The Emergence of Positive Leaders in Toxic Organizations


In recent times I have listened to a number of individuals describe working in extreme negative contexts.  In these discouraging contexts they, nevertheless, maintain an internal commitment to become a positive leader.  Despite continual mistreatment, they persist in being positive outliers.  Each time I listen to such a story, I am impressed with the grit displayed by the actor.  Recently I met a man who was a prime example.  He wrote the following account:

“Over the past almost 18 years with my current employer, the majority of our management and leadership experience has been quite negative.  The best manager and leader that I have had was the first one who also became a dear friend.  I started to quit twice and had job offers twice to leave in the first 18 months on the job.  However, my supervisor 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 after being with the organization only a couple of years.  Unfortunately, the majority of my supervisors since then have had management and leadership styles that could be best described as intimidating, bullying, passive aggressive, disconnected, and micromanaging.

I was told by one boss that I was being too nice and supportive to my employees.  She instructed me to delegate more of my responsibilities despite the fact that my team was understaffed by three employees and everyone was already covering for the missing staff.  During a management retreat, she agreed to an idea I developed, a concept to address some of my management challenges.  When I presented my final plan 90 days later, she asked me why I had developed the plan and told me it would never be approved.  She would often ignore me or any staff, even in situations as simple as passing us in the hallway.

Another boss yelled at me and humiliated me despite doing the job of two people and often working 10 to 12 hours a day five to six days a week after taking over a division that mismanaged for almost 15 years.  He also yelled and intimidated my staff and that eventually led to two of my staff resigning and two more retiring early.  In that same office, another supervisor suggested to me one day, after missing a couple internal deadlines by a few hours, to stop working from home at night and stay even longer at work so I did not blur the lines between work and home.  They gave me this advice knowing that my wife and seven-year old daughter were both ill and both required surgeries to correct their health conditions.  I often came home after working 10-hour days to take care of them and then tried to work from home a couple more hours before going to bed.

Three of my other bosses were “redoing” my work and at times questioned my knowledge and abilities.  However, none of them ever directly confronted or corrected me nor ever taught me what I needed to do to improve despite requesting their feedback.  Interestingly enough, all three of these bosses gave me excellent and outstanding ratings almost every year including performance and special contribution awards.  One boss told leadership I was stepping down to a lower level job the same day after I confided in them about my struggles at work due to multiple chronic health conditions.

These experiences were and still are incongruent with my vision and style of management and leadership.  During the ten 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 work place 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 navigate the challenges and pitfalls of their new responsibilities.  Many of them have faced similar leadership challenges like mine.

About two years ago during one of our church’s worldwide conferences, a leader used the term heliotropic in a sermon.  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 Kim 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 the support of my employer to attend the Positive Business Conference for two years in a row, but they refused.  I finally paid for the conference myself this year and traveled from Tennessee to Michigan at the encouragement of my wife and daughter as they saw that I felt compelled to be there.  I wanted to attend the 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?
  • In a very negative culture people tend to become negative. Yet the man who wrote the passage bove describes how he has chosen to lead over the last ten years.  What do we learn from this?
  • 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 does this say about the internal commitment of this man and how does it explain his capacity to act as a positive leader in a toxic environment?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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