Abrasive Leadership

Article by Steve Harvey, Associate Impromptu

Not so long ago I was working with a senior manager who recounted a recent example of a meeting with a director from their business, not the person’s direct manager, but someone they had occasional reason to interact with in relation to a business transformation project. What the manager described was shocking, behaviour that seemed to me to have no place in a business environment, in any environment. The director was, and I have no reason to doubt the veracity of my coachee, belittling, rude, dismissive, controlling and diminishing.

In our session, my coachee wanted to prepare for the impending next conversation with the director, to learn how to regulate feelings, to develop strategies for responding with authority and presence, in short to maintain dignity. As we practiced, I could sense the emotion rising up in the manager, feel the re-emergence of their trauma, connect with the panic as they desperately endeavoured to cling onto a semblance of self-respect.

Alongside deep concern for my coachee, I was troubled by an insistent thought; I’m coaching the wrong person.

It is a thought that has been with me throughout my career in leadership development. All too often I hear stories, like the one above, of bullying, possibly abusive behaviour from managers, often very senior managers. Frequently, I hear participants say, why aren’t the executive team on this programme, that is where the culture is shaped, that is where the ‘problem’ begins. Why isn’t my boss on this programme, s/he is the one who needs this most?

I’ve been connecting recently with a fellow coach, Sue Mann from Sansu Rising, who specialises in coaching what she terms ‘abrasive leaders’, the type of leader who serially make others’ lives a misery, whose dominant, dominating and parental approach injects fear into the very hearts of everyone they encounter. I share with Sue a belief that there are many myths and paradoxes surrounding these people. A mythology that promotes the idea that the behaviours of abrasive leaders are deliberate, conscious, and unchangeable, that they intentionally desire to control or humiliate others, that their borderline psychopathic behaviour, in the worst extremes, is born of self-serving, politically motivated, career-oriented malevolence.

The reality? In my experience – and there may be a handful at the far end of the continuum who fit that mythical representation – is that they are most typically unconscious, unwitting, and unaware of the devastation they leave in their wake, and that various paradoxes and conundrums serve to reinforce this tapestry of ignorance. As a consequence of their very nature, the abrasive leaders are seldom tackled. Indeed, their driven and purposeful disposition is, all too often, inadvertently reinforced. They are rewarded for delivering results, promoted as a gratitude for their significant role in creating organisational success, moved into a leadership role as a consequence of technical achievement, and excused of their “idiosyncrasies” because the risk of negative outcomes from antagonising them is too great.

So, we end up, where we started, with the ‘target’ (as my colleague Sue defines the recipient of abrasive leaders’ oppressive attentions) locked in a persecutor-victim dance, one where the victim always comes off second best, left struggling to gain self-composure, all too often blaming themselves for lacking the skill, courage, resilience or confidence to endure.

In writing this article, I speak to all of us, victims, persecutors and potential rescuers to challenge this inimical status quo. Perhaps, above all, I am reaching out to those would-be enablers – to us as leadership coaches, to those in positions of power or influence, who justify by exception, or maybe even turn a blind eye – to commit to challenging, to confronting to converting those three drama triangle roles (victim, persecutor, rescuer) into creators, challengers and coaches, to ending the cultural toxicity these leadership behaviours generate, not just because the transformational organisational prescription demands it, but, quite simply, because it is the right thing to do.

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt