We all have a toxic leader inside of us. For me, Mr. Toxic appears when I’m tired, frustrated, or triggered … as much as I’d like to want it otherwise, years of mindfulness, a stable life, a desire to be better and do better, a good heart, (probably too) much education, and a healthy dose of empathy can’t always stop Mr. Toxic. Just as I am racist in spite of all my efforts to be better and do better, to educate myself, and to be aware, these toxic responses to the demands of leadership are not something any of us can slough off as we ascend into a higher plane of leaderly existence. My post today is a long one and engages with some ancient philosophy. Even so, I hope you’ll find time to read it and think about it – it encapsulates my approach to leadership solutions from a mindfulness mindset: Notice, Engage, Empower.
One of my favorite dialogues by the younger Seneca (the Roman Stoic) is his De Tranquillitate or On Serenity. It begins with Seneca’s friend Serenus articulating a very common problem extraordinarily well. “As I spent time reflecting on myself, Seneca, some faults kept appearing to me as if laid out in front of me so that I could pick them up in my hand. Some were a little harder to see, back in the corner. Some weren’t always there, but kept coming back from time to time. I would say that these last are the most exasperating. They’re like guerilla soldiers, attacking every once in a while. Because of them I can’t stay prepared as if there were a war and I can’t be worry-free as if there were peace. Nevertheless, the condition I find myself in most of the time (why shouldn’t I tell the truth, as I would to a doctor?) is that I’m not truly free of the things I fear and hate, and on the other hand I’m not a slave to them either. It’s not as if I’m in the worst condition, but I am extremely dissatisfied and sad: I’m not sick and I’m not healthy.” (Anderson 2015)
To be self-aware, I think, is to be able to notice that you are not sick and not healthy. By reflecting on our days, like Serenus, in an attempt to evaluate where we can be better, how we can do better, we begin to notice the things that trigger us, the ways in which our frustrations sabotage other people’s good efforts as well as our own, or the impact of weariness – physical and otherwise – on our decisions. Seneca’s response is the response of a good friend, the kind of friend or mentor we all deserve: you are not alone in that feeling; you have come a long way even to be able to notice this; wanting to be better, to do better, is half the struggle.
What Serenus goes on to describe and what Seneca later seeks to remedy in the dialogue are very much like the behaviors we associate with toxic leaders. To be clear, good leaders have their bad moments, and I think it’s fair to say we all can respond in a toxic way unexpectedly, overwhelmingly, like a guerrilla attack. Seneca elsewhere presents a way of analyzing human affective behavior (emotions, feelings, passions) that I think can allow us to engage with our leadership responses authentically and to empower us to make changes. It has to do first of all with noticing.
Stoicism, in dealing with the “psychology of affective behavior”, was working from a very integrated and quite sophisticated (if sometimes perhaps desperately incorrect) view of the universe. To crudely summarize for our purpose today, all sensory input we receive is “true” and reflects the world as it is. Error is introduced through our own mental activity as we evaluate these “impressions” or appearances, forming judgments, and giving our mental assent to our judgments. I might, for instance, be on my way to a door when a colleague goes through and does not hold it open as I approach; this is “true”. I might evaluate this moment against others, against other interactions with this person, et cetera, and come to the judgment that this seemed deliberate; when I agree with this judgment, her action becomes deliberate for me, and I react. Or perhaps I say to myself, “probably, she didn’t see me” and disagree with that judgment, prompting a different (re)action. This process (sensory input, evaluation, judgment, assent, action) happens with purely mental activities (thoughts and feelings, I suppose) as well as with purely sensory input – it is the basis of our cognitive process.
Being better, from Seneca’s point-of-view, is learning to interrupt a faulty evaluative process and assent cycle in order to act properly. It seems to me that one of the things toxic leaders do is react, and react only or mostly, to what comes into their view without too much evaluation. You don’t have to be mean-hearted to be toxic, after all.
Can Seneca help? In another dialogue, De Ira or On Anger – one of the most dangerous of human emotions in his view, because it necessarily leads to action against another (eg. vengeance) – Seneca describes what seem to be three kinds of “movements” in the affective cycle. With some emotions, he suggests, we are necessarily affected by a “first movement”, a response to sensory input that is involuntary, like blushing, crying, flinching, or arousal. For anger, we might associate this first movement with a rush of cortisol and neurepinephrine. We cannot control these movements easily, or at all. A second kind of movement is voluntary – this is the assent to the judgment we form, especially in the important instances as far as leadership goes, around our experience of that first movement. The second movement offers an opportunity to regulate a further response to what precipitated the first movement. A third kind of movement results from being overwhelmed by input or from habitual bad judgments and assents: we are out-of-control, not just under the power of the body’s response but also under the power of toxic mindsets. “Get the hell out of the fast, lane, you idiot!!” “Copy me into these damn discussions – how many times do I have to ask?!?!!” “She always assumes it’s because she’s Latina!! I wish she’d get over it.” You know. I do too.
The amazing thing for me about the general ancient Stoic approach to affective behavior is how correct they can turn out to be. We now understand that anger can be regulated through the frontal cortex, as can many emotions. A now famous Harvard study showed that regular meditation resulted in not only changes to the thickness of the frontal cortex of the study group but also to the activity of the hippocampi, the paired lobes in the brain that build new brain cells and help counter the fight-or-flight responses of the amygdala. Even a regimen of just 8 weeks of regular mediation produces changes – long term meditators can have much more frontal grey matter as non-meditators – an astounding result. The healthy and unhealthy executive functions of the frontal cortex are exactly, I think, what Seneca is describing in the second and third movement, respectively, the point at which we evaluate our judgment before acting – a healthy executive function (oh, the irony!) is exactly what toxic leadership behaviors are missing.
When we notice and are aware of the world around us, when we engage our perceptions and our judgments, we can empower ourselves to be better. It might seem like this is a very involved process in a hectic day or a work environment that prizes quick decisions and rapid response. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? A decision or response is not made good by being quick. A good decision is made even better by being quick. Mindfulness, training, theory, good friends – all these can make it the goal of becoming less toxic and reactive much easier, giving us more resources, helping us be more patient, and less triggered. But it starts with wanting to be better, to do better.
Notice, Engage, Empower.