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Navigating the Aftermath of Toxic Leadership: Healing from Leadership Hurt & Embracing the WHOLE Leader Inside of You

July 14, 2023

The journey of leadership can often be a tumultuous one, filled with both fulfilling highs and devastating lows. When the lows encompass a landscape tainted by toxic leadership, the task of healing and rediscovering the inherent leader within yourself can seem like an overwhelming challenge. However, I assure you, it’s not only possible, but it’s also a journey that can forge you into a more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient leader.

The thing is, we are all human (aka, we all make mistakes every single day and none of us are perfect). This includes you as a leader AND it includes every single leader we’ve ever worked alongside or under. This also means that whether you know it or not, you have likely been impacted in some way by imperfect leadership traits or actions.

Imperfect leadership can have a devastating impact on employees and team members, and I think every single leader needs to reflect on past hurts to fully understand how their own leadership has been impacted by the leaders that influenced them in the past. It’s not just the immediate effects of toxic leadership that can be harmful — the aftermath of a toxic leader, or even just a confusing or traumatic event involving a leader, can become a part of your identity as a leader.

Recognizing the Scars of Toxic Leadership

Before you can begin to heal, you first have to identify and acknowledge the harm that toxic leadership has caused. The signs can be overt, like diminished self-confidence or a fear of making decisions. Alternatively, they may be more subtle, such as a persistent sense of dread about work or difficulty trusting colleagues or superiors. Recognition is the first step towards recovery.

Leadership trauma can impact your personal confidence, performance, and well-being as a leader. It can impact what you think about yourself, what you think about others, and how you interact with others on your team. But, there is hope!

The road to healing from leadership trauma begins with understanding toxic leadership, how it affects you, how to identify it in yourself and others, and how to navigate and heal from it.

Whether you knowingly experienced toxic leadership or are wondering if you ever have, I encourage you to do a little bit of reflection and inner work today to understand how past leadership experiences are impacting you even today. THIS is the work of a leader, and I believe this step is crucial for your growth as a leader.

Understanding the Impact of Toxic Leadership

Toxic leadership can be defined as a style of leadership where the leader uses fear, intimidation, and manipulation to control their team. This type of leadership can create a toxic work environment where employees feel stressed, anxious, and de-motivated. The impact of toxic leadership can be far-reaching and can affect all aspects of an employee’s life, including their physical and mental health.

One of the most significant impacts of toxic leadership is on an employee’s mental health. Employees who work under a toxic leader often experience anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is because toxic leaders create a work environment that is constantly stressful and unpredictable. Employees never know when they will be yelled at, insulted, or belittled, which can lead to constant anxiety and fear. Over time, this can take a toll on an employee’s mental health, affecting their ability to perform their job and their overall quality of life.

Another impact of toxic leadership is on an employee’s physical health. The constant stress and anxiety can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, back pain, and even heart disease. Additionally, employees who work under a toxic leader may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drug use, which can further impact their health.

How Toxic Leadership Affects Your Confidence & Leadership Style

Toxic leadership can negatively affect your confidence as a leader. If you have experienced a toxic leader, it is important to set boundaries, build support, and focus on your own development as a leader.

Experiencing toxic leadership can significantly impact a person’s leadership style. Here are some ways in which toxic leadership experiences can affect a person’s leadership style:

  1. Lack of trust: Toxic leaders often have a lack of trust in their subordinates, which can lead to a similar lack of trust in others when the person becomes a leader themselves. They may struggle to delegate tasks or rely on their team members, which can hinder collaboration and productivity.
  2. Fear-based leadership: Toxic leaders often use fear and intimidation as a means of control. If someone has experienced this type of leadership, they may inadvertently adopt similar fear-based tactics when they become a leader themselves. This can create a toxic work environment and hinder team morale.
  3. Micromanagement: Toxic leaders tend to micromanage their subordinates, leaving little room for autonomy and growth. If someone has been micromanaged by a toxic leader, they may struggle to give their own team members the freedom and trust they need to excel in their roles.
  4. Lack of empathy: Toxic leaders often lack empathy and fail to consider the well-being of their team members. If someone has experienced this lack of empathy, they may struggle to prioritize the needs and concerns of their own team members, leading to decreased morale and engagement.
  5. Destructive behavior: Toxic leaders may exhibit destructive behaviors such as unfairly criticizing employees, taking credit for their ideas, or humiliating them in front of others. If someone has witnessed or been a victim of these behaviors, they may unknowingly replicate them when they become a leader themselves, perpetuating a cycle of toxicity.
  6. Decreased self-esteem: Toxic leadership can erode the self-esteem and self-confidence of individuals. If someone has experienced this, they may struggle with self-doubt and a lack of confidence in their own leadership abilities. This can hinder their decision-making and ability to inspire and motivate their team.

It is important for individuals who have experienced toxic leadership to reflect on their experiences, seek support, and actively work on developing a positive and effective leadership style. This may involve seeking mentorship, attending leadership development programs, and consciously practicing behaviors that promote trust, empathy, and collaboration within their teams.

Recognizing Signs of Toxic Leadership — In Yourself and Others

Recognizing the signs of toxic leadership is the first step in dealing with it. Some of the signs to watch out for include:

  1. Micromanagement: A toxic leader may micromanage their team, leaving little room for autonomy or decision-making. This can lead to employees feeling disempowered and de-motivated.
  2. Lack of empathy: A toxic leader may show little empathy towards their team members, treating them as disposable resources rather than human beings with feelings.
  3. Constant criticism: A toxic leader may constantly criticize their team members, creating a culture of fear and negativity.
  4. Blame games: A toxic leader may blame their team members for any mistakes or failures, rather than taking responsibility themselves.
  5. Favoritism: A toxic leader may show favoritism towards certain team members, creating a culture of competition and distrust.

Healing from Leadership Hurt and the Effects of Toxic Leadership

Healing from the hurt caused by toxic leadership is a process that takes time, patience, and self-care.

  1. Seek Support: Share your experiences with trusted colleagues, friends, or mentors. Open up about the struggles you faced and the impact it has had on you. Emotional support is a fundamental component of the healing process.
  2. Practice Self-Care: Physical well-being impacts mental health. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate rest, and taking time for activities you enjoy will help you regain balance and heal.
  3. Professional Help: If the impact of toxic leadership continues to weigh heavily on you, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Therapists and counselors can provide strategies and tools to manage stress, anxiety, and rebuild self-esteem.
  4. Education and Understanding: Educate yourself about toxic leadership. Understanding that the problem lies with the toxic leader and not with you can be empowering and help you regain self-confidence.
  5. Set Healthy Boundaries: It’s important to set healthy boundaries with your toxic leader or any toxic people in your life. This may mean limiting your interactions with them or even cutting ties altogether.
  6. Practice Self-Compassion: It’s important to practice self-compassion and be kind to yourself during your healing journey. This may mean giving yourself permission to take a break or engage in activities that bring you joy.

Recognizing and Addressing Your Own Toxic Leadership

Even the most well-intentioned leaders can occasionally fall into toxic behaviors. Self-awareness is crucial in identifying and rectifying these behaviors:

  1. Self-Reflection: Consider the impact of your actions and decisions on your team. Do your actions promote a positive work environment, or do they foster fear and stress?
  2. Seek Honest Feedback: Encourage your team to provide feedback about your leadership style. It may be difficult to hear, but it’s invaluable for your growth as a leader.
  3. Addressing Toxic Behaviors: If you identify toxic traits in your leadership style, seek professional help. Leadership coaches, mentors, and therapists can provide you with strategies to change these behaviors and develop more effective leadership skills.

Moving Forward and Building a Healthy Work Environment

Once you’ve addressed any toxic traits in your leadership, it’s time to build a healthier work environment:

  1. Promote Open Communication: Encourage open dialogue within your team. This fosters trust and enables issues to be addressed promptly.
  2. Celebrate Successes: Recognize and celebrate the achievements of your team. This boosts morale and reinforces positive behavior.
  3. Provide Support and Resources: Ensure your team has the resources they need to perform their jobs effectively. This includes emotional support, proper tools, and training.

The Importance of Leadership Development and Growth

Continuous development and growth are essential aspects of successful leadership:

  1. Continuous Learning: Engage in regular learning and development. This might include professional development courses, reading books on leadership, or attending seminars.
  2. Mentorship and Coaching: Seek mentorship from experienced leaders and consider investing in a leadership coach to enhance your skills and effectiveness.
  3. Reflective Practice: Regularly reflect on your leadership style and the impact it has on your team. This allows you to identify areas for improvement and implement changes.

Building Confidence in Team Members Who Have Experienced Toxic Leadership

If your team has been subjected to toxic leadership, it’s important to rebuild their confidence:

  1. Open Dialogue: Speak openly with your team about past experiences. Provide reassurances that you’re committed to a different leadership style.
  2. Recognize Strengths: Regularly acknowledge the skills and contributions of your team members. This helps them regain confidence in their abilities.
  3. Encourage Professional Development: Promote opportunities for growth and development. This not only enhances their skills but also shows your commitment to their career progression.

Navigating the aftermath of toxic leadership is not a journey one should embark on alone. Surrounding yourself with supportive colleagues, mentors, and professional help can make the process less daunting and more transformative. The goal should always be to emerge as a WHOLE leader: one who embraces authenticity, inclusivity, and continual growth, all while fostering an environment where every team member feels valued and empowered.

Embracing the WHOLE Leader Inside of You

Becoming a whole leader involves embracing every facet of your leadership style, including those that may have been suppressed or damaged by toxic leadership. It’s about honoring your values, respecting your intuition, and celebrating your unique leadership strengths.

  1. Self-Reflection: Take time to reflect on your core values and leadership style. This introspection will help you realign your leadership approach with your values and vision.
  2. Focus on Strengths: Identify your strengths and leverage them in your leadership role. Celebrate each achievement, no matter how small, to build confidence and reinforce positive behavior.
  3. Seek Feedback: Request feedback from your team and colleagues to understand your areas of improvement. Use this feedback constructively to shape your leadership approach.
  4. Encourage Diversity: Embrace and encourage diversity of thought, skills, and experience within your team. It not only fosters innovation but also creates an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued.
  5. Promote Trust and Openness: Strive to establish a culture of trust and openness within your team. This will help you build strong, genuine relationships with your team members.

Navigating the aftermath of toxic leadership is undoubtedly challenging, but the transformation that arises from the ashes of such an experience has the potential to forge a more resilient, empathetic, and inclusive leader. As you embark on this journey of healing and self-discovery, remember, the WHOLE leader within you is one that values authenticity, celebrates diversity, and prioritizes the well-being of the team above all else. Embrace the journey and allow it to shape you into the leader you are meant to be.

I'm Kaylan, leadership educator, podcaster & speaker

What are you searching for?

Reading suggestions

Crafting a 90-Day Onboarding Plan

Job Postings that Attract Top Talent

Mapping Your Leadership Style