Abusive Leaders and the National Headlines

Abusive Leaders and the National Headlines

Abusive Leaders and The Deafening Sounds of Silence


There’s a jagged headline that will scrape across the public conscience sometime over the next few days. It’s as predictable as the next senseless armed robbery or drunken driver arrest.


Somewhere a person in a position of influence will be called out for inappropriate behavior directed toward either a co-worker/subordinate or someone whose station in life made them vulnerable. It might be a politician, media darling, or Hollywood mogul but you can take it to the bank – more sordid stories are on the way.


A reminder that Lord Acton’s 19th century admonition remains just as true today. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


What’s interesting is the shock and outrage of those who seem to really believe this is something new. If history teaches us anything it’s that it repeats itself. The real question is whether we begin to learn from the lessons offered.


I invest a lot of time talking about helping others build a career of significance in my book The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career – and I have no problem in calling out the reality of leaders intoxicated by their own reflections.


Learning how to deal with them is another matter. Four things I would suggest any person serious about building a truly successful career remain very mindful of.


  • Self-indulgent and self-absorbed leaders are out there – and sooner or later in your career you will come in contact with one. Count on it. They may never rise to the level of some of today’s headline makers – but they will use power to bully, harass, or take advantage of others.


  • The tyrants will surround themselves with a circle of colleagues who help them gain power. I titled one of the chapters of my book The Dance of the Toadies for a reason. That’s my own appellation for the sycophants that every Tyrant feeds on – and in every career there will be a lengthy list of candidates more than willing to sacrifice values and principles to gain favor with the boss.


  • Full abuse of power seldom takes place overnight – instead it grows in stages as the abusive leader tests his or her ability to bully and oppress.


  • Abusers grow strong when the light isn’t cast on them but instead on others. In corporations we see this everyday – the pressure placed on underlings to perform their job and to please the boss blurs the reality of supervisor toxicity – sometimes making the abnormal seem normal.


The Sounds of Silence


Are there unhinged leaders who suddenly begin to abuse because they can? Yes – and everyday. But in many companies and in many careers there is an equal culpability – and it carries back to the system of checks and balances that are – or are not – in place.


The real question is this – what’s our responsibility when we see abusive leaders at work?


A Few Straight Talk Points:


  • The victim is often the least likely to call out the inappropriate behavior. That’s not surprising – the persecuted party is struggling with a situation that overwhelms – and often is in fear for their job, their future, and their safety.
  • Someone knows what’s happening – as with the national stories – the list is usually a long one. The list of those who chose to speak up – often non-existent.
  • One objective, fair-minded individual can dramatically change the toxic arc of an abusive leader – but to do that isn’t easy. It requires the courage to say to a person in position of superiority, “No – this behavior is not acceptable and I will not tolerate it.” But having that conversation is next to impossible – which carries us to the next point.
  • Great companies create outlets/vehicles for employees to signal inappropriate behavior – that may be via Human Resources, the problem solving process, or other means but minus some vehicle for employee expression the reality is that tyrants are given the autonomy to grow.


Movements like “Me Too” can be powerful in initiating lasting change. When the weight of moral outrage overwhelms then we are that much closer to singling out chronic abusers – and eliminating the harmful behaviors of tyrants run amok.


The Genovese Syndrome is Alive and Well in our Careers


In the early morning hours of March 13th, 1964 a young lady named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in Queens, NY. The murder would become the subject of a national debate – primarily because some 3-dozen local residents were within earshot of the tragedy – and reportedly did nothing.


That phenomenon – referred to today as the Genovese Syndrome – exists in many companies and in many careers – the deafening silence of those who watch abuse and decide, “It’s not my responsibility.”


Yes, watch for the headlines to come – but listen for the grudging admissions of those who freely admit they knew what was happening but chose to do nothing.


Somewhere in some company there is a potential tyrant waiting for his or her chance to grow strong. Here’s hoping that Me Too someday speaks to the proactive assembly of professionals committed to making sure they forever wait.


“Somebody had to do something and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it had to be us.” – Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead)




Tim Cole is the Founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance. His book, The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career is an Amazon Best Seller and offers practical direction to both senior leaders and employees on how to cultivate a rich culture – and ensure a significant work experience. You can learn more at www.thecompassalliance.com or follow Tim @officialtimcole




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