3 Surefire Ways to Move from Toxic to Triumphant Leadership

First, a little backstory. Recently I was involved in an enlightened conversation about toxic leadership at a professional development conference held for military officers. During the lunch break I sat with a mix of junior and senior officers—to include a newly promoted general— listening and glad to be in this discussion. What I heard? There are still many challenges for “those in charge” who don’t always get it when it comes to effective leadership. And because they don’t, wind up creating poisonous and unproductive environments for their soldiers (and themselves).
As a retired army reserve officer, former corporate manager and now leadership development consultant, this topic rested in my lane. In addition, I was attending this gathering to exhibit and sell my book, Navigating Life’s Roadways, where I address leadership issues, building on my childhood experiences as an oldest (and responsible) child of a single parent. So I’ve gleaned a lot about this area from my life and professional experiences, which is why I have a lot of passion around leadership.
The senior officers at the lunch table provided some on the spot guidance to their junior counterparts taken from their leadership stories of failures that transitioned to success. I use this approach as well, teaching leadership tenants to new and seasoned managers in client sponsored workshops based on lessons from my times of downfall that led to eventual rallying. Mainly the goal for any leader is to succeed, moving past obstacles and problems, to claim a triumph! From this experience, a personal victory narrative can take shape, one that becomes solid and surefire.
Here are three areas that I use as a launching pad for my training’s take away points for an effective leadership campaign.

1. Show up strong. Leaders need to be seen, virtually or otherwise. When I was on active duty, I spent a year stationed in Seoul Korea assigned as a unit commander. My soldiers were positioned at other bases throughout the peninsula, to include one in close proximity to the DMZ- Demilitarized Zone (on the border with North Korea). Many were taking bets on whether I would venture through the security areas to visit them in this austere setting. Responding, I went and even spent the night, rising the next morning to go running with my soldiers. This move strengthened their belief that I was concerned about who and where they were—not a leader stuck in the confines of comfort and safety in Seoul. We bonded, creating trust while I got to hear about their challenges. And I confess, conquered my own reticence to go north!
I encourage leaders to get out and about to learn and grow. In person or in space. Today’s technology can “make it so”. Don’t hide. No fear! Show up not only when something is wrong, but just to check in. Presence sends a clear message. Cross your Delaware.

2. Know your strengths and assets as well as liabilities and limitations. Leadership is a personality business as much as it is a skill set. The confidence to put your whole self into this work is important. By building on what you know you do well —which can be based on your track record of favorable results in addition to feedback from others—can get some good momentum in queue with your team or staff. Yet understanding your “dark side,’ those habits or perspectives that can result in actions that get you off course, ranks as critical. We all have these blind spots or misguided intentions that can create toxic situations.
Another area to consider in discovering tools for your leadership potential develops from answering the question: do you value what comes with leadership? As an oldest child, I was given instructions by my mother on how to take charge when she wasn’t there. I came to value responsibility, strength and at times a liability. I’m very much aware of this. My direct report siblings have pointed it out.
In my leadership development work, I use 360 assessments with clients that allow them to get statistical and narrative data on how their direct reports, peers and next level managers view them. It’s often very illuminating and scary, but in follow up coaching sessions, each person often sees how valuable this tool is in helping them understand the power of perception. I encourage them to do informal chats to find out “the word on the street” about them, in terms of how their staff takes in their style of leading. If the report back isn’t favorable, then the question to the leader is: What damage control measures are you willing to take? And who could help you? Having allies in leadership helps balance out our liabilities and limitations. It can be a colleague or direct report who has an attribute or skill that enhances the effectiveness of one of our tasks such from facilitating a meeting or insight on some challenge.
Rightly know your personal constitution. Get others to sign on and fill in the gaps to ensure a good battle strategy. Win!

3. Ensure complex situations get the right amount of attention.
Too often leaders dust off issues that really are serious as trivial. Instead these problems have layers of stuff that need to be waded through. This era of tweets, microwave, or solve the crime in 60 minute television approaches to reconciling tough matters has led to impatience with the processes that are often necessary to get enduring solutions. Instead the issues continue to surface. How do we put them under and out of the way?
I worked for Mobil Oil as an operations supervisor shortly after I left active duty. The company hired me to improve delivery performance for a distribution team of 28 gasoline tank truck drivers and facility personnel, gambling on the fact that my army leadership experiences would prove helpful in this production environment. I dug in—first by riding with each of the drivers on a delivery. Another goal here was for the drivers to get acquainted with the drivers and dispel the outsider, army bossy myth, they had of me, while I got to know them too. What I discovered were all sorts of operational and personality issues, around which drivers milked the run, took more time than needed for a trip, bullied their way into having all of the overtime as well as excessive teasing and joking that left some feeling offended. Next I poured over the trip reports and other documents to validate my observations and explore maintenance or other support factors that may have contributed to the low productivity numbers. More trips with discussions followed to include one on one’s with the facility team. I learned about the organization’s mission from them, and then applied other strategies from my external, new to the situation stance. The result, performance indicators on deliveries and support went up within 2 months. The drivers also taught me how to drive their 18 wheelers (although not out of the parking lot), but a sure sign they trusted me. I was in!
Time and attention—one can’t underestimate these concepts in bringing mastery to a problem, whether it’s a new or longstanding condition.

Leadership is demanding and rewarding. Jumbled and straight-forward. Responsible and accountable in action. A swamp or a summit. What’s a big reality check for most of us is that we do bring knowledge of leadership from man of our life experiences whether it’s military service, career positions, volunteer or community endeavors, even parenting. Ultimately, the question is where we stand now in using these skills and how do we transition sure and steady when needed from toxic to triumphant!


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About Deborah L. Parker

Deborah L. Parker is a sought after speaker on issues of leadership, personal development, career management, communications and diversity through her company The DPJ Training Group. She has also written on these topics for business publications in the Metropolitan DC and Phoenix AZ communities. Deborah is the author of 5 non-fiction books on life choices, workplace problem-solving, leadership and career management to include a well-received motivational memoir, Navigating Life’s Roadways: Stories of Insight from My Odyssey and Inspiration for Your Journey, which chronicles her setbacks and successes around work, family, culture and relationship issues. She holds a B.A. in Sociology from The College of William and Mary and M.A. in Human Resource Development from George Mason University. Deborah gleans learnings from her varied careers as an Army officer as well as in corporate operations and human resources positions with ExxonMobil and Booz Allen Hamilton to cement her presentations. She is a member of the Loudoun County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Chamber of Commerce and Metro DC Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development.

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