How to identify, avoid toxic patterns

No one wants to become a horrible boss, let alone work for one – and a Harvard expert has a new guide to identifying and avoiding them.

Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of medical technology company Medtronic, has spent nearly 20 years studying leadership failures in the workplace. Bosses are inevitably doomed when they lose sight of their “true north,” George told CNBC Make It, referring to their deeply held beliefs, values ​​and goals as leaders.

These traits help guide people to make good decisions and lead effectively, he explains: “[They’re] what makes you authentic, and people naturally want to follow authentic leaders.”

Losing sight of your values ​​has nothing to do with your intelligence, notes George. It happens when you get distracted by extrinsic motivations like money, fame, and power, all to the detriment of your moral compass.

Last week, George and his co-author Zach Clayton published a new book, “True North: Leading Authentically in Today’s Workplace, Emerging Leader Edition.” The book identifies five different archetypes of bosses you never want to become or work for because they have lost their “true north” in one way or another.

Here’s what they are, and why George says these bosses are doomed:

1. Imposters

Imposters fight relentlessly to rise to the top of organizations, “buying” their place with charm and appealing ideas, George says. But once they get to the top, they have no idea how to lead effectively because they lack self-awareness.

These bosses don’t have an accurate representation of their own character, actions or feelings — and they have trouble recognizing how others see them, George says. That’s a problem: self-awareness helps bosses understand what’s right and wrong in their leadership. It shows them how their actions can help or hurt employees, and what they can improve to lead them more effectively.

Take The founder and ex-CEO of WeWork, Adam Neumann, for example. Neumann won over investors with charm and charisma, eventually raising $10.4 billion of the conglomerate holding company SoftBank. But he lacked the self-awareness to effectively run the business on a day-to-day basis, George says.

Instead, Neumann’s erratic management style hurt employees, and his efforts to keep growing the company with little planning led to WeWork’s first failed bid to go public in 2019, George says. .

2. Rationalizations

Rationalizers always want to look like they’re always on top of everything they’re doing, George says. They are also “masters of denial” who are never willing to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes – instead rationalizing missteps and wrongdoings by blaming others.

George’s prime example is Rajat Gupta, the former managing partner of global consulting firm McKinsey. George even knows Gupta personally: they served on three boards together, including Goldman Sachs in 2008.

In 2012, Gupta was sentenced to two years in federal prison after sharing inside information about a $5 billion investment Warren Buffett returned Goldman to Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of hedge fund management firm Galleon Group. Rajaratnam used this information to conduct insider trading, generating $90 million in illicit profits.

Gupta has since maintained his innocence, accusing Rajaratnam of making him a “victim” in the scandal, George says. The position has hurt Gupta’s ability to lead effectively since his release from prison, he adds: it’s proof he can’t, or won’t, learn from his mistakes.

3. Glory Seekers

Fame seekers define their value by how much money they make, the positive press they get and how many major titles they can rack up, George says. They prioritize personal fame and fortune over building organizations of lasting value, and are never truly satisfied with what they have, he adds.

George points to Greg Lindberg, the founder of a private equity firm Global Growth. Lindberg began with a successful strategy of acquiring failing businesses and increasing their revenue. In the end, that wasn’t enough for him — so he began acquiring insurance companies in an effort to lend their assets to other businesses he owneda process limited by the laws of several states.

In 2020, Lindberg was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, after he attempted to bribe the North Carolina Insurance Commissioner to circumvent those laws in his favor.

4. Solitaires

Loners — not to be confused with introverts — avoid building close relationships and support networks, George says.

They think they can do it all on their own and often choose to dismiss feedback or advice they receive from employees, board members, and mentors. As a result, they are prone to making mistakes and having their organizations fail, George says.

An example is Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, formerly the fourth largest investment bank in the country. In 2008, Fuld’s associates spent months warning him of his bank’s serious problems: it needed to recapitalize, or essentially replace the debt it had accumulated with more capital, according to George.

Then-US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson even weighed with similar warnings. But Fuld was a loner who didn’t listen to others, so he didn’t act, George says. Lehman Brothers filed an application bankruptcy later in 2008.

5. Shooting Stars

Shooting stars focus entirely on their progress, says George. They often move on to the next job, organization, or goal without taking the time to learn from their mistakes.

George says that strategy helps them move forward quickly, but it makes them unfit to lead. They eventually “crash and burn, quickly,” he says.

One example: the rapid rise and fall of Uber founder Travis Kalanick. Kalanick’s tunnel vision of moving forward, which meant prioritizing the growth and profits of his ridesharing app, initially led to rapid success. It also allowed for his staggering downfall just eight years after he founded the company.

In 2017, Uber has been engulfed in controversy over the toxic workplace culture it fostered, sexual harassment complaints and regulators claiming Uber broke transportation laws. Kalanick resigned that year, at the request of five of Uber’s top investors.

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