When leadership becomes toxic

People are the heart of any voluntary organisation, especially those who are willing to step up as leaders. I listed ‘effective leadership’ as one of the five secrets to fundraising success in my book, The Practical Fundraising Handbook for School and Club Volunteers. I have since come to the conclusion that it is the single most important factor of all.

Leaders take on the massive responsibilities of working towards the organisation’s mission, maintaining a healthy, inclusive culture, strategic future planning, fundraising and ensuring accountability to the membership as a whole.

Volunteer leaders lack skills and training

Volunteer leaders are passionate, driven and committed but too often lack any experience or training in effective management.  That’s where trouble can start.

Juanita Wheeler, an experienced strategy specialist in the not-for-profit and social enterprise sector, says: “Passion doesn’t necessarily translate to the ability to manage an organisation today.’’

Toxic leadership is a problem as old as the ages. In my work as the Fundraising Whisperer, I hear my fair share of stories. It can cause irreparable damage to an organisation, its mission, its members and the wider community. Research shows three in every ten leaders – whether they’re ultimately competent or not – are toxic.

Toxic leaders are difficult enough to address in the ‘paid’ workplace, but in small community organisations – that rely on volunteers for their success – it can be especially difficult.

When I talk about leadership when I address volunteer groups, I emphasise that we take our volunteers ‘as they come’.

When you hire staff in a paid environment, you can pick and choose to ensure they fit the culture of your organisation. In a volunteer environment, you don’t get that luxury. This means that community groups need to work particularly hard to find value (and overcome the challenges) in everybody that offers the gift of their time.

A good leader

Often leaders are well-intentioned, enthusiastic and dedicated to serving their community, but might be unaware their attitudes or methods are undermining their objectives.

It is important to understand what healthy leadership is and that it looks and feels the same whether we’re talking about business, political, educational, charitable or community organisations.

“There are so many different attributes that make a good leader, but first and foremost, a good leader is somebody who seeks to get the best out of everybody in their organisation and who inspires individuals to not only get the job done but to grow personally and professionally. It’s about inspiring people to be the best they can be,’’ says Wheeler.

“Not just growing people, it’s also about establishing an optimal organisational culture and having a real clarity around the vital contribution every single person makes to your mission, particularly in not-for-profits.’’

A toxic leader, on the other hand, is someone who exploits, devalues and demeans their team, and who perhaps assumes a disproportionate sense of power and influence within the organisation. Generally, this type of leader is unreceptive to new ideas and feedback and can discourage new committee members who might have dissenting opinions.

Founder’s Syndrome is where a person key to the initial success of a new organisation (or the ‘revival’ of an existing one) becomes a limiting and destructive force in the medium to long-term. Founder’s Syndrome applies equally to volunteering as it does to the workplace.

I have previously written about the importance of succession planning – in particular, recognising when your time is ‘up’ and proactively taking a step back. Here you can read a great first-person account an entrenched volunteer who had been at the helm for years having a similarly debilitating effect.  

What can you do?

Wheeler says honesty is the best policy when it comes to dealing with a toxic leader or committee unreceptive to new ideas or feedback. It’s the reason she named her consultancy Full & Frank.

“From the very outset, when you become involved in that committee, be very clear you are going to speak with candour, and be really frank,’’ she says. Wheeler is the director TedxSouthBank – basically her second, unpaid full-time job.

“Secondly, be clear about your intent. A lot of people get their back up or act in a hostile, inappropriate manner in response to feedback because they think your intent is to discredit them, to imply they’re doing something negligent or that you don’t have respect for their work.

“Show them you have a shared intent to achieve the organisation’s mission or purpose. Everything you say after will typically be better received. Thirdly, always be respectful and acknowledge their achievements or commitment.

“For example, you might say something like, Look, I really appreciate you’ve been doing this for five years and all the different things you’ve seen; then make a comment like, it’s been interesting having a fresh set of eyes come in, here is something I’ve noticed, what do you think?’’

Wheeler says if the leader still does not respond positively to feedback or proposals for change, it could be time to get more directly involved in the executive committee, perhaps by taking on a position personally, to better facilitate healthy change or growth.

How to heal the divide 

Another specialist in the space of membership, training and sponsorship for associations, charities and other not-for-profits is Belinda Moore. Belinda says the biggest fallout from toxic leadership in schools is it “creates a situation where it all becomes about the politics and not about the kids. It’s divisive. People start having conversations around school pick up, bitching about the person, instead of confronting the issue directly.”

Moore’s advice is to firstly, make sure you’re not the toxic one, understand there is an issue and directly approach it – and the leader concerned – in a constructive, positive way. People motivated by altruism are generally amenable to taking corrective action; those motivated by ego and self-interest could see this as a personal attack.

Alternatively, Moore suggests taking an indirect approach where the toxic situation is seen as an opportunity to educate the committee as a whole about good leadership, effective management and healthy culture. This, hopefully, sees the toxic leader have “a personal epiphany”, recognise their problem and take corrective action.

“This education has to be done in a very succinct and consumable format. Ideally you’d have a speaker come in, but we don’t all have the budget or access to people to do that; otherwise try a whiteboard animation or give them a white paper, like my article Membership is Dead? to read and discuss. Giving someone a book to read will not do the job.

“The more consumable the format, the more people are going to read it and digest it, the more likely you are going to get the cut through.’’

A lot of people, when they join a board or a committee, have a career specialisation completely unrelated to the sector. In your real life, you might be a lawyer or a doctor or a tradesman or whatever it happens to be, but as a result, you don’t have the skill sets necessary to understand why being on the board of a not-for-profit is different. Whether that be a school’s P&C or Diabetes Australia or the Australian Medical Association, they’re all non-profit organisations and it’s a unique sector.

“A lot of people don’t understand that if you join a P&C, there are a number of different skills required to run an effective committee – you’ve got to know about fundraising, you’ve got to know about communication, social media engagement; there are all these different skill sets, which you may not necessarily have embedded in the committee that you’ve got.

“What I would say to any P&C, if you want to be successful and mobilise people behind a leadership, pick a goal and make everything you do about that, because people will unite behind a purpose.

The importance of a plan

In my book, I emphasise how important it is to have a strategic plan in place. It doesn’t have to be a complicated document (in fact it’s better if it isn’t) but it does need to reflect the core of what your organisation is about.

The process of developing your strategy can be very powerful in defining the culture of your committee going forward. The ‘toxic’ party might exit as they become aware that they are holding back an organisation, or they might become a powerful force as they align themselves with the new vision.

I urge those who are passionate within organisations to persist. Don’t turn your back just because you feel like you are hitting your head against a wall. If the weight against you is powerful, don’t give up too easily. Being part of a healthy change is incredibly rewarding not just for you, but for your entire community.


Edit: We were asked to produce this article in a pdf format so it could be printed and discussed at meetings. Ask and ye shall receive!! We have added it to the VIP Portal as a free download.

Mandy Weidmann is Australia’s ‘Fundraising Whisperer’ – publisher of the Fundraising Directory and author of the Practical Fundraising Handbook for School and Club Volunteers. Mandy believes that parent volunteers shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time and is passionate about providing resources to make fundraising easier (and more fun).

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