Ditch Your Toxic Leadership Style: Get Vulnerable

“How would I describe working for you, Nick? It’s like standing next to the back legs of a horse all day: exciting but mildly terrifying.”

A few years back, one of my employees, Rich, said this to me at the office. We were in a meeting at the time and I thought it was hilarious to be described like that. I was even proud because that was what I was aiming for – or at least, it was all I knew.

I look at his description of my leadership style now and yes, I can see it’s funny… but I am mortified. The past is never pretty when you’re sifting through it and reflecting on your mistakes (or ‘leveraging free business training’, as I call it). Especially when it comes to leadership.

Being bullet-proof isn’t brave – it’s unsustainable

No matter how good a leader you think you are, your style is a result of your experience, influences and environment. The trick is to maintain a positive, consistent, evolving approach in light of those three factors and not to use them as resting blocks or excuses for how you go about things – because when you do that, you take yourself out of ‘positively vulnerable’ mode and become the ‘bullet-proof boss’ that everyone hates and fears.

As vulnerability coach Brené Brown puts it: “When we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort. We can’t have both; not at the same time.”

Back then, I was trying to straddle courage AND comfort; I was attempting to be both brave AND bullet-proof. And my way to drive the business forward that also protected me from vulnerability was to drive my teams into the ground. I was a typical ball-buster: obsessed with success and determined to be the highest monkey in the tree. The perfect example of a toxic leader.

Being respected and being feared aren’t the same thing

At that point in my journey (the ‘back legs of a horse’ moment was the halfway mark; around Year 8), my style was 100 percent tapped into the worst parts of my personality. I’d lay down what I need to the managers, for example, and then I’d leave the room and leave them in a puzzled, paranoid state. A classic ‘hand grenade’, with added: “You can’t do it?! I’ll do it then!” Not so much a motivational pep talk, more a hostage situation.

“This is who I am and this is how I lead,” was my war-cry. Essentially, I was a dangerous ego. In alphabetical order, I was: charismatic, deliberately confusing (to keep people on their toes), demanding, high-energy, intimidating, manipulative, results-driven, unreasonable, unsupportive… and I was stapled to the mast of ‘get in early; stay late’, ‘you’re lucky to have a job, mate’ culture.

It was all: “Failure is not an option. We’ll die trying. Early is on time, on time is late. Make it happen.” Gah. Even as this wild-man ran riot running the show, the company saw results. Big ones. Huge financial leaps. The big blank banking institutions loved it.

“Keep going!” They’d say. “Keep going! Whatever you’re doing, it works: keep going!”

And that’s all the incentive some of us need not to change. It’s all I needed, despite leaving a clear wake of wrecked line managers and employees. I had no incentive to alter my leadership style. Why would I? The business was doing great. Stressed staff? I’d avoid ’em. Don’t ask how they’re feeling! Get in and out quick before someone puts their hand up and says: “Help me, I’m drowning”. Tell them what to do, but not how to do it: “No questions please, I’m busy AF!” My attitude was all fostered around: “I’ll show ’em!”

But who were ‘they’? These people I was determined to ‘show’? Everyone, I guess, ha-ha. And what was I going to show them, exactly? Who knows – but that was the persona I manifested to deliver an annual 12-million quid forecast and budget, dragging 50-plus employees along with me. Year in, year out.

Being vulnerable is the strongest long-game

I can only write this (and right this) with any dignity because change has been a vital part of my journey as a leader. I’ve left behind behaviours I’d concocted in support of my misguided philosophy on success. So what happened? Why did I change?

I got tired, really tired. My obnoxious dictatorship took huge amounts of effort and energy. It was almost cartoonish. I had nothing left in the tank for my family and friends and no life outside of work. The cracks were beginning to show.

So I looked outward. I corrected my mistake of not engaging with my wider business community and I discovered that to take on different ideas, share experiences and deliver results in a dignified way was better for everyone. And once that penny dropped…

I asked for help. I checked in with my team and my peers on how I could deliver this new version of leadership (I was concerned they’d flip me off. But they were generous, clear and kind, thank goodness.)

I got myself a business coach.

Committing to being vulnerable and taking risks to improve myself ­– which became more rewarding than the risks I took to achieve huge monetary goals. I was humbled to see, over time, that this new attitude could bring the same results without wrecking everyone’s passion and intelligence along the road.

So to anyone reading this who worked with me back in the day: a thousand thanks for the patience – and the free business training.