Alan Goldman


On his book Transforming Toxic Leaders

Cover Interview of January 14, 2010

A close-up

In my work with business leaders and their organizations, I bring an active counseling psychology perspective into play, working with executives one-on-one. Naturally, I entertain the possibility that highly intelligent professionals have to struggle at times through everyday conflicts and even personal pathology.

My first “executive case” was in the late 1990s when I worked with a senior manager of a Fortune 500 company, both in individual treatment and on site in his organization. Diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the manager brought this pre-existing condition into the company with him, infecting his entire division with the disorder.

I had revealed an ADHD manager and an ADHD organization: This spread of a psychological pathogen to employees via the power and influence of the leader is the essence of the concept of “toxicity.” The destructive behaviors inherit in the individual leader’s personality will undoubtedly spread and take their toll on an organizational system.

Transforming Toxic Leaders opens up a broader dialogue and a more differential diagnosis of complex organizational life.  Situated at the apex of their organizations, leaders exert profound influence, possessing the power to heal and to wound, to inspire or to bully, to create or destroy. Only by paying close attention to the darker side of toxicity can one boldly investigate the genius CEO who takes a deviant turn when facing his contested child custody case and divorce, temporarily operating out of fear.  The CEO orders a vicious, overnight downsizing when his dark personal tragedy is compounded by a collapse on Wall Street and a plunging market share. What is the antidote? In my book, I provide numerous prognoses and remedies in the form of “leadership detoxification.”

Contrary to much behind-the-scenes corporate strategizing, I take issue with the predominantly authoritarian and bullying leadership style enacted during massive corporate downsizings, rightsizings, and layoffs. For example, a coercive and intimidating approach to requiring employees to participate in extensive overtime following a downsizing is a major source of toxicity. Instead, I propose a dialogic relationship-building approach, which is essential to cushion and lessen toxic impact and fallout from a downsizing. Compassionately and genuinely responding to employees’ anger and fear is critical.  Emotionally intelligent leadership techniques elicit far more positive employee responses, lower the incidences of grievance and lawsuits, and provide an antidote to the employee perception of widespread abuse.

Beyond detoxification, the implications of this book lie in the arena of the transformation of toxic leadership behaviors into highly functional and intelligent corporate strategy.  When one cannot change the one-of-a-kind renowned mitral valve heart surgeon into a doctor with people skills, what are the alternatives? Does one have to eliminate the master surgeon who is the reason for the company’s ranking as a world center for excellence? Or can he be transformed?

By shifting to dual leadership, I helped a highly toxic heart surgeon transform into a super-functional member of the hospital’s family. The treatment was not performed on the doctor, but rather on the organizational system. The surgeon was allowed to concentrate on his technical expertise and incomparable talents in the operating room. Meanwhile, his new leadership partner, also a master surgeon, was assigned to the human-side of the cardiology division, handling the relations between the people there.

What is the moral of the story? Transformation may or may not require a radical reconstruction of the leader in question.  With time, patience, and a differential diagnosis I ascertained that by rearranging a few chess pieces the formerly toxic doctor could be placed in a position where he could shine almost all of the time—while his new partner could simultaneously shine via the utilization of his extraordinary people skills.