“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden
On any given day, visitors to my office can find various stacks of book arranged randomly across my desk, typically a mix of topics ranging from strategy to history to military theory. The books are well-read, the margins filled with notes, some pages dog-eared and heavily marked with faded highlighter. Try as I might to keep my desk uncluttered, it’s a rare moment when I’m not reaching for a quick reference or pulling a book off the shelf to refresh a distant memory.
After a lengthy career in uniform, it should come as no surprise that one of those stacks is devoted to leadership, or that my entire credenza is filled with volumes on the subject. Leadership books are crammed into every open space, most so well worn that the covers have long since become threadbare. Between Dale Carnegie’s timeless “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership in Turbulent Times” there is a neatly folded list of recommended books on various aspects of leadership – decision-making, mental modeling, creative thinking, ethics, and character, to name just a few.
My fascination with leading borders on an obsession at times. My Amazon cart routinely fills with new leadership books (and, to be honest, I’ve probably given away as many as I’ve read), I maintain a thumb drive filled with recent (and classic) articles, and I’m a sucker for the philosophies of great sports coaches. We’re in the business of leading, and that means we have an obligation to those we lead to be the very best at our craft. We can’t just practice leadership; we have to study it in depth, reflect on its finer points, and work tirelessly to hone our less refined skills.
And, as much as we focus on positive leadership, we should never lose sight of the negative. The spectrum of toxic leadership extends into every aspect of our lives and impacts us both personally and professionally. Toxic leaders sever the bonds of trust, tear down unit cohesion, and leave organizations far worse for wear. The destructiveness of a toxic leader serves only the ends they envision for themselves; the organization and the people who form it are only a means to that end.
But toxic leaders don’t simply become menaces overnight. The longer they are allowed free rein, the worse their behavior and destructiveness become. Unchecked, they evolve into the very creatures most of us see in them early on. The characteristics they exhibit as junior leaders are just manifested to a greater – and more destructive – extent, often with impunity and a complete disregard for those most vulnerable.
All of this makes it essential that the characteristics that signal a tendency toward toxic leadership are “nipped in the bud” early on. Identifying those characteristics isn’t necessarily difficult, but it’s surprising how easy it is to not see them for what they are. It’s a relatively simply matter to dismiss a potential character flaw as a “bad day” or “moodiness.” But the Seven Deadly Sins of Leadership are not something you want to overlook; they are a clear warning of the potential for destruction and offer a window in time to stop a toxic leader in their tracks before any real damage is done.
Conceit is the first of those sins. At some point in life, we’ve all encountered conceit in a leader – someone whose view of themselves is so lofty that it allows them to sneer down on everyone around them. Conceit is like an especially insidious form of black mold; cultivated in the dark corners of our leadership culture, it decays the fiber of an organization and spreads into the second deadly sin: Disdain. Conceit alone is cause for concern, but when it fuels a contempt for others, it sparks an air of superiority that is exponentially destructive.
The third of the deadly sins, Arrogance, is all too common today and is both driven by and drives the fourth and fifth sins, Presumption and Assumption. Arrogance – the sin of overbearing superiority – is deeply rooted in presumption (claiming an unearned or undeserved place or privilege) and assumption (assuming such place or privilege is one’s due). Arrogance is revealed in hubris and egotism, the imperious sense of self-importance that often blinds a leader to the consequences of poor decisions. The toxic combination of these three sins must be checked early and often; gone unchecked, they typically manifest later in leaders who view themselves “above the law” and not subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to others.
Similarly, the sixth and seventh sins, Pride and Vanity, are inherently and inexorably linked. Pride – an absorbing sense of one’s own greatness – inevitably leads to Vanity – an intense hunger for admiration, adoration, and applause. While a humble leader takes pride in the accomplishments of those they lead, a vain and prideful leader derives deep pleasure and satisfaction from their own sense of self-importance. They require frequent acknowledgment of their imagined greatness; these are the leaders who surround themselves with “yes men,” those vile and soulless creatures who willingly supplicate themselves in hopes of gaining the approval of their leader.
But all hope is not lost. Humility is a potent antidote for each of the seven deadly sins of leadership. An increasingly important, yet often overlooked and underappreciated leadership attribute, it offers a perspective that might otherwise prove elusive. It tends to ground an ego; it brings the haughty leader “back down to earth.” There is no better tool for instilling humility than servant leadership. In his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” author Robert Greenleaf noted that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Putting the growth and well-being of those you serve ahead of your own creates a natural barrier to the seven deadly sins.
If we believe that our people are the soul of our organization, then our success as leaders is ultimately tied to a servant-first approach to leadership. Greenleaf further explained, “…make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
How do you combat the seven deadly sins of leadership? Remember that it’s about them, it’s not about you.