It is broadly recognised that in order to realise a culture where staff behaviour is aligned with the organisations best interest, this starts with leaders who lead wisely. Recently, while taking executive through our Wisdom in the Workplace leadership program, we were asked why some executive whole heartedly embrace the concept of wise leadership and others struggle.

While some receive numerous insights and learnings resulting in a transformation of their leadership style, others resist any learnings and when the opportunity for change descends upon them, they feel uncomfortable and prefer to avoid the insight, instead directing us how to change the program so that they can become ‘more comfortable’ with it.

The principles applied through the program outline that wise leaders:

  • lead and make decisions in the best interest of the organisation
  • are held accountable for their decisions, actions and outcomes
  • lead collectively and are focussed on improving or innovating organisational performance
  • work to collectively achieve the shared and common goals of the organisation, not fulfil individual agendas
  • listen for insights and consider all perspectives presented before making decisions
  • make decisions in the best interests of the organisation, rather than holding onto personal views
  • are open to learning from others and transparently communicate and learn from mistakes
  • manage their emotions, remain objective and constructive when making decisions or responding to others

Few would argue against the premise that it takes the wisest possible leaders to lead and navigate organisations through the ambiguity and uncertainty of today’s changing business environments. The question to ask is ‘are we leading wisely in the best interests of the business or are we leading out of fear of the unknown or the desire to want to protect ourselves and our own personal positions at all costs?’.

Misaligned leadership occurs when executive teams are not working collectively to achieve the purpose of the organisation. Instead leaders may be intentionally or unintentionally, working to protect their own personal self-interest or positions. They may appear defensive and fight to have their views accepted and be “right” which becomes more important than the need to make decisions in the best interests of the organisation.  

Executive dysfunction

When working with executive teams we have categorised executive dysfunction into three categories:  

1. Misaligned Leadership Focus
The first category is the most simple to address. Often executive work in silos or independently of one another and while they may be achieving departmental success, the whole of organisation performance is not balanced or aligned with the successful execution of organisation-wide strategy.  In this category executive tend to unintentionally demonstrate some, or all of, the following traits and/or behaviours. They may:

  • Lack clear focus on strategy execution – often being distracted by operational issues.
  • Focus on managing operational issues or ongoing crisis,  rather than leading wisely and ensuring the successful execution of the organisations purpose and strategy.
  • Focus on their division/departments needs rather than cross functional integration.
  • Lobby and promote their own needs and wants over and above the needs of the whole of organisation.
  • Work well with executive that support their position but not engage well with those who question or challenge their views.
  • Promote unhealthy competition with a view to positioning themselves as superior to other executive or divisions.  

It is relatively simple to address this type of leadership dysfunction given the unintentional and organic nature of the culture these leadership behaviours operate within. These behaviours can often quite quickly be realigned when executives focus on working collectively and agree to work on the shared and common goals of the organisation. This then focuses executive on building cross-functional connections, resulting in an increase in organisational wide performance improvement.

2.    Misaligned Leadership Behaviours
Some executive lack personal accountability for leadership behaviours and the impact inappropriate leadership behaviours have on the executive and organisational performance. This category of misaligned behaviour, with the right intervention, can also be addressed quite simply.  Executives demonstrating less than desirable leadership behaviours are usually operating in the absence of a clear behavioural framework to hold them accountable for the application of the desirable leadership behaviours. In addition to some of the above traits and behaviours, some executive may also unintentionally:

  • Place their individual or divisional needs ahead of the needs of the collective
  • Engage in third party conversations rather than collectively addressing issues with the whole of executive
  • Undermine other leaders and/or CEO in an endeavour to secure one’s own position
  • React defensively and emotionally to situations having little regard to the impact these behaviours may have on colleagues and staff
  • Focus on the person or people involved in a situation rather than focus objectively on the issue itself

To address this type of behavioural dysfunction, in addition to aligning focus, it is necessary for executive to work to a behavioural framework. By applying a process that supports openness and transparency, the executive can recognise and address personalised behaviours that do not support working collectively to achieve the organisation's shared and common goals. Should executive collectively adopt a behavioural framework based on wise leadership, this will result in a greater sense of connectedness, achievement and an overall increase in individual self-worth. Executive often report feeling ‘more energised, lighter and happier’ when they de-personalise and begin to work collectively to achieve what is in the best interest of the business.  

3. Toxic Leadership Behaviours
This final category can be more difficult to address given some undesirable behaviours can be more clinical in nature and require a more specialised intervention. Toxic behaviours are not generally demonstrated by all executive but where they are present, among some members, it significantly impedes the balance and team composition. Toxic behaviours can sometimes include actions taken by executive that are considered to be unethical, narcissistic or defensive and are often applied to hide or shield, personalised agendas. These leaders may:

  • Place their personal needs ahead of others at all cost.
  • Be highly adverse and defensive to any form of feedback or criticism.
  • Become overly emotional even angry when any form of feedback is provided.
  • Be quick to judge, ridicule, put down or criticise others.
  • Be insensitive toward others, often treating colleagues as inferior.
  • Blame others for their own failings or take credit for others successes/ideas.
  • Spread negative rumours to gain power and keep others feeling insecure and off balance.
  • Threaten others and become angry when challenged.
  • Not care about the impact of their actions on others.
  • Have a heightened sense of their own self-importance.
  • Play favourites and promote a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
  • Exploit others to service their own personal needs.
  • Dominate all discussions and talk themselves up whenever they get the chance.
  • Seldom listen to the views of others.
  • Take liberties with systems both small (unscrupulous claims for leave or reimbursements) or large (white collar crime) due to a sense of entitlement and of being ‘above the law’.

These leaders often come across as over confident although looking beyond this façade often lie very low levels of self-worth and self-esteem which veil feelings of inadequacy. This causes these leaders to become overly sensitive to the slightest form of feedback, or criticism, in order to protect and cover up what they hope will never be found out.

The impact of toxic leadership on organisational performance and workforce wellbeing is well documented. These behaviours are sometimes obvious to all and often well hidden under a cloak of orchestrated conversations that promote innuendo and uncertainty. Staff are often influenced by toxic leadership and will often revert to cover ups for fear of being targeted. Often executive will know that some leaders are demonstrating undesirable  behaviours but do not know how to change or address the situation.

The first two categories of behaviours are often unintentional in nature and come from learned behaviours. It goes without saying that most people do not get up every day with the aim of coming to work to offend and hurt others or, behave badly. The key difference with toxic leadership behaviours is the lack of care and concern for the welfare of others. Their only motivation to succeed is to fulfil their own personal needs. The challenge with this category is that toxic leaders will often refuse to engage in wiser leadership development, or any kind of development, as to do so would  be considered a threat to their self-perception of being above and better than others. They will also resist due to the fear of being found out when full transparency is applied.  

How to detox your Executive?

So how do you address toxic leadership behaviours?  There is no easy fix. If nothing is done, you continue to reinforce the unacceptable behaviours which are then modelled across the organisation giving rise to an organic culture based on fear, entitlement and self-interest.

To address undesirable behaviours, the entire leadership team need to commit to work collectively to participate in the development of wiser leadership behaviours in the team. This requires a program that holds every executive accountable for working in the best interest of the organisation by measuring and monitoring the behaviours demonstrated by executive. It is incumbent on the executive to hold one another accountable and work on developing wiser leadership principles. All executive are given the opportunity to develop and grow by working collectively through the levels of discomfort required for the team to transition to a wiser form of leadership. Leaders who continue to demonstrate toxic behaviours will begin to feel more uncomfortable with this newfound rigour and, if held accountable for their behaviours, will either begin to make the necessary changes or leave the organisation. They will in essence have two choices.  

Choice one: is to engage and commit to working collectively with the team on the development of wiser leadership which puts the interests of the organisation first.

Choice two: is to remain focussed on their own individual needs, and personal agenda, thus opting out of the organisation.

In the absence of clear, non-negotiable executive behavioural expectations, toxic leaders will apply all of the outlined behaviours to avoid any concept of accountability for their behaviour and impact on others.

When organisations introduce a wise leadership framework and development program, the impact on executive accountability and on organisational performance is extraordinary. Performance improves. Executive dynamic improves.  Executive self-worth increases. Executive begin to work collectively and to strategically lead whole of organisational performance and outcomes.

If your organisation is grappling with how to deal with change, struggling to execute strategy or seem to be repeating the same mistakes, we strongly encourage you to consider investigating the benefits of investing in wiser leadership development programs. Can you afford not to?

Article written by Lisa Kane, Head of Program Delivery Australasia

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