Why do otherwise promising leaders hitch their wagon to an anchor?

Being an effective and ethical leader is exhausting. It requires constant effort and a strong group of allies and advisors (i.e., other leaders). When you’re desperate or feel like you’re drowning and someone tosses you a rope, you can be so eager and grateful for the gesture that sometimes you don’t notice when it’s a noose.

When a leader gets hooked on a destructive advisor, it’s toxicity grows. The leader can put so much faith in the relationship that other relationships start to suffer. Other would-be allies, intending to alert the leader to the problem, are seen as a nuisance; people who are just getting in the way.

As the leader pushes his team away, he becomes increasingly dependent on the destructive advisor. When it feels like more and more people are out to get you, it’s increasingly reassuring to have that one person on your side. You know he’s on your side because he keeps showing you all those other people who are out to get you. Soon you have no one left but the person who is destroying you. (You may have seen this play out in someone’s personal life as well.)

Here a two stories that may sound familiar to you that illustrate how a destructive advisor gains power.

Story 1

The department lead, Agnes, has her go-to guy, Hal. When it comes to transactional work, he seems to be the master. It appears no one else can do what he does. And Hal makes damn sure it stays that way. Hal constantly laments how overworked he is. He exhibits his workload physically so all the world can see the demands put upon him. His calendar is like a sliding block puzzle, forever shifting, rescheduling, and cancelling. When he is offered help, it never goes well. The offer is either rebuffed or the good Samaritan fails miserably. No one, it seems, is capable of understanding the intricacies of the tremendous demands Hal faces on a daily basis.

Agnes buys it hook line and sinker. The dread of losing him is so consuming that she doesn’t see the misery that Hal creates all around him. He can’t collaborate. He refuses to explain in any form how he takes care of his end of a process. And although he insists that it’s everyone else that just doesn’t get it, the work that he produces ranges from inadequate to incompetent.

Story 2

Margaret is intent on ferreting out the dysfunction and incompetence in the office. She spots when mistakes are made and eagerly notifies her boss, Paul. Paul is grateful for the discovery and aghast that such things could be happening under his watch. With apparent support from the Paul, Margaret confronts the offending parties and interrogates them about their deplorable practices. She gives the impression that Paul is questioning their ability to do their jobs. Margaret takes it upon herself to closely monitor everyone under the dark cloud of her suspicions.

Paul admires Margaret’s tenacity and ambition to clean house and get things in order. When he needs information, she gets it. Or at least incessantly harasses people to get the information. What would he do without her, he wonders. Never mind that she is essentially terrorizing the rest of the office. Never mind that she is creating massive dysfunction and inefficiency. All Paul can see is that Margaret uncovered wrongdoing and therefore she is indispensable.

Spotting Iago

Unlike the destructive advisors in Shakespeare’s plays, in the workplace a leader’s destructive advisor may not be deliberately trying sabotage the leader, which makes it that much more difficult to spot. Not only does the leader believe the destructive advisor is doing the right thing, so does the destructive advisor. A destructive advisor believes she is the leader’s and the organization’s greatest asset. It’s a sort of spell both parties fall into in this toxic relationship.

Here are four ways to break the destructive advisor’s obfuscating spell.

  1. Listen—truly listen—to the entire team, and never let one person be your barometer for the wellbeing of the organization. It often takes a lot of courage to go to the boss to express your concerns, so when someone actually musters it, the boss should take it seriously. Yes, there are people who are a little too eager to gripe, but that doesn’t necessary mean their concerns are unfounded. If you, as the leader, are using one person to interpret how the whole team is functioning just so you don’t have to deal with it, you are failing as a leader.
  2. Look closely at how your closest ally treats other people. The personality they present to you, may not be the personality they present to others. Don’t make excuses for abusive or unfair treatment. Justifying bad behavior as your ally being firm or other people’s misperceptions or over-sensitivity is not OK. No one, much less a leader, should ever tolerate  anyone being treated badly. Full stop.
  3. Spotting when things go wrong is relatively easy. Fixing them is slightly more difficult. The part that takes real skill is working with the people who own those processes and treating them with respect and dignity they deserve as the problem gets resolved. If your advisor can’t do that part, he either needs to be developed so he can, or removed from that role entirely.
  4. If it looks to you as if one person holds all the knowledge for how to perform a key function, that’s a problem. It may not necessarily be the destructive advisor’s fault that a process isn’t transparent, but, as the leader, it sure as hell is your fault. You cannot allow one person to monopolize so much institutional knowledge that they that can use it to hold the rest of the organization hostage.

Leaders should respect the hard work and expertise of their team. They should be grateful for their contributions and let people know how much they are appreciated. But when someone crosses the line and starts to use that expertise against the organization, you need to put an end to it definitively. That could mean helping that person see that they are doing harm, or, failing that, helping that person transition out of the organization.

Leaders need allies. No one does it alone. Just proceed with caution. Trust is important and it should extend beyond your closest ally.

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