My Journey from Toxic Leadership to Servant Leadership

July 28, 2022 Bob Freytag

Toxic leadership is not a planned journey for most leaders. For some, it is based on pride. For me, it was based on fear of failure.  

My journey to becoming a toxic leader revolved around ego and inattentiveness. My intentions to be helpful were good—I longed for a team that had high levels of ownership and accountability as a natural outcome. But my thinking was self-focused. My relentless push for results and my lack of patience with the needs of others compromised the very relationships necessary to sustain the results I wanted. Not being accountable for the impact I had on others created blind spots that made me less approachable and more disconnected from my people. I established a sub-optimally motivated, compliance-exclusive work environment where people did only what they were told to do.

I learned early in my US Navy career that, at the end of the day, what mattered were results. I believed if feelings were important, they would have been issued to us in our seabags. I thought my job as a leader was to give my folks clear expectations for performance, train them to do their jobs better than anyone else, and bring them back home safely. I had a laser focus on results but was tone deaf around relationships. What I did not understand then was that results move at the speed of relationships—and relationships move at the speed of trust.

I was promoted early and quickly due to my results-exclusive mindset and skillset. I was good at getting the compliance necessary for results. I also became very good at exit interviews and new hire training. I believed I had a good heart and was committed to helping my people be successful. But I eventually found myself in a position where my career stalled and my marriage failed.

A key part of my leadership strategy was the use of checklists. I had checklists telling people which checklists to use. This system worked well on a submarine, where I was responsible for bringing the crew home safely—but of course, that didn’t justify the poor way I was treating my people. I later learned the net result of my overreliance on checklists was that my crew members felt I did not trust them.

My journey into toxic leadership culminated on April 13, 1990. My checklist system had been so successful at work that I was using it at home regularly. My wife and I had planned a family vacation and I called to ask about her progress on a new checklist I had given her. She went through the list with me and, ever the micromanager, I quickly pointed out two items she had missed.

She was silent for a bit. Then she said, “Let's talk about this later.”

The tone in her voice was disconcerting but also familiar. It was familiar because I had encountered it on a daily basis from people in the workplace, where I had actually become desensitized to it.

I arrived home to an empty house. After much fear and worry I was able to locate my spouse, who was with the kids at her parents’ house. To make a long story short, she no longer believed I trusted her.  

There lies the bitter truth about my checklists: I didn’t trust people—my crew members or even my wife—and I wanted to control their success.

I did much thinking that evening and wrote down four questions I wanted to ask my wife. As I read over the questions, I noticed they were similar to those I would ask a sailor who had put in a request for a transfer. I realized in that moment that the best I had to offer the love of my life was an exit interview.

Fortunately, I had enough self-awareness to recognize what I was doing. It was my first epiphany: I was the source of my problems.

Lessons Learned

My marriage was over; an undeniable casualty of my toxic leadership style. For the next nine months, I was in a desperate fight to understand myself as a leader. I was determined to change my behaviors and increase the positive impact of my intentions. I committed myself to doing two things: catching people doing something right and listening in a way that made people feel heard.

At the end of this period, I no longer had people requesting transfers from me. In fact, I actually had one person request to work with me. I thought that was good sign I was on the right track. My work continued.

Many managers fight with tendencies of toxic leadership. Statistics prove it. Here are the lessons I have learned about toxic leadership—and myself—on my continuous journey toward healing.

Toxic Leaders Are Self-Focused, Not Others-Focused

Toxic leaders are far more self-focused than others-focused.

Here’s one way to get perspective on your life. Imagine I asked you to recover a drone video of your last week. What behaviors did you display? Would the footage show that you were completely focused on results? What did you do to build trust intentionally? Are people becoming more dependent or less dependent on you for answers?

Toxic Leaders Don’t Help, They Fix

Toxic leaders tend to fix more than help. They don't understand the distinction between the two:

  • Fixing problems makes people dependent on you.
  • Helping people empowers them to help themselves.

Being a problem solver can be intoxicating and addictive. It can make you feel indispensable, which inflates the ego and makes you even more self-focused.

You know you are becoming toxic when you start feeling good about your fingerprints being on everything and people coming to you for every decision. You may even wonder “Why does everyone come to me for help?” It’s because you fix their problems for them instead of teaching them how to do it themselves.

You can have a good heart and still be a toxic leader. A key question I have learned to ask myself after each development meeting with someone is “Is this person more or less dependent on me now?” If I don’t know the answer, or if they are not less dependent, I know I’ve missed the opportunity to help.

Toxic Leaders Are Focused Only on Results

Toxic leaders are results-only focused. If they care about relationships at all, it is to serve this end. Servant leadership, which is the opposite of toxic leadership, always considers both results and relationships.

Being exclusively results-oriented can lead to destructive and unethical behavior. At worst, toxic leaders can damage corporate cultures for personal gain. If you aren’t self-aware or surrounded by people of conscience, it is possible to deceive yourself to the point of destruction. Keep in mind that results move at the speed of relationships and relationships move at the speed of trust.

Toxic Leaders Give Feedback Only When Things Go Wrong

Toxic leaders rarely give positive feedback. When they do give feedback, they tend to do it when something is going wrong. They redirect often and praise seldom. Toxic leaders also forget that the ideal praise-to-redirect ratio is a minimum of five to one—you should praise someone five times more often than you redirect them if you wish to keep them engaged and productive. As for the antidote, Ken Blanchard says “Catch people doing things right.”

Toxic Leaders Create a Low-Trust Environment

Toxic leaders create a low-trust environment where there is high compliance and low commitment. They constantly force their people to comply. A warning sign you have such an environment is when people call you often about things that shouldn't be going wrong. Authority is a poor substitute for leadership.

Believe that your people have positive intentions. Create an environment where they can safely approach you. Your people need to have a sense of well-being and emotional safety so they can tell you what they need from you to do the work you are asking them to do. As long as they want to develop, be their partner in good work. Stop talking to people and instead talk with them. Make time for their agenda. Discuss what is going well, what they are learning, and what they believe needs to change. Listen in ways that make people feel heard.

Toxic Leadership Happens Over Time

There's a compromise of values that happens in toxic leadership. It is not a conscious decision, but a slow creation of habits and behaviors—a form of entropy, if you will. This happens because you are not focused on your people beyond results and the impact of your actions on them. Instead, you are focused on how their behaviors impact you.

Toxicity happens over time. Gradually, you use your relationship compass less and less. It is a slow and certain destruction of your character.

A Turnaround to Servant Leadership

I am now an authentic servant leader—Bob 2.0, I like to say. I state this with humility and self-awareness. Servant leadership is the opposite of toxic leadership and is a daily discipline. In this new chapter of my life I have a job I love, I’ve remarried, and I am committed to never repeating my toxic ways. Every day I must choose to do the right thing. I stay focused on others instead of myself and ensure that I remain aware of what we are doing and how we are doing with each other. If I catch myself lapsing into old patterns, I quickly correct them.

Our daily lives are the proving ground for our intentions. We are always leading by example. The only choice we have is what that example will be.

About the Author

Bob Freytag

Bob Freytag is a Senior Consulting Partner for Blanchard® with more than 25 years of training and consulting experience in the military, government agencies, and a wide variety of private-sector industries. Bob supports organizations in creating a high-performance and values-aligned culture through leadership development, organizational development, and culture change process consulting.

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