Why ‘toxic’ is the Oxford word of the year


The word, which is increasingly applied to nonphysical things, beat out others including “gaslighting”, “incel” and “techlash.”

Based on my extensive research, the reason is because most people work for a toxic boss in a toxic workplace. In my book, ‘From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Keep Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’,I discuss how toxic workplace cultures impede success for organizations and deprive people from living fulfilling lives, and what you need to do to change your life from toxic to thriving.

The First Lady is no bystander

Melania Trump.jpg

In this Washington Post article, we see how a White House aide picked a fight with the First Lady and lost. What is being downplayed by the media is the open secret that the White House aide had a reputation as a toxic bully. It appears that since the First Lady’s trip to Africa she has tried to have the aide held accountable, to no avail. If this is accurate her public position on this was appropriate and is exactly what I encourage bystanders to become which is - witnesses, defenders, resisters and activists. To suggest this was a personal fight is misleading. The First Lady came to the defense of those whom the aide bullied. 

Have you not done any of your homework?


Less than a year after long time team doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing, decisions by U.S.A. Gymnastics created a backlash among athletes that has left the federation teetering.

This New York Times article exposes a legitimate question about the U.S.A. Gymnastics’ decision to hire someone who has a history of abuse. How could those who made the decision not have known about her past? Well, if they didn’t, they were totally inept. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt in the hiring process, they did not seek the opinion of those who could have told them. And, why were they not hypervigilant to not make the same mistake yet again?



On Tuesday, D.J. Durkin was reinstated as head coach for the University of Maryland’s football team prompting university president, Wallace D. Loh, to announce his resignation; but on Wednesday, the university reversed its course and fired the coach. 

As reported in this New York Times article, the board of trustees at the University of Maryland chose a bully over their long-standing president because they were more concerned about winning in football than they were in creating a safe academic culture. Thankfully the president, who had announced his retirement because of this, stood up to the trustees and reversed their decision and fired the bully coach. 

The unfortunate reality is in most organizations when a bully is considered a star, they, not their targets are protected. This occurring in an academic institution is appalling. Appalling because it teaches young minds that it is okay to bully, as long as it helps them win. The entire board of trustees should be tossed out because of this. Unless they are, anyone considering going to the University of Maryland should reconsider. 

A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials. The ABC’s of Leadership: “X” is for Xenodochial


“At the most basic level, we need to distinguish between dominance and leadership. This is the world of animal herds, of palace intrigue, authoritarianism, dictatorships, and malefic families. However, while these situations all make for great television, dominance isn’t leadership. Rather, over the years I’ve become more focused on the nature of leadership as a relationship - an honour that is bestowed upon a person by followers who are willing to place their trust in them.”

This shift in focus, as articulated in the above words of Jamil Zaki, underscores the nature of a xenodochial leader, one who is friendly and welcoming and especially kind to strangers and those foreign to them. As I will describe later, most people, as they rise in an organization, view those they lead as foreign.

In addition, despite the billions of dollars spent on diversity and inclusion over the last decade, most institutions are not xenodochial, in that boards of directors and CEO’s of these institutions are predominantly white straight males.

The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica have embodied being xenodochial by adapting an attitude of general inclusiveness in their work by following one of the rules of Benedict - “we need to welcome the stranger and alien in our midst”. 

As leaders, we would do well by similarly adapting this hospitality to all in,
. creating a welcoming personally and institutionally,
. listening and responding sensitivity to all,
. extending warmth and acceptance to all,
. welcoming new ideas and being open to change.

In 1977 in his book ‘Servant Leadership’,Robert K. Greenleaf proposed a different paradigm of leadership which speaks directly to being a xenodochial leader; and this type of leadership ought to be a distinguishing characteristic of leadership. While this has captured the hearts and minds of people, organizations and society, few have adapted it.

A huge impact of xenodochial leadership is that it helps solve the loneliness epidemic we are experiencing. The CIGNA’s 2018 US Loneliness Index in a survey of 20 thousand Americans found that only 18 percent believe that there are people with whom they can communicate. Based on research I have done, I can assert that for most North American workers the only work-related face-to-face  interaction with their boss is the mutually dreaded annual performance review and when things go south.

In ‘A General Theory of Love’,Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon asserted,  “A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most, which are the elements of love - hospitality, community, solidarity - the general feeling of belonging and appreciation coupled with the exercise of moral agency for the benefit of other people.”

The impact of this has been and continues to be profound.

There is now indisputable evidence that ties loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. The former United States Surgeon General has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

As leaders, we perhaps more than others should be able to relate to being lonely and isolated. Those who bemoan “It’s lonely at the top” should reflect on why this is.  In ‘Five Reasons Why It’s Lonely at The Top’, M. Ena Inesi and Adam D. Galinski of the Kellogg School of Management lists the five ways in which “power perverts, comforts and undermines a number of psychological processes that nurture close connections and form the foundation of healthy relationships.” They are:

“1. Power alters our beliefs about others’ generosity.
2. Power affects our responses to the kind acts of others.
3. Power reduces trust.
4. Power reduces commitment. 
5. Power damages relationships in the very moments when they have the greatest potential to develop.”

From the work I have done in organizational dynamics and emotional intelligence I assert that most in leadership and management positions have been perverted by power. When this happens, they become isolated and lonely. Subordinates avoid contact with them and what the number of instances of wrongdoings and inappropriate behaviours has more than validated, leadership is not hearing what they need to hear, even though what they needed to hear were open secrets for years and in some instances for decades.

Teddy Roosevelt is a wonderful example of a xenodochial leader who invited and welcomed input from others. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, in ‘Leadership: In Turbulent Times’writes, “Imagine a leader who developed remarkably collegial relations with the press, those now termed the ‘enemy of the American people’. Roosevelt invited reporters in for meals, took questions during his midday shave, and most importantly, absorbed their criticism with grace. A celebrated journalist mercilessly lampooned Roosevelt’s memoir of the Spanish-American War by claiming Roosevelt should have called the book, ’Alone in Cuba’, since he placed himself at the centre of every action and every battle. Roosevelt replied with a winning capacity for self-depreciation: “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review.””

So how does one become a xenodochial leader. Quite simply - don’t be corrupted by power and read or re-read Greenleaf’s ‘Servant Leadership’ it is as relevant today as it was in 1977.



Wells Fargo said on Wednesday that it had suspended its chief auditor and its chief administrative officer, the latest blow to the scandal-scarred bank.

In the last line in this New York Times story, the CEO of Wells Fargo states, “we remain focus....” I think he misspoke. It should have been, “We remain focused on screwing our customers and covering it up.” The fact is that although the two people who were just suspended were responsible for fixing the scandal, they were in fact complicit in the scandals and the subsequent coverups. 

Last week Wells Fargo announced a plan to expand into Canada. As a Canadian, let me tell you - we don’t want you!

'W' is for Wise

Wisdom-370x297 'w' is for wise.jpg

“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom” Thomas Jefferson

Corruption, greed, and abuse of power by leaders are the primary reasons for the current state of our society where we are witnessing the breakdown of our institutions. Today most of our leaders have adapted what Thomas Hobbes observed, “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law.” 

 History has shown that when this occurs, it puts democracy at risk. History also shows that wise leaders are the most reliable check and balance to dictatorial leaders. 

Confucius, a teacher and a philosopher who lived from 550 to 479 BC, is an early example of a wise leader who advanced the belief that righteous rulers could help an entire people become better citizens, and warning that a vicious ruler would cultivate a cruel people. Citing China’s moral decline as the reason for the strife that existed, he advanced a return to virtue in both individuals and governance that could “restore the glory, harmony and progress of ages past.”

A more recent example of a wise leader, highlighted by Ronald Reagan - “whatever his reasons, Gorbachev had the intelligence to admit Communism was not working, the courage to battle for change, and ultimately, the wisdom to introduce the beginnings of democracy, individual freedom and free enterprise. As I said at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 the Soviet Union faced a choice. Either it made fundamental changes, or it became obsolete. Gorbachev saw the handwriting on the wall and opted for change.”

In the work I have done in organizational dynamics, I have found that the majority of workers work under oppression. Rather than being developed, led, motivated, encouraged and coached, they are being overly controlled and regulated. 

In part, the advancement and integration of technology and artificial knowledge into the equation, reduces, and in many instances eliminates, the need for a human manager or leader. Uber is an example of this, where their drivers are controlled by an algorithm and constantly under surveillance, automated manipulation and threats of “deactivation”. What Uber and other organizations have yet to realize is “there ain’t no such thing as artificial wisdom.”

That being said, I have argued that Uber drivers may be better off than the majority of workers because most managers are woefully inept and unqualified to lead, motivate, encourage and coach. Also, in most situations the boss subordinate relationship and face to face interaction is limited to the annual, dreaded by both, performance review and when things go south. A Mental Health America/Faas Foundation survey of over 20 thousand North American workers across all sectors, called ‘Mind the Workplace’ found that only 35 percent could count on their supervisor for support when things get hard.

Also what I have found with most of the organizations I have worked with is a quest to populate their leadership and management ranks with the “best and the brightest” seeking out the “experts” in their field, only to find out the hard way, to coin a phrase, “a star salesperson does not always translate into a star sales manager’.

Simply put, leading and managing people is calibrating the ‘ 4 RIGHTS’ - having the RIGHT PEOPLE, doing the RIGHT THINGS, the RIGHT WAY, at the RIGHT TIME. Unfortunately, most in management and leadership have the wisdom to handle these, when combined, complex dynamics.

Wise leaders make decisions on an all fronts basis, which means understanding and addressing how decisions impact other areas and individuals. I have found that those with engineering backgrounds are wiser leaders than those who come from other disciplines. Jeffery Sprecher, CEO of the International Exchange, and a chemical engineer, explained it this way - his training “taught me about problem solving, and complex systems and the way things relate to each other.

Wise leaders use the collective wisdom of a crowd, which as James Surowiek explains, “is the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question”. 

Over my career, in hiring or promoting people for leadership and management positions, in determining ability, qualifications and potential, besides the technical, I have looked for emotional intelligence and wisdom.

The definition of wisdom is best captured by work done in the late 1980’s on the ‘Berlin Wisdom Project’ at the Max Platt Institute for Human Development - 

“. Intellectual knowledge 
. Factual
. Superior judgment
. Excellent problem-solving skills
. The ability to learn from experience
. Humility 
. Emotional resistance, or the ability to rebound from a setback
. Openness, or the maturity to be comfortable allowing the world to see you as you really are
. A deep understanding of human nature, including empathy for people who are different or from other cultures”

Today we are hearing more and more - “Where are the adults in the room?” Well it’s not the adults that are missing, it’s the absence of wise people. Let’s all learn from Confucius- “By three methods may we learn wisdom. First by reflection, which is noblest; Second by imitation, which is easiest; And third by experience, which is the bitterest”. 

‘V’ is for Vigilance

millennials-1024x512 vigilence.jpg

“Freedom is like a small bird. If you squeeze it too hard, you will kill it. But if you don’t hold it firmly enough, it will fly away. Indeed, freedom can be both elusive, and so-as the McCormick Tribute Museum so powerfully reminds us-it requires our eternal vigilance, our willingness, our ability, our conviction to stand up for that which is right.” - Alex Kotlowitz

Vigilance is keeping careful watch over danger, threats and opportunities. 

The biggest danger and risk we face today is the normalization of the abnormal, where freedom and all that it represents is becoming more and more elusive. The reason for this is the absence of “eternal vigilance”. 

While many have the willingness, ability and conviction to stand up for that which is right, few understand and therefore practice the art and science of vigilance to effectively “stand up for that which is right.” 

To begin, we should reflect on what freedom means. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt eloquently articulated what we should aspire to -

“We look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms.
. The first is freedom of speech and expression- everywhere in the world.
. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world.
. The third is freedom from want - everywhere in the world.
. The fourth is freedom from fear - everywhere in the world.”

Based on the work I have done in emotional intelligence, I assert very few people in the world, under FDR’s aspirational meaning, enjoy freedom. 

I make this assertion because I understand how people feel, and more importantly why they feel the way they do. People around the world are angry, and the reason they are angry is that they are being denied the four fundamental freedoms in every aspect of society - where they live, learn, work, worship and play. This anger is being fed by authoritarian leaders whose objective is to advance their power and control through fraudulent persuasion. And, people are persuaded because of the lack of vigilance by those who are in positions to stand up for what is right.

We can all learn vigilance - to stand up for what is right - from the man behind the PBS show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood Watch”, when he made his argument to the Senate to save the public media.

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You've made this day a special day, just by being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you and I like you just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger - much more than showing something of gunfire.”

Mr. Roger’s point that “feelings are mentionable and manageable” succinctly makes the case for emotional intelligence. While there is ample evidence that emotions drive behaviours, very few leaders are vigilant in managing their own emotions and those of others. Because of this, as I pointed out in ‘U is for UNIFIER’, the majority of our institutions are broken. Fixing these broken institutions requires vigilance that must shift from simply the results to how those results are achieved. 

The 2017 Gallup “State of the American Workplace” report validates assertions I have been making for years that the human element in managing employees is almost non-existent. Most disturbing in the report is that only 21% of American workers strongly agree their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. So, if managers are not vigilant in motivating employees, where is their focus? 

A 2018 CEO survey “Threats: What Keeps CEOs Up at NIGHT...” offers insights in where their focus is. Other than “Availability of key skills”, the human element does not make the top ten threats. What is amazing is that a comparatively few of the CEO’s listed “potential ethical scandals as a threat - despite the growing number of firms that have suffered reputational damage in the past year”. 

Having spent the bulk of my career in retail, I learned the importance of being vigilant on meeting or exceeding customer expectations. We did this by continuously understanding how customers felt and why they felt the way they did. This kept our value exchange model with them fluid, which resulted in higher revenues. We similarly applied the value exchange model to our other stakeholders - our shareholders, our employees, our vendors, our regulators, and our communities. Our objective of meeting or exceeding their expectations of us resulted in their almost always exceeding the expectations we had of them. 

One in five people in North America has a mental health condition. Suicides are increasing at an alarming rate, and we are in the throes of a loneliness epidemic. Being vigilant about how people you are responsible for feel, and understand why they feel the way they do is a lifeline for them and may be the most important gift you can bestow on others.

To be vigilant, one must have a vigilant mindset. Paul Gustavson in his article ‘In the Eyes of a Hurricane: 7 Steps to a Vigilant Mindset’ identifies what we need to do to “persevere through the hurricanes of life”. They are:

“1. Prepare early for the unknown by developing yourself.

 2. Don’t stand alone but stand together with supporting forces.

 3. After a retreat to safety, look to re-engage. Exit back into your breakout zone at your earliest opportunity.

 4. Assess the deficiencies in your plan and be ready to pivot to stay on course. 

 5. Reactivate and restore to get your footing again.

 6. Keep the destination in focus no matter the competing environmental factors.

 7. Stay optimistic. When anxiety and fear look to paralyze you, remember the skies above the clouds are blue.”




This is what it is like out there


This story from the New York Times outlines how people fall into the bully’s trap and become complicit - a dynamic that is played out in most work environments. The Spotted Pig chef finally speaks about her role in the abuse scandal that has enveloped her and her partner, Ken Friedman. The rampant abuse and incredible web of fear and toxicity woven into this workplace mirrors what goes on across North America. 

This serious issue extends across the pond as well. British Parliament is populated by sexual harassers according to a government report. This Washington Post article spells it out and shows how deep-rooted this problem is. Fortunately, people are beginning to take notice and fight back.

In my bookFrom Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, I discuss all aspects of bullying in the workplace. If you are experiencing, witnessing, or acting as a bully, this book gives practical advice on where to put your next foot.