Positive Leadership in a Toxic Organization

Individuals often describe working in toxic contexts.  In these discouraging contexts some, nevertheless, maintain an internal commitment to become a positive leader.  Each time I listen to such a story, I am impressed with these individuals’ grit.  Recently I met a man who was a prime example; he wrote the following:

Over the past almost 18 years with my current employer, the majority of our management and leadership experiences have been negative.  The best leader I have had was my first one.  She has become a dear friend.  I started to quit twice and had job offers twice to leave in the first 18 months on the job.  However, she encouraged me to stay.  She told me that she saw talents and abilities in me, and that if I stayed that I could contribute to the organization in ways that I could not see at that time.

Her belief in me gave me the courage to pursue my first leadership opportunity.  Unfortunately, the majority of my supervisors since then have had leadership styles that could be best described as intimidating, bullying, passive aggressive, disconnected and micromanaging.  Because of mistakes from above, I worked for 12 hours a day for a long time and received only criticism.  I take needed initiatives and I am told, by people who have no awareness of the context, that the initiatives are inappropriate.  My boss often ignores me and my people, even in passing in the hall.  Another was so abusive that two of my people quit.  At one point I was working at home at night because two family members had medical problems.  I was told not to blur the lines between work and home.  The list goes on.

These experiences were and still are incongruent with my vision and style of management and leadership.  During the 10 years I have been in formal leadership roles, I have tried to provide encouraging, supportive, and instructive work environments.  I have spent time getting to know people on a personal and professional level.  I tried to focus on their strengths versus their weaknesses yet still tried to help them improve.  I attempted each day to treat them the way I wanted to be treated, and this style of leadership led to success in the workplace as well as many long-term relationships inside and outside of work.  Also, because of my negative experiences, I have tried to take advantage of my current and past roles to mentor and assist new managers as they navigate the challenges and pitfalls of their new responsibilities.  Many of them have faced similar leadership challenges like mine.

About two years ago I heard of the heliotropic effect.  The term caught my attention as I had never heard it before so I googled it.  I came across the name of Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and their Center for Positive Organizations.  This led me to reaching out to him via email, and he encouraged me to not give up and to use the resources available through the Center.

Since then, I have followed broadcasts of guest speakers at the Center for Positive Business, read one of Kim’s books on positive leadership, and completed the Reflected Best Self Assessment.  I have shared content about positive workplace practices that I learned with some of the managers in our various field offices across the nation.

I asked for two years in a row for the support of my employer to attend the Positive Business Conference, but they refused.  I finally paid for the conference myself this year and traveled to Michigan at the encouragement of my wife and daughter.  I wanted to attend a conference because I wanted to meet like-minded people who want to create positive workplaces and to learn practices that I could take back and try to use in my workplace and improve myself.



  • When authority figures become “intimidating, bullying, passive aggressive, disconnected, and micromanaging,” what kind of culture emerges and how does performance change?
  • In a very negative culture, people tend to become negative. Yet the above man describes how he has chosen to lead over the last 10 years.  What do we learn from his example?
  • He says he paid his own way to the Positive Business Conference “because I wanted to meet like-minded people who want to create positive workplaces and to learn practices that I could take back and try to use in my workplace and improve myself.” What might we learn from this?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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