory, was published on August 12, 2019 in Enterprise News out of Brockton, Massachusetts.


Google "leadership development". Boom. In 0.62 seconds, you’ll get about 932,000,000 results.

Search, “How much do U.S. companies spend on leadership development?” Boom. Boom. In 0.72 seconds, you’ll get about 931,000,000 results with U.S. corporations spending – cha-ching - $14 billion annually on leadership development training.

Decades pass. How’s it working? Because there’s an epidemic of “toxic culture, dysfunctional leader” discussions and articles today. Few acknowledge the elephant in the room or the needle that hasn’t moved a scintilla.

I will.

Absolutely. Leadership training by professionals with a track record of results is a valuable investment. So, the billion-dollar question is this. What’s the reason for initial change, then change back to old behaviors? And the “lousy leadership” articles, blogs and podcasts that run for decades over and again.

Here’s what I see. To the exclusion of all else, a leader is a person first. Obvious, right? They’ve popped onto the planet with a personality long before leading an organization. Consider their ancestral, cultural, parental and educational programming. Add social contagion. Factor in humans, leaders included, operate by associative memory and conditioning making behavioral patterns predictable and difficult to change.

When leadership training doesn’t address an underlying issue, it’s like taking Tylenol for a tooth needing an extraction. Once the analgesic wears off, the tooth is still there. It’s throbbing. An example. I left an organization. Four years later, I was recruited back. Day one. The Monday morning staff meeting told all. Many of the employees were new. The CEO and problems I’d left four years prior were the same. Sound familiar? Behavioral change that shifts a company culture is an action sport with a willing participant. And as an executive adviser, I give kudos to business owners who choose to evolve and grow their companies’ sans Band-Aid fixes.

Here’s what I say about leadership. Maybe you feel the same way.

1. Operating at a higher order means no trainer can take you where they’ve never been.

2. Being a leader isn’t what you do. It is who you are. There’s always more to discover because expansion is your aphrodisiac. Leadership is a personal ascension journey on the scale of consciousness. At each level the test is how you treat others and how you approach problems regardless of circumstances, in and out of your organization. Consider the Dali Lama. If someone tries to infuriate him, does he spew a toxic response? This isn’t a Zen Monk conversion program. I am intensely aware of the toll perpetual stress and imagined fear take on a leader’s physical and emotional body. What I am saying is this. Think like you’ve always thought; you’ll get what you’ve always got.

3. From Yuichiro Miura, the Japanese mountaineer who, at 80 years old, reached Mt. Everest’s summit to Collette Divitto, the entrepreneur with Down Syndrome who started a cookie franchise after endless job rejections, a leader comprehends this unvarnished truth. Inspiration knows no gender, age or perceived limitation.

4. Training has a place, but leadership development doesn’t happen at a one-off seminar. It’s a lifestyle with a commitment to application. Daily.

5. Resisting the urge to behave in old ways to new situations is in a word, transformative.

6. Leadership evolution isn’t a group exercise. To recalibrate and recontextualize perspective is an internal process.

7. Decision making for the greater good of all is from above the horizon of mediocre thought, regardless of what or who you lead.

This isn’t the whole leadership story, not by a long shot. The elephant in the room is this.

Seven or 70,000 employees, organizational change doesn’t happen unless the leader’s energy changes. It’s that easy. It’s that difficult. Because any healing, change or transformation, be it intellectual, emotional, physical or spiritual first requires awareness. To which I say, leadership development is personal development with execution in a professional environment. Commit to that as if it were your breath.

The elephant exits. The needle moves from scintilla to quantum leap. And the company you’ll lead - extraordinary.


For more on organizational and community culture change and the leadership skills and training required, get your copy of Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It (Municipal World, 2019).




bottom of page