You probably played "follow the leader" as a child. Years later, most people continue with the game in the corporate and political worlds. That's great, assuming the leader has your best interests at heart. But what if he or she doesn't? Would you be able to release yourself from this person's venomous grip? So-called toxic leaders are everywhere. They prey on psychological weaknesses and manipulate us for their benefit. Spotting one is easy, says Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2004). Just look for someone with creepy charisma, few morals, a sycophantic following, and an illusion of godlike heroism. Learning how to deal with such people, though, is much harder. She offers some tips.
Seek safety in numbers.
Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins provided a great example of what not to do when speaking out in a toxic environment. Chances are such a leader has much of the organization under his or her thumb. Playing the lone wolf is gutsy, but be prepared for professional and social death. "If you try to be the voice of dissent without other people in the organization supporting you . . . oftentimes you're shown the door," Lipman-Blumen warns. If you don't rally the troops of other dissatisfied followers, just know you're not likely to be the next Erin Brockovich.
Hold them accountable.
Make your boss adhere to accountability standards by keeping track of who was consulted on a decision, to what purpose a decision was made, and whether the boss admits to mistakes. Nobody's perfect, and a boss who claims to be isn't honest. "Leaders who cannot confront their own mistakes . . . are probably not leaders we can trust with decisions that affect our lives," Lipman-Blumen writes.
While dealing with your toxic boss, you have to make sure not to become a toxic employee. The masses are often liable for pushing their leaders into making hasty and unhealthy decisions, forcing entire organizations into toxicity. Only by considering the long-term interests of the group, rather than going for quick fixes, can you avoid contributing to a toxic mess.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.