• Omar L. Harris

Regaining Trust in the Wake of a Toxic Leader


After watching the Democratic and Republican National Conventions over the past 2 weeks, I returned again and again to the same leadership conundrum. Should Joe Biden win the 2020 Presidential Election, how will his administration repair the damage done by the toxic leadership brand of Donald J. Trump? In order to address this, we first must clearly understand the differences between toxic leadership and servant leadership.

Toxic Leadership Defined:


As John C. Maxwell states in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership - leadership is influence. And influence means activating people into motion to achieve some purpose or cause. How you go about influencing is where the rubber meets the road. Toxic leaders influence via power. They leverage their position to get what they want and usually what they want is accolades, praise, and rewards for themselves at the expense of others. They don't consider the impact of their actions and decisions on the people doing their bidding and value blind loyalty over honesty. The only reality that matters is the reality in which they are winning.

Servant Leadership Defined:

In contrast, servant leaders influence via authority. Their authority stems from the trust they've gained from others due to the quality, intention, and integrity of their actions and decisions. They are guided by their connection to the needs of their people as it relates to the purpose or mission they have defined. They weigh the potential consequences of their decisions by the negative impact on those in their charge, but maintain a bias toward action because progress is their ultimate measure of success - not winning arbitrary praise or accolades for themselves.

It's not a coincidence that today August 28, 2020 is the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington and people are gathered in Washington D.C. to continue the work of the Civil Rights Movement against social injustice and toxic leadership policies that still haunt this country.

The Legacy of Toxic Leadership:

Like a hurricane achieving landfall at category 4 or 5 levels hitting a city and refusing to move on, toxic leaders decimate all norms of decency and morality in their path. They beat down any structures of resistance and reorder the culture until everything is impacted by winds, rain, despair, and irreparable damage. It can be a dizzying task to reorient a population accustomed to living under a culture of toxic leadership. The reorientation challenge is because of the filter through which the toxic leaders in question define success.

Just as the abused ultimately can come to justify their own abuse as deserved - those led by toxic leaders come to the point where they cease to complain about the ego-driven policies of those in charge. They don't speak up for themselves, act in their own best interest, or even consider the negative implications of the orders they've been given. Their only hope is that a small fragment of the recognition and rewards typically reserved for higher ups will trickle down to them.

Lack of trust, accountability, and shared commitment, as well as false invulnerability are some of the behaviors left in the wake of a toxic leader. Or in the case of the current U.S. administration - a nation left more divided than ever along racial, political, environmental, educational, and even basic health and wellness lines. We don't know who to trust anymore and this is by design. The country has been weakened and lacks a polar north for reasonable people to rally behind. The only people succeeding in this environment are those who have submissively adhered themselves to the current leadership in the hopes that the new status quo will be maintained.

Regaining the Trust:

How often would you emerge from the relative security of your home if you knew there were 150 mph winds gusting outside? Well consider the fragile populace of America post these three and half years of dishonesty, division, and disdain for standards of ethics and morality demonstrated on a daily basis by this administration. People are at their most sensitive and seeking sincerity and support from their leaders. And this is where the servant leadership approach can rebuild trust and belief in the system.

Servant leaders start the healing by connecting with everyone impacted. Connecting implies listening, empathizing, valuing, and seeking to understand the various viewpoints. A leader must lead 100% of the people, not only those who like them, so this step is crucial.

After establishing a solid connection, the servant leader must work to establish a unifying vision that the majority of people can get behind, regardless of their affiliation. This requires clearly identifying and tapping into shared values, needs, motivators, and expectations. And then the servant leader gets to work leading from the front and galvanizing everyone into action by constantly removing barriers to progress, remaining humble in the face of uncertainty, and demonstrating trust building behaviors at all times.

Repairing trust is hard work. Ask anyone who has ever tried to glue a shattered mirror back together or rebuild a city in the wake of a major storm. But without the adhesive of trust, progress is difficult to achieve. Servant leaders don't abdicate this responsibility. They roll up their sleeves and get down to business.

A new administration has its work cut out for it, but as long as they stay committed to the challenging task of trust building across party and ethnic lines, they can ultimately repair the damage inflicted by a season of toxic leadership.

Omar L. Harris is the managing partner at Intent Consulting, a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance and author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him Instagram, Twitter, and/or his website for more information and engagement.

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