Leading in a Toxic Environment (And 5 Ways to Change it)

Leading in a toxic environment

If you have not yet experienced the “joy” of being in a toxic work environment, you will. It’s just the law of probability. So what does one do when they find themselves there, and more importantly how can you be a leader in a toxic environment? As we have said many times, you can lead from anywhere. Admittedly, this is a particularly tough case.

Being a leader in a toxic environment requires courage, resilience, empathy, integrity, and perspective. In a hostile space, there are many factors out of your control. The most important thing leaders can do is continue to focus on the things within their control.

Let’s look at each and explain how they all work together for your best chance to create positive change.

Be Courageous

“Bran thought about it, ‘Can a man be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”

-George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones-

It has been said courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the willingness to take action in the face of fear. If you find yourself in a hostile workspace, you must have courage. Do not let fear cripple you. Emotions cloud judgment, and you need your wits about you to survive in such a space. Furthermore, your peers who are afraid will feed off your courage, and perhaps find some courage of their own. That is the essence of leadership.

Be Resilient

“Fall down 7 times, stand up 8.”

-Chinese Proverb-

You can still be a leader in a toxic work environment, but you will need resilience. Expect things to go wrong. Expect for others to take credit for your work, or for you to be held accountable for other’s failures. It’s just a part of the madness. Resilience is standing your ground. If you get punished 99 times for doing the right thing, being resilient means doing the right thing for the 100th time with the same energy and enthusiasm.

Ghandi led a cultural revolution in India with a very simple idea about how to stand up to bullies. A bully may be able to use their strength or position to harm you, but they cannot break your spirit. Only you can decide when your spirit is broken. And when you stand up to bullies with courage and resilience it actually has a profound effect of intimidating them. You are demonstrating strength they know deep down inside they would not be able to muster if the roles were reversed.

5 Ways to be a Leader in a Toxic Environment

1. Be Courageous
2. Be Resilient
3. Have Empathy
4. Maintain Your Integrity
5. Keep Things in Perspective

Have Empathy

“Thank the gods this burden falls upon me, for it fell on others, it would destroy lesser men.”

-Marcus Aurelius-

If there’s one person who knows a little something about leadership in a toxic environment, it would be Marcus Aurelius, the last good emperor of Rome. Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome during the Antonine plague, which killed 10% of the Roman population. Marcus Aurelius had the burden of leading Rome during this period rife with war, disease, and uncertainty. And he did so with unwavering courage.

During this time, most Roman politicians fled to safety away from the plague. Marcus stayed in Rome, and even walked among the citizens to assure them he was there with them. When Rome fell under financial strain, instead of raising taxes he sold furniture, gold, and other precious items which belonged to the office of emperor.

Marcus understood the people of Rome needed hope. They needed to see that the emperor would not abandon them, but instead would be the first one to make sacrifices to help see them through. He had empathy and understood the plight of his people. You will hear this humble author say this often; but strive to be like Marcus Aurelius

Maintain Your Integrity

One of the most vile behaviors to emerge when workplaces turn toxic is people will often turn on their coworkers in desperate acts of self-preservation. It is vital to avoid this trap. Maintain your integrity and do the right thing, even if the cost is high. You can, and will be a good leader by uniting the suffering. Keep in mind your game is not you versus your peers; the game is you and your peers together versus the problem. Sacrificing your integrity, even once, for temporary gain eliminates all of your goodwill and ability to lead.

Keep Things in Perspective

“I never fail. I either win, or I learn.”

-Nelson Mandela-

One of the most profound lessons we can ever learn in life is that we can do everything right, and still fail. That is because there is so much out of our control. My heartfelt advice to those of you unfortunate enough to be in a toxic work environment is this; keep a healthy perspective on things. These people cannot take away your ability to choose to be great. They cannot make you sacrifice your integrity. They cannot make you be dishonest, or cowardly. Only you can do that.

Be a courageous, honest, resilient leader and give those around you hope. Doing so will end in only one of two ways. You will either win, leading others out of the bonds of a hellish workplace. Or, you will learn and be stronger from the experience.

Keep the words of Nelson Mandela in close to your heart. From this day forward, you do not lose. You win or you learn. Failure is, perhaps the greatest teacher in the world. Losers cry, whine, and blame others for their failures. Winners learn from them.

Being a leader is not about the position you currently occupy in life, but rather the habits and perspective you adopt and implement. You can decide to be a leader, right now, today.

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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