9th July, 2024

Are You an Accidental Toxic Leader?

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

Listen to this episode

On this episode

Some of us are guilty of practicing toxic leadership, without even knowing it. This isn’t the overt, aggressive bullying we often associate with poor management, but something more subtle and more insidious.

When we’re in hero mode, we’re constantly stepping in, solving problems, and rescuing our team members. It feels good – we’re the saviours, the ones who keep things running. But this form of leadership is dangerous. It creates dependencies in others, stifles their growth, and can lead to our own burnout.

But there’s a way we can step back, listen, and support our team in solving their own problems. We don’t have to have all the answers, but by allowing our team members to take ownership and find their own solutions, we can promote growth and build a healthier team dynamic where everyone feels empowered.

If we’re the only ones who can solve problems, what happens if we’re not there? The team becomes dependent on us, which is detrimental to the overall performance and health of the organisation. So the next time a team member comes to us with a problem, we need to resist the urge to immediately jump in and solve it, and instead take a coaching approach.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  • To understand why taking on too much responsibility for others can be a form of toxic leadership
  • To learn how to identify when you’re falling into the trap of heroing and how to stop doing it
  • To discover how to shift your mindset to a coaching approach, empowering others to solve their own problems

Episode highlights


Hero vs bully


Unconscious leadership


What are you responsible for?


Leading by standing back


The drama triangle


When we stop rescuing


Notice when you’re in the triangle


Take a coaching approach


Take a coaching approach


Wrapping up


Your next step


Pitfalls to watch out for

Episode transcript

[00:00:00] Rachel: Last year for my husband’s 50th birthday, we went away to Bali as a family, which was an incredibly long plane ride. On the plane, I was introduced to the program Succession, which I’m sure. Let’s have, you will have watched. And for those of you that don’t know Succession. It’s all about a family. It’s based on sort of a big media mogul family. And they are all vying to see who is going to succeed their father in leading the company. And head of the family is Logan Roy, a really horrible man, a toxic leader. He goes around telling everybody just to fuck off the whole time. His family are awful. He’s surrounded himself by people who are, backbiters, not even nice your face. He’s a bully. He’s horrible. He even punches people. I mean, there is nothing good about him, but he is a strong leader.

[00:00:57] And if you said to me last year, Describe what the most toxic leader you’ve ever met. Looks like I’d have said it looks like Logan Roy. And those types of really toxic leaders are really easy to spot aren’t they? Everybody’s fighting them. Everyone knows they’re a bully. They can sometimes be quite effective in the short-term unfortunately, but we avoid them like the plague. They are people we do not want to be like. But recently I’ve come across another form of leadership. And this other form of leadership is a much bigger problem than the really obvious toxic leadership that we said programs like Succession.

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[00:02:03] The source of toxic leadership I’m talking about is heroing, and I believe it’s much, much more dangerous than the bullying leadership of Logan Roy. Why? Because it’s much more prevalent. You see, the problem is when we’re heroing, we feel really virtuous. We feel like we’re the good guys, we’re coming to save the day and what small other people expect of us. And so when we’re heroes, we get a lot of accolade. People love us and let’s face it. He doesn’t love to be loved?

[00:02:34] In our society, the people that are virtuous, the heroes, they get the status. They’re the people that people talk about in, in hushed tones and say how wonderful they are. We trained to be heroes, particularly in medicine, we’re trained to fix it for people quite literally sweep in, you know, when you go into the ED and you see people being resuscitated, that’s all we do. We sweep and we rescue people. We fix it. And patients come to us, ask for solutions. We give them, we sort things out for people. We are total heroes. And so it becomes part of us. It becomes part of how we operate. The heroing is dangerous because on the surface, it looks very good. It’s totally sugarcoated. We love to do it. It makes us feel good.

[00:03:17] We all know about horrible poisons, like nerve agents, for example, that are used and kill you incredibly quickly. But what about those other toxins in the environment that are killing far more people, but we don’t know about them? They’re not as potent, but they really, really prevalent. I think heroing is like that. You can have a very awful aggressive bullying leader, but you know about them, people know to avoid them. But when we’ve got this prevalent heroing that we’re all taking part in, it’s much more dangerous because it’s more common.

[00:03:51] And another reason why it’s really dangerous. We don’t realize we’re doing it. We’re totally unconscious to it, probably because it’s been our modus operandi for years and years and years. It’s been role modeled to us by our parents, by our teachers, and we just expect it of ourselves. Now while I’m sure lots of you are thinking, well, why on earth, Rachel, are you saying that heroing is more toxic than horrible, aggressive bullying? Well, here’s why. And this stopped me in my tracks when I came across it in the book, it’s a quote from the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jen Dethmer and Carol Chapman. I absolutely loved this book and I would encourage any of you who are leading teams, supervising anybody to get this and read this book. It’s been one of those books that genuinely has changed my life.

[00:04:36] Anyway, very early on. And one of the chapters, they say we believe that heroing is a primary form of unconscious leadership. It is toxic because it often needs to burn out, supports others in taking less than their full responsibility, brackets being victims, so it supports other people to be victims, and rewards behaviors. That ultimately lead individual and team breakdown.

[00:05:03] Because as a leader, what should our job be? Should it be to keep everyone in a victim position where we’re doing everything or should it be to develop other people? Well, I can tell you that if you’re heroing, you are not developing anybody else. You are rescuing them and fixing it. And then what happens is it just keeps people stuck. Keeps people stuck where they are just going about their job.

[00:05:27] Now they might quite like being stuck on the surface because being stuck is comfortable, you know, where you are, it’s not particularly challenging. But long-term, where’s the growth for them? Where’s the development? You’re keeping people stuck, so you’re not making yourself irreplaceable. So what happens if you go under a bus, or you want to change your role, or you become sick? You know, we don’t think about this. We like to be irreplaceable. We like to know that we’re really, really important, but that is no good for an organization. So if you’re not developing other people, if you’re not teaching them how to do the job, if you’re not empowering them to take control, you’re just breeding a load of victims. And what’s do victims exhibit? Victims exhibit victim-like behavior. And what is victim-like behavior? Well, we’ve all done it, haven’t we? Victim-like behavior is thinking, oh, nothing ever goes my way. I have absolutely no control of this situation. Someone needs to help me. I need to be rescued here. Uh, they shouldn’t be doing this to me. How dare they? And I can’t possibly change this unless somebody else changes or somebody else does something for me. When you’ve got a team full of victims, that is where stress and burnout occurs. Not just in the leaders, but also in the victims themselves, because being in a situation where you feel powerless is a very stressful place to be.

[00:06:48] As we talk about what the zone of power in healthcare, we often take a lot of responsibility for stuff that is outside our control, and we don’t take enough responsibility for the stuff that is in our control. So when we’re heroing, we’re doing just that we’re taking responsibility for everybody else’s stuff that we can’t actually control.

[00:07:08] And this reminds me of the sessions that I do for trainers and mentors. And I remember doing one particular session with a bunch of GP trainers, and I always start the session by saying to them What do you feel responsible for in your role as a trainer? And they came out with all these things that they felt responsible for. If the trainee passes their exams, the trainee’s wellbeing, their health, if they have a good training experience in the practice, whether they are clinically safe, what they’re learning, all these different things that I’m sure you’re listening to this thinking. Well, yeah. Yeah. The trainer is responsible for that. if you think about it, how can they possibly be? How can the trainer possibly be responsible for the health of their trainees when there are so many other things that influence, which are well out the trainer’s control? How can the trainer be responsible for if the trainee passes their exams or not when they have no control over how hard the train is going to work, what sort of learning style, they have, all the other experiences that the trainees has been having throughout my medical career, let alone what’s going on for the prod trainee in their home life?

[00:08:17] The trainee can’t possibly be in control of that. In fact, the only thing that trainer is in control of is. The learning environment that they are setting up, the teaching that they give, how they organize the rates, how they responding, all that sort of thing. So there were even trainers that said to me, Well, you know, I feel very responsible for if the trainee hands in their portfolio or not on time. Even if I’ve reminded them a hundred times, if they had an inlay, I just have to work on my day off and sorted out. Again, heroing and rescuing.

[00:08:44] And these trainees, they’re doctors they’re professionals, they’re very bright, intelligent people who are quite able to take control of them, finishing their work on time and handing it in. But while the trainers are taking all the responsibility for their work, while the train is taking all the responsibility for if they get their portfolio in on time, then the trainee, they have no need to do it themselves. They have no need to actually take responsibility, make an effort, organize that time. So you’re teaching people to be dependent. What you tolerate, you will teach.

[00:09:21] remember a few weeks ago I needed something urgently changing and one of the things that we were putting out and I’d let it till the last minute, I emailed the person said, please, can you just change this today? And they emailed back and said, sorry, no, I can’t, I don’t have time. You needed to have got this to me a lot sooner now, you know what? I get that thing into them earlier now, I’ve learned my lesson. But while we’re constantly heroing and rescuing, nobody gets to learn from their mistakes, nobody lends any lessons. And unless we make mistakes, which have an impact on us, we don’t learn either. So rescuing people from the consequences of their actions doesn’t help at all, does it?

[00:10:00] Now, my daughter, she’s 14. She loves to bake. And she’s got really, really good at baking. And one of her speciality is these wonderful little macaroons. Now she must have made 20 batches of macaroons, half of them didn’t work. Now imagine I was brilliant at making macaroons and I said to her, Right, I’m going to get all the ingredients out and put them in bowls for you. I just want you to mix ingredients. And I’m going to pipe them out for you. Um, I’m going to hold your hand so that you do it. And so it’s got to be perfect first time. And I never let her have those batches where she failed because she used the dirty bowl or the eggs were too old or something like that. She would never have learned. Now she’s learned, she’s making them brilliantly.

[00:10:44] But while we rescue people, we just don’t give them a chance to grow and develop, and also we don’t give them a chance to solve their own problems. So they don’t start to exercise that muscle in their mind. They don’t start to explore opportunities and work out how on earth they can make things happen for themselves. So what you tolerate, you teach, and you will create a culture of dependency on you, and a culture where people don’t own their own stuff and constantly look to you.

[00:11:13] You will end up knackered because the more you rescue people, the more they’ll expect it, the more they’ll delegate their stuff to you and you will just get on and do it. And you’ll eventually start to feel resentful. And you suddenly think, well, hang on a sec, I’m just doing so much more than everybody else. You then start to see your team, not as victims, but as persecutors. And that’s when you’re in the drama triangle. Now, I’ve talked about the drama triangle a lot on this podcast. It’s one of my favorite shapes and it’s a tool that I use all the time and believe me, I need this in my own life. But the drama triangle simply describes the dance that we get into between victim, rescuer, and persecutor, where the victim is totally helpless, where the rescuer is a total hero and saves the victim, and then you’ve got the evil persecutor that’s just making life really, really difficult for everybody else.

[00:12:06] And the problem with the drama triangle is you can’t escape it, you just end up moving round. So when you’ve been rescuing too much, you end up fitting like the victim, they end up being a persecutor to you, and then when you can’t help them anymore, they won’t see you as this rescue anymore, they’ll see you as the persecutor. So they’ve ended up as victim, you’ve ended up as a Vixen. In the drama triangle, most of you end up at the bottom as a victim.

[00:12:31] Now,, if you get this right, you will get an empowered, happy, healthy, thriving team, but it takes work. You as a leader will be freed up to work in your own sign of genius, rather than having to see everybody else’s job for them. You won’t spend your entire day giving other people advice and you won’t feel so guilty about not being able to fix it for everybody. Because let’s face it. Most of the time we can’t fix it for people. We just can’t. They come and ask us stuff, but we don’t know the context.

[00:13:03] If you get back to those GP trainers, if the trainee isn’t having a great time in their practice, they probably can’t fix that, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s out of their control and they don’t know what the context is. It might be with relationships with other people that they can’t do anything about, and it might be entirely to do with something. Outside of work as well.

[00:13:26] If we stop rescuing, the other thing we will get is diversity of thought within our team, because if we’re constantly the one giving the advice, telling people what to do, sorting stuff out, we then don’t get to see how other people would do it, how other people solve stuff. And often other people come at things from a completely different angle. Often much better, even though it was how he might think, Oh, hang on, that’s not the way I would do it.

[00:13:49] So heroing or rescuing is the most dangerous form of toxic leadership. And how do we identify this And how do we stop doing it? And that’s the question everybody else’s question I’m quite obsessed with at the moment. Well, firstly, recognizing when you’re doing it.

[00:14:04] So I can be stuck in a situation where I’m feeling a bit resentful to other people or I’m feeling like, why do I have to do this all the time or thinking to myself, well, I just got to do it because if I don’t do it, who else is going to do it? If you find yourself thinking any of those sorts of thoughts, you’re probably in the drama triangle, either as a rescuer thinking, well, if I don’t do it, who else is going to do it, or a victim, oh, you know, I have no choice in this, or even a persecutor, well, why can’t they just do their job? Often awareness is enough to change things just right there and then.

[00:14:36] Secondly, you need to see yourself differently. You are not the hero on this journey. You don’t have all the answers, and you are not the only one that can make stuff happen. Often somebody else can, and sometimes it just needs the knots happen. You often don’t know the answers. Now, you can support people to come up with their own answers. And that is a difference between being a rescuer and acting like a hero, and realizing that you’re not a hero and taking much more of a coaching approach. Now, you can go on coaching course, you can do Masters, you can do diplomas, you can do certificates in coaching, but it doesn’t take much to shift your mindset, to take the coaching approach. And that is simply supporting somebody else to solve their own problems, recognizing that you don’t know the answers, you can’t give them advice. The only person that can actually come up with an answer that will be right in their specific context is them.

[00:15:31] And how do you do this? Well, firstly, you listen. You listen really hard to understand, not just a reload of most of us do. Lovely book by Nancy Kline, which says the quality of my listening determines the quality of your thinking. So if you do nothing else, just listen to somebody. And then you can ask them a question at the end, such as what could you do about it? What could he do? Have you had any thoughts? So putting the ball firmly back in that park, giving them the choice and then the responsibility about taking action. Now, does this mean you never ever give them advice? No, of course not. But maybe ask them to come up with the answer first, not you.

[00:16:10] We did a podcast episode a while back now, it was all about how to get rid of your naughty monkeys. And I love this concept. There was a book written in the 1980s or 1990s called The one Minute Manager and The Naughty Monkeys and the concept with this, that for many managers, when people come to see them, they’ve got these naughty monkeys jumping around on their back. And what they want to do is just give them to their manager so the manager can sort them out. And this is very similar to when patients come to see us, isn’t it? And they’ve got their naughty monkeys and they just want us to make them go away. And this is what will happen with your team members because no one really wants to manage their own naughty monkeys, let’s face it. But as a manager, if you keep taking people’s naughty monkeys off them, if you keep taking other people’s problems off them, A you’ll become overwhelmed, B you can’t manage someone else’s monkey anyway, so you’ll just be ineffective. So your job in a coaching approach is to, yeah, take the monkeys, have a look at them from different angles, manage them a bit, but then give them back to the person so that they can take them away with them because you don’t want to be left with these naughty monkeys. Check out that episode. If you want to hear more, it’s a really great episode, and we’ll put the link in the show notes.

[00:17:20] So we need to see ourselves differently, not as the hero and switch our role to take a coaching approach. We also need to see our team differently.We need to think that they are not helpless. They actually have everything within them that they need to make a decision to take action. Bit like the theory of an oak tree. You know, an acorn has everything it needs to grow into an oak tree. It needs a bit of water and some soil. So you can facilitate that. You can help these people grow, but you’re not doing it for them. And that is really, really crucial. So you’re getting alongside them. You’re seeing them as activators, as people that can solve their problems. And you need to help them be proactive sometimes as well as giving them a boot up the arse, which is sometimes needed. You could use the same power, so ask them, Well, what is in your control? What could you do?

[00:18:07] And one of my favorite questions here is what advice would you give to somebody else in exactly the same situation as you? And you’ll be amazed at what people come up with. They’ll come up with a solution and then go, oh yeah, well, maybe I could do that, you’re right. And by the way, they’ll attribute you with all wisdom, which is quite a nice side effect of taking a coaching approach.

[00:18:26] So when we are engaging in toxic heroing leadership, we find ourselves in the drama triangle, in the rescuer position. That keeps everybody else in victim, and it also puts other people in the role of persecutor, which is generally not what they’re in. They’re just trying to go to work and do a good job. So everybody stay stuck, nobody can grow and develop, and you end up burnt out because you’re just trying to do everything for everybody. The only answer is to firstly, recognize where you are in that triangle, to change your approach from being a total hero to being a coach, someone who comes alongside and helps that person who was in the victim role solve their own problems, to help that person be more activator, by asking them questions by listening and by helping them solve their own problems.

[00:19:17] So very simply, next time someone comes and asks your advice, listen to them and before you give any advice to then just say to them, Well, what could you do about that? Have you had any ideas? See what they come up with. And if you start to do that, you’ll find that that’s what people expect from you.

[00:19:35] I had an old boss at Cambridge university when I was on faculty there teaching general practice and he used to take a catering approach. So we knew that whenever we went to ask him anything, the first thing he would ask us is what do you think? What have you tried already? What could you do? So we ended up knowing that there was no point in going to him, expecting him to take all our naughty monkeys unless we had first tried a whole load of stuff, and at least partially come up with a solution. He’d trained us to do that and it was really, really empowering, even though it was slightly frustrating at first. So train your teams, train your teams to solve their own problems by listening and asking them questions.

[00:20:14] Now, sometimes we do make mistakes in all of this. Sometimes people genuinely really need rescuing and need our help. That’s fine. I’m not saying don’t ever do that, but be careful about it. Choose your moments.

[00:20:26] The other thing we get wrong is mistaking when people come to us to ask for advice for thinking they need rescuing. So I remember when I was working as a GP, I would often ask my colleague, oh, can I have a second opinion? Just wondering about this. And he would then just take over and do everything. I didn’t want his help. I just wanted his thoughts and to sense check stuff. So sometimes we’re heroing and rescuing when it’s not even needed or wanted.

[00:20:52] And finally many rescuers inadvertently end up in that victim position when we start to feel sorry for ourselves. Oh, everyone expects me to be a hero. I have to solve it. There’s no one else to do it. Now, that is the most toxic form. It’s the savior complex. It helps nobody, and it keeps you stuck as well as everybody else.

[00:21:13] If you have been thinking recently, gosh, I am the only person that can do this, and you’re feeling overwhelmed and you just want to get your life back, then we do have a short 60 minute course, it’ll help you get over some of those stories that you’re telling yourself in your head, and get over that feeling of guilt and fear and shame that you can’t do everything for everybody, they check out the link in the show notes for that.

[00:21:36] So next time you find yourself giving advice or jumping in instead of letting somebody else do it for themselves, realize that you might accidentally be practicing toxic leadership.