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The Allure of Toxic Leaders

by Jean Lipman-Blumen

Oxford © 2005, 303 pages, $30.00 (ISBN 0-19-516634-5).

Why We Follow Destructive Bosses And Corrupt Politicians

Leaders who are destructive to their organizations, their employees, their countries and their constituents make headlines regularly, but still these toxic leaders continue to pop up in the boardroom and the courtroom. In The Allure of Toxic Leaders, leadership expert Jean Lipman-Blumen explores how our own psychological needs, such as the desire to play a more crucial role in an organization and the need to expand our insider status, can often drive us closer to toxic leaders. She also describes how those who are suffering under toxic leaders can best confront, reform, undermine, expose and even unseat these leaders by speaking out on their own behalf and creating “a conspiracy of goodness,” in which “an individual’s conscious must be one’s true guide.”

Organizational Tyrants

Lipman-Blumen starts her book by examining why people such as Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, as well as junk bond king Michael Milken and Tyco’s L. Dennis Kozlowski are so attractive and fascinating to their followers. While looking closely at their transgressions and the crises they create, she questions how imprints from our childhood and our shared human condition leave us vulnerable to toxic leaders, such as Hitler and Mao Zedong, as well as the everyday organizational tyrants who display cynicism, corruption and cruelty.

After describing dozens of situations from political and business history that spell out the traps that followers can fall into when working with toxic leaders, Lipman-Blumen presents pragmatic strategies for getting out from the traps that toxic leaders can set for us and that we can set for ourselves.

Lipman-Blumen writes, “Toxic leaders, particularly as they slip deeper into paranoia and toxicity, frequently devote the lion’s share of their energies to controlling their followers (despite the evidence that followers often control themselves).” Once toxic leaders are distracted by their efforts to control instead of pursuing growth, leadership gaps will appear throughout an organization. One silver lining to working with toxic leaders is that informal leaders get an opportunity to step up to the plate and, according to the author, “give full vent to their own creativity and leadership potential.” The urgency of unmet needs pushes them to act, which allows them to exercise the hidden leader within them. The void created by the toxic leader’s neglect creates places where emerging leaders can test their metal.

‘How Not to Lead’

Another benefit of working with a toxic leader is the opportunity to learn positive lessons from a negative role model. “Toxic leaders, acting as negative role models, teach followers many lessons about how not to lead,” Lipman-Blumen writes. Although working with a toxic leader can be traumatic, it can also be a very good opportunity for followers to reconsider their own values.

Lipman-Blumen offers these actions that can be taken by those who live and work under the power of a toxic leader, and who are willing to take the risk:

• Counsel the toxic leader; help that leader to improve. If key opinion shapers both within and outside the leader’s group are brought into the process, they might be able to have a serious impact on the leader.

• Quietly work to undermine the leader. Despite the personal dangers that might be involved, when all other avenues are blocked and the toxic impact of a leader is high, this might be your only possible route.

• Join with others to confront the leader. Coalitions are extremely important in confronting toxic leaders.

• Join with others to overthrow the leader. Joining with outsiders who represent important constituencies can serve as a powerful lever. ~

Why We Like ThIS Book

By presenting many examples of how toxicity in the workplace and government has been addressed, Lipman-Blumen adds vibrant color to an in-depth examination of a common organizational problem. The strength of the author’s prose and grasp of her subject make her book captivating and useful as a guide to improving work. ~

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