Harmful if Followed! How to Spot Toxic Leaders

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Suppose you just accepted a new job with an awesome salary. A job where you will be surrounded by people who have extraordinary talent. Immortal fame, something you have always craved, is now within your grasp. You even get your own primo parking space, right next to headquarters! No need to maneuver your new 760 Li into the spot. A personal valet will happily take on that chore. So far, so good, right? But there’s a catch: your new boss is a jerk.

Jay Gruden, who joined Washington’s football team on January 9th as its newest head coach, might feel a connection with this not-so-hypothetical scenario. Since 1999, seven predecessors have filled the role he just accepted. All hired—and fired—by Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner. Now, Gruden fills the still-warm shoes of two-time Super Bowl champion coach Mike Shanahan, who was let go this month after finishing with a 3-13 record. At least Shanahan gave Washington fans one highlight worth cheering: watching the revolving door hit his backside on the way out. Sweet!

Following Shanahan’s departure, Snyder has encountered a tricky public relations challenge. He has run out of ways to say “the coach screwed up.” Right now, when people in the Metro DC area talk about a “dysfunctional team,” chances are they’re not referring to the federal government. They’re not describing colleagues at work. They’re talking about Snyder’s football organization. Who needs a Harvard Business School management case study when you have such rich artifacts in The Washington Post sports page?

Some experts have questioned whether Snyder’s team is doomed. “Yes. They are . . . Snyder is the biggest problem . . .” according to The Bleacher Report. But Gruden apparently felt otherwise. It’s a “once in a lifetime deal!” he exclaimed. I can’t blame him. You’d have to be an idiot to worry about an immature, abrasive, meddlesome boss when you have a lucrative five-year contract, and RGIII.

Spotting a toxic leader proves easy when you see a conspicuous, well-worn pathway to failure taken by those who have already trudged the trail. But what about discovering toxic business leaders when poor results aren’t so obvious? Fortunately, there are telltale signs:

1. Toxic leaders experience high employee churn, especially among direct reports.
2. Toxic leaders can’t identify anyone they’ve mentored who has become successful at their current company, or in a new endeavor.
3. Toxic leaders have a track record of running failed businesses. Most leaders and entrepreneurs have experienced some unsuccessful ventures, but there should also be successes.
4. Toxic leaders lack up-to-date references from direct reports, and from current and former customers.
5. Toxic leaders do not attract competent, capable staff.
6. Toxic leaders have a pattern of eliciting strong, negative reactions from others.
7. Toxic leaders lack a network of well-respected industry connections.

So, if you’re pondering an exciting opportunity at a new company, don’t assume that every leader in the organization leads competently. Check LinkedIn. Ask around. And remember, if something doesn’t seem quite right, make sure your opportunities—like immortal fame—compensate for the risks.

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