The idea of Chemistry in Leadership is an intriguing one, but not for the reasons you may think.
My memories of chemistry class in high school are getting foggy, but I do remember this: it was just as important to know what chemicals did not mix as it was to know which ones did. I remember being warned about how disastrous it would be to mix acids with cyanide salts – because a highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas gets created…. (mental note : don’t do that)
In leadership – just as in chemistry – it is important to know what combination of things creates a toxic leader.
You will find scads of information on the Internet about what makes an effective leader, but there is relatively little consensus; opinions differ greatly depending on what body of research you’re reading. On the other hand, I think most of us intuitively know what an effective leader is not.
An Obsession with Optics
I have worked under leadership obsessed with optics, unconcerned about what is really happening but obsessed with how things appear to the masses.
Over time, this posture chips away at passion and innovation and creates a culture of people with a checkbox mentality.
An obsession with optics blunts growth and fails to cultivate the seeds of success.
I cannot fathom how leaders who aren’t concerned with reality expect to lead others into anything meaningful.
The textbook definition of arrogance paints a perfect picture: an arrogant person makes “claims or pretentions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud”.
Arrogance is not confidence.
Arrogance pushes people away.
Arrogance lacks the humility chip entirely.
On the other hand, confidence and humility are both compelling and valuable.
Some would argue for the cliché “ignorance is bliss” and assert that a lack of self-awareness doesn’t really harm other people. I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth.
Ignorance is the root cause of more pain and damage in this world than almost anything else.
In leadership, ignorance is not bliss – it is insidious, potent, and harmful.
When was the last time you wanted to follow someone you couldn’t trust?
It just doesn’t happen.
Trustworthy leaders create an environment that is safe and when people feel safe, they begin to show you who they really are. And that is a breeding ground for creativity and passion.
Untrustworthy leaders may lead for a while, but their leadership is counterfeit and eventually it will catch up with them.
Sometimes it is the omission of behavior or decision making that makes a leader toxic. We respect people who can articulate their perspective and own their decisions, even if we don’t agree with them.
Ambivalence, on the other hand, breeds mediocrity.
Poor communication skills
The best leaders are people who know when to push, pull, listen, and speak.
They read people and respond accordingly.
They communicate expectations clearly and respectfully and provide constructive feedback specifically addressing the performance issue, not a person’s character.
Lack of Accountability
Bad leaders point fingers when things don’t go as expected and are quick to take credit when they do; their chief concern is building themselves up, even at the cost of others.
Great leaders understand the need to build and equip others; they know how to foster greatness in others.
They intuitively understand the power of personal accountability as don’t pretend to be perfect.
Most of us have deep longing to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
We are easily seduced by the promise of something more compelling because we all want to make a difference; we want our lives to mean something so we follow others – even toxic leaders.
Sometimes because we have practical needs – like mouths feed, but sometimes it’s because following is easier than having these tough conversations.
Whatever the reason, we often ignore these warning signs or even encourage this toxic behavior… and the result is often disastrous, just as in chemistry.
We only need a quick history lesson to understand the epic fallout of bad chemistry in leadership.
Who knew chemistry would be so relevant outside a lab?