Toxic Leadership

lead with people Nov 13, 2023
Lead with People, Not at Them




What in the world does it mean to “lead with people and not at them”?

That is a great question.

You may have already asked yourself this question as you read the title, and now you’re trying to put together some ideas of your own on what it means to lead with people, not at them.

So what’s coming to mind? Have you thought of a leader that exemplifies either leading with or at people? Are any ideas pop up?

Dr. John Maxwell defines leadership as influence.

Seems simple enough. I have quoted that thousands of times as a communicator. But I keep quoting it because he’s right. If you have influence, you’re a leader. Yet, for numerous reasons, many of us don't feel like we're leaders.

The reality is that few of us associate our lives with the word "leader." I hear this all the time. People tell me things like, "I'm not in charge of anything, so I’m not a leader." Or how about this one, “My decisions don’t influence the company's decisions, so I’m not a leader.” Here’s another popular one, “I don’t speak in front of anyone, so I’m not a leader.” Or lastly, “I don’t feel like a leader.”

After leading for more than 27 years, my leadership paradigm really comes down to this simple phrase:

Lead with people, not at them.

For years, I sat under leaders whom I perceived as leading “at” people. Does that make sense to you? When I think of leaders who lead “at” people, I think of things like these:

They made sure everyone knew where they sat on the organizational chart; they talked down to the people they led; they led through fear and control; they made it abundantly clear that we were there to help them succeed; they didn’t really value health. I think this is perhaps why so many people don’t consider themselves to be leaders. They've seen firsthand many leaders treat others so poorly that they had to make sure they weren’t associated with that kind of leadership.

I think this is an old-school worldview of leadership.




The old paradigm of leadership is a gigantic wrestle and competition to have your voice be the loudest and then, when it is, your decisions dictate the overall direction of where everyone is going. Then you lead from fear and control in an extremely authoritative manner to remind people that they are below you and your decisions and opinions are ultimately what matters most. And then, lastly, as you ascend to the top of the org chart or the pyramid, you keep everyone below you by reminding them what could happen to them if they don’t fall in line.

When this happens, the culture of the organization is very dark and toxic. The culture is one where questions are not welcomed, and if they are brought up or if ideas are discussed in an appropriate way, they are seen as blocking the leader's overall direction.

I’ll never forget my first taste of this style of leadership.

I worked in a restaurant and quickly found out the hard way not to ask any ‘dumb’ questions. I was the ripe old age of 19, and our restaurant had just hired a new chef. We loved the old chef. He was personable, took time to learn our stories, and made himself available when we had questions. He was always playing music and having fun. He set the tone for the entire restaurant.

We loved coming to work and would linger around after our shifts. Not only that, our restaurant was one of the most productive in the region. Then our chef left and with him leaving, so many things changed.

The new chef seemed really great and we tried to not compare all that much. But, things started coming off the rails quickly. Our first dinner rush (a dinner rush is when a restaurant is overwhelmed with people) was a complete mess.

Because our team had worked closely together for the last few years, we started doing the things we knew to do during a dinner rush. We helped each other out, communicated, and had fun. Even though the restaurant was packed and the orders were lined up, we were having fun and doing a great job to cook amazing food in the right amount of time.

This was not acceptable for the new chef. He turned off the music. He never smiled. He barked orders. And then he wanted everything to go through him, instead of through each area of the line. And to make matters worse, he wanted each of us to talk to him first instead of to each other. It was horrible.

That first dinner rush went awfully! Before he retreated to his office, he berated everyone on the line. He told us that he had never seen such lazy employees and if this happened again, there would be changes made. He left and everyone just went quiet for a solid minute and then we all erupted with complaints.

What changed? Why were we so incredibly efficient and now just had the worst night ever?

The leadership changed.




Instead of the new chef leading with his team, he led “at” them. Here are some of the primary characteristics of leading “at” people. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it will give you tangible items to look out for when leading.

Characteristics of Leading AT People:

  • You’re unhealthy and haven’t placed a high value on taking care of yourself. This is a complete must as a leader. If you’re not healthy on the inside and out, your leadership will reek of toxicity.
  • You’re warm and friendly in public but incredibly harsh, demeaning, and overpowering in private. Your private and public persona don’t match up. A leader who isn’t the same person behind closed doors is walking a very bad tightrope.
  • You hardly go with your team's ideas. And if you do, you always have to put your spin on it. There is nothing wrong with making an idea better and more effective. But if you never let your team feel a win by letting them lead, this is toxic.
  • You do much more speaking to your team than you do listening. At Speak with People, we teach the 20/80 rule when it comes to our interpersonal relationships. Ask amazing questions 20% of the time, and then sit back and listen for the other 80%. For most toxic leaders, this equation is reversed.

Relying on these toxic leadership characteristics will ruin you and your leadership, not to mention your team! Our new chef relied heavily on many of these, among many others that I didn’t list. Don’t make the same mistake.

Leadership is changing. Our world is rapidly evolving, and many leaders are realizing that success transcends traditional models of authority and control. For far too long, leaders have led from a place of fear and manipulation instead of authenticity and trust.

When you lead with people, you lead with authenticity that will resonate with people on a profound level. It is time to listen to leaders like Simon Sinek when he said:

“Leadership is a choice, it is not a rank. Many people at the senior-most level who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities. And we do what they say because they have authority, but we would not follow them. And there are people at the bottom of many organizations who have no authority. And they are absolutely leaders. This is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them and to the right of them. This is what a leader is.”


By Jason Raitz - President, Speak with People

Jason has been in leadership rolls for over 27 years. He has run both non-profit and for-profit organizations. Jason is passionate about leading in a way that breathes life into his team.