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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00
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Book review:
THE ALLURE OF TOXIC LEADERS
 
Jean Lipman-Blumen
Oxford University Press
Price: $30; Pages: 303



Unhappy the land that has no heroes,
No, unhappy the land that is in need of heroes— Bertolt Brecht
 
A book that attempts to link an Enron’s Ken Lay to WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers to Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski to Adolf Hitler and even George Bush (sadly though, the book doesn’t mention him though he meets most “toxic” criteria), has to be a great attraction, more so since the timing coincides with the various Enron trials and the rash of convictions of toxic CEOs. The problem with this book, indeed any such book whose subtitle reads “Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians—and how we can survive them”, is that while it may be of some use to students of organisational behaviour (it has a chapter on how to detect future ‘toxicity’ in people and presumably someone will, if not already, devise multiple choice tests for this), they offer precious little that is new to the lay reader. Apart from the blame-yourself-not-the-leader kind of stuff.
 
In a nutshell, you get toxic leaders (people who first seduce and then destroy you) because you deserve them. You have unresolved issues that you’re too weak to address, and so you look for someone to save you, so the leader you choose just has to be one who offers a magic pill solution, and so tends to be toxic. Q.E.D. So, if in your youth, the book tells us, you haven’t worked out issues of authority figures and developed the ‘ego strength’ to stand up to a bad leader, we’re likely to go on repeating that same behaviour and keep seeking out authority figures to try and “get it right”, to try and resolve our unresolved conflicts— children of alcoholics tend to marry alcoholics to reconstruct similar painful conditions, and so on. So, lesson number one: if you don’t want toxic leaders, be nice to your kids and all those around you in their formative years. Sounds like the kind of defence strategies lawyers put up in serial rape cases—I had abusive parents, ungodly priests, and so on.
 
For those still not convinced, there’s the famous Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, starting from deficiency needs like hunger and thirst to safety and security needs, to the need to belong, and so on. So, the author, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Peter F Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, Claremount Graduate University in California, gives examples of how various whistleblowers have been shunned within the organisations they’ve tried to protect since they were seen as trying to defrock the authority figure that was supposed to deliver the organisation and its people to salvation. A valid point the author makes is that one of the reasons why we like/tolerate toxic leaders is that they promise to resolve all our problems while non-toxic ones are the ones that don’t claim to have all the answers, they ask us to help out—not only do they not offer free lunches, they expect us to prepare the meal and clean up afterwards.
 
Part of the problem (or is it the victim?), it appears, is the media and its insatiable need for stories of a certain kind. So, it creates larger-than-life heroes and attributes all manner of qualities to them; as the followers accumulate, the leaders get swept off their feet, and become, well, toxic, or perhaps more toxic than they always were. Sample these headlines: “How AG Lafley saved P&G”, “Can Stan O’Neal rescue Merrill”, “Can Ford save Ford”, the list goes on. Only rarely does the media, the author says probably correctly, acknowledge its role. When Tyco’s Kozlowski was defrocked, Business Week was big enough to acknowledge “The press, including Business Week, also bears some blame for generally portraying Tyco as a lean and mean profit machine”. Indeed, a telling example of this is the media’s attempt to get new IBM CEO Lou Gerstner to reveal his vision for the ailing tech giant. At first, Gerstner said, “[T]he last thing IBM needs right now is a vision”, but given the kind of storm this created, Gerstner began peppering his speeches with the vision thing.
 
So, how do you fix this, how do you avoid creating conditions for toxic leaders, how do you survive them? You learn new ways to “connect” to “your own creativity”, to enroll in what philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “the school of anxiety” so that you can start confronting your own anxieties. Try yoga and transcendental meditation.

 

 

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