During one of my first interviews after graduating with my bachelors degree back in the early 1990s, I met with the owner of a small, but reasonably successful lawn service company near where I grew up. We’ll call him John. The man had a powerful aura about him and seemed to dominate whatever room he was in. He had a deep, booming voice and enjoyed talking about how he almost made the team as a New York Jet. Some might have called him charismatic, but I can confidently say in retrospect that his style of leadership would best be described as pseudotransformational, (Northouse, p. 339).
John seemed very wary about hiring me at first, but his general manager convinced him to give me a shot. They were low on staff that spring and they needed people to perform lawn applications. He relented, but then did a bit of a 180, talking to me about higher-level positions within the company that I could reach within the next year or two if I just stuck it out there. I took this as a very promising sign. But after working there for a week, I soon realized that these were empty promises. They were made to virtually every new employee. This was not a great place to be, but I opted to stick around for a few months as I strategized an exit. In retrospect, I understand that the company perfectly demonstrated the toxic triangle, (Northouse, p. 340) associated with destructive leaders. This triangle has three key elements; destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments, (Northouse, p. 340).
Destructive leaders are characterized by charisma, personalized power, narcissism, negative life themes, and ideology of hate, (Northouse, p. 340). To say that John was charismatic would be an understatement. I can’t recall another person in my life for whom the entire room stopped whenever he/she walked in. He seemed 7 feet tall and just as intimidating, but was actually only average sized. Nobody dared disagree with him and many actively sought his approval. He exuded an arrogance that was extremely disarming. As but one example, he regularly bragged about the fact that he made over $1 million a year with this business. But rather than sharing in the success through decent wages, he paid illegally low salaries that later got him into quite a bit of trouble with the state department of labor. Yet every now and then he would walk the office and hand out a few hundred dollar bills to employees who happened to be doing something productive at that moment. He never missed an opportunity to remind you that he was in charge and that he was far wealthier than you.
Competitors in the industry drew his ire to an odd extent, and this is where he exhibited an ideology of hate, (Northouse, p. 340). He called their wives at home to claim that their husbands were having an affair. He’d call their clients and make similarly disparaging remarks. When addressing us at work, he often brought up these competitors and made it a point to talk about how awful each of them was as both businessmen and human beings. It seemed odd to me that he didn’t just focus on his own work and ignore them, but he was driven by a deep hatred for anyone who didn’t fall under his spell.
Susceptible followers can be split into two groups; conformers and colluders, (Northouse, p. 340). Both were present in this company, and very few employees couldn’t be categorized as one of the two. The conformers made up the majority of the company and were the ones I worked most closely with. I soon learned that I was not just the only one there with a college degree, I was the only one who had graduated from high school. Most of the other employees were living in a halfway house for drug rehabilitation. Most were also functionally illiterate. I was frequently asked to help write very basic notes for clients or to perform very simple mathematical calculations. Over time, I noticed that many tried to curry John’s favor in any way they could, in an almost desperate need for approval. Through his braggadocio, he put out the idea that his company was the greatest place to be in the industry, And regularly told people that they would never find a job if they left. This created a dichotomy whereby they both wanted to be a part of this organization out of a desire to belong to some sort of successful group, but also feared what might happen if they left. Soon, any self-confidence was tied directly to their identification as a part of this company.
A few people in the company worked higher up and actively supported the strategies and techniques employed by John. These were the colluders, (Northouse, p. 340). I cannot say whether these people had the same, overly controlling, condescending mindset from the beginning or if they adopted it as a way to succeed in this company. One day, the general manager pulled us all into a room and began explaining how we could really “stick it to these clients.” He was describing and training us on ways to pretend to provide services that the client would be billed for while not actually following through. On another occasion, the office manager pulled me into a room and asked me to sign a piece of paper that was “just a formality.” I read it over quickly and realized that it was a noncompete agreement that restricted me from ever working in the industry just about anywhere ever again. I have since learned that this agreement was so egregious in its scope that it would have likely been thrown out in court anyway, but in that moment, it took a lot of personal effort to avoid giving into the pressure tactics being employed.
Conducive environments are characterized by instability, perceived threat, cultural values, and a lack of checks and balances or effective institutions, (Northouse, p. 340). Here, instability was constant as people were regularly, loudly publicly fired and ridiculed for relatively minor infractions and the threat of such treatment was always hanging over our heads. One particular employee had been there for a few years and was regarded as a solid worker by almost everyone else. One day, after several hours of working hard in the storage garage, he stepped outside and took a quick cigarette break. At that very moment, John happened to walk out and see him relaxing. He was immediately fired while being berated for his “lazy attitude.” More employees were always being brought in by labor service providers and halfway houses, consistently sending the message that each one of us was easily replaceable. There were no checks or balances within this company as it ran completely on the whim of the sole owner with the support of a few colluding managers who were able to ascertain his wishes with a high level of accuracy.
People within this company either put their heads down and accepted their lot in life out of fear and need for a paycheck. Others embraced the toxic mindset of the owner and tended to stick around longer. But over time, most eventually grew tired of that environment and left, often starting their own competitive business in the process. Over time, his company shrank more and more as they lost customers through dissatisfaction and to a growing number of competitors. The long-term effect of this toxic triangle was a continued diminishment of an organization that originally had a lot of potential. Many otherwise solid employees either immediately quit or left after giving it an honest try. No structure or systems were ever built that might lend stability. It was an early experience for me within which I worked for about six months. But the lasting effects of learning what not to do have actually proven quite useful over the years. On more than one occasion, I have asked myself when faced with a new situation, “what would John do?“ And then, I’ve done the opposite. It has been a surprisingly effective management strategy.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.