Taming Toxic Team Members

We’ve all had to work with toxic team members—bosses, peers, and subordinates. I don’t know anyone who enjoys working with such individuals, however some of us are better able to handle them than others. Let’s break this issue down into several steps: why someone might be toxic, what you can do about the situation, and some useful tools.

Toxic Warning Sign

Why Is Someone Toxic?

Human beings are complex creatures. We are blessed with a powerful and yet intricate cognitive ability which allows us to manipulate our environment to our advantage, but unfortunately this ability also allows us to ruminate and mentally travel down dark pathways, causing depression, mental instability, and other pathological behaviors. People may descend these pathways as a result of genetics (trait behavior) or traumatic experiences (state behavior).

Suppose you have a co-worker who frequently lashes out at others in meetings. Your initial reaction may likely be one of anger with a desire to push back against this individual. Now suppose I told you this person was physically and sexually abused as a child. Would your attitude shift toward compassion? Probably, although you still may not wish to have the person on your team.

Remember that many people lead very chaotic lives, whether by choice or inclination. They may desire to bring everyone down to their level. Some individuals will be toxic because they are bumbling and maybe don’t have the mental equipment to handle social situations gracefully.

This is where the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) enters. Although many models of emotional intelligence exist, most cover the ability to become aware of one’s own and others’ emotions as well as the ability to regulate one’s emotions and influence the emotions of others. A toxic individual could have an overall low EQ and find themselves bumbling from crisis to crisis, could have an overall high EQ and intentionally leave a wake of destruction behind, or lie somewhere in between. What is important is that if you are able to determine their EQ level then you will know what to work on—intentional sabotage or bumbling incompetence.

Toxic individuals frequently get together and commiserate. They tend to feed on each other and unfortunately they can spoil an entire team if left unattended.

What You Can Do

Try to have a conversation with these folks. Sit down one-on-one and attempt to get to the deeper level of the problem. Sometimes this is not possible because the other person is unwilling to open up and let you in. Other times the individual may begin to allow you an insight into the depth of the issue. Seek clarity in understanding what is going on. Probe gently for a deeper understanding. Explain to the individual that while you may respect their position, it is not productive for the team. If possible, don’t leave with assumptions on anyone’s part.

Set boundaries and hold the team members to those boundaries. Be specific about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Toxic individuals frequently spew their trash via e-mail because it is easier than doing so in person. Many times we will say things online or in an e-mail that we wouldn’t in person because a distance exists between us. This makes the altercation impersonal and less compassionate. Simply stop the e-mail battles and pick up the phone or walk into the individual’s office. You may also want to consider that writing an e-mail can be cathartic for some.


You have several tools at your disposal. One is to consider an individual’s behavior on a spectrum from “Yes” on one end to “Toxic” at the opposite end and “Challenging” in the middle. I think we’ve all heard the term, “A ‘yes’ man.” This type of person will say yes to whatever the team or boss wants in an effort to get ahead or get along. As a result, they contribute very little. Some leaders prefer subordinates such as this since they are malleable, submissive, and low maintenance. At the other end of the spectrum toxic individuals will push against you no matter what. They will search for ways to resist. Again, this could be for several reasons and it, too is clearly nonproductive.

As in many cases, the middle path is the most productive. An individual may challenge you, which causes you to think through an idea or problem more thoroughly. This can be very helpful, especially if the individual helps your group or organization create something better as a result. Reviewing this model with the toxic individual may be very helpful in illustrating how you view the problem.

Another tool is called the positivity ratio. Research has shown that leaders exhibiting positive behaviors at least three times as often as negative behaviors have higher performing teams. While this works only to a certain point, the concept is important to explain to a toxic worker so he or she understands the powerful effect of positivity.

Finally, a technique known as the mirroring dialog from Imago Therapy can be used to help dissipate charged energy from a toxic team member and provide a path to a more open dialog. While I don’t have space here to go into the details of the technique, I encourage you to explore this powerful tool if you are committed to adding skills to your toolkit.


If the toxic team member doesn’t want closure and keeps beating on the current topic you can certainly call them on it and ask for an explanation. Many times the individual has no desire for closure. That is the point at which you must make a decision as to whether or not you are better off with or without the individual. Sometimes you are stuck with the person. They might be a friend or relative of your boss or your boss’ boss.

Keep in mind—you will learn and grow from each of these situations. Ask yourself what the lesson is in each one, for you will likely be able to apply the lesson later on in life or teach it to someone else.


  • Toxic team members may be inherently toxic or may be so as a result of past experiences
  • Don’t engage in e-mail battles—talk on the phone or meet in person
  • Set and hold distinct boundaries
  • Explain the difference between challenging versus toxic behavior
  • Seek clarity and closure
  • Decide when you’ve had enough and it is no longer worth keeping the toxic team member

Keywords: leadership, toxic team members, EQ, emotional intelligence, mirroring dialog, boundaries


  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
  • Luquet, W. (2007). Short Term Couples Therapy: The Imago Model in Action. New York: Routledge.
  • Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. (2008). Human abilities: Emotional intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59(1), 507-536.
  • Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
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Leadership Means Taking a Stand in Times of Crisis

This last week I’ve observed how individuals and organizations have responded to the tragic loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. It began shortly thereafter with President Obama’s remarks on Friday, “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years… As a country we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children and we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Sandy Hook Memorial

As I heard the words my immediate thought was “gun control”—and that he’s really sticking his neck out on this one. I hoped it wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction. And then my mind drifted to the topic of leadership, and that’s where it stuck. Good leaders take a well-reasoned stand and act to make it happen. This takes courage, an essential leadership element.

The following Tuesday Cerberus Capital Management LP, owner of the Freedom Group which made the Bushmaster rifle used by the shooter in this tragedy, announced that it will sell the group. While the motives of the sale may be many, the important point is that Cerberus is also taking a stand and moving forward. That’s leadership.

So when a time of crisis emerges remember that it’s time for you to earn your paycheck and your stripes. Ask for opinions, remain open for a while and then begin to formulate options and strategies. You don’t need to be 100% sure—that’s analysis paralysis, but once you’ve got a good feeling about the path forward lay out the steps to make it happen, including clear concise communications and go!


  • Times of crisis are when leadership is needed and desired
  • Listen, learn, determine options, then choose and take the position
  • Communicate the path and reasons behind it

Keywords: leadership, courage, communication


  • Iacocca, L. (2007). Where Have All the Leaders Gone? New York: Scribner.
  • Spreitzer, G. M., McCall, M. W., & Mahoney, J. D. (1997). Early identification of international executive potential. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(1), 6–28.
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Size Does Matter Especially for Teams and Tribes

I am frequently asked about the optimal size for a team. Like many leadership and team issues the answer is “it depends.” We can, however, look at some of the parameters regarding team size and gain a bit more awareness of the pertinent issues which will help us to develop higher performing teams.

Ache Hunting

For starters, let’s look at the earliest teams—foraging or raiding parties. Anthropologists have studied primitive tribes with an understanding that their behavior is most likely indicative of Paleolithic, that is pre-agricultural human behavior, and therefore a natural or instinctive team size.

The Dani tribes of western New Guinea gather hunting and raiding parties of 12-50 people whereas the Aché in Paraguay forage in groups of 6-42, with an average of 18. Other anthropologists have recorded local groups of about 25 people, although the group size may be limited by the availability of nearby food. On a larger scale, it is felt that full tribes, alliances, or coalitions consisted of approximately 500 individuals. To me, this feels like the largest size group one can have an immediate influence on.

Based upon research on team size, I feel that four major factors are in play:

  • Focus
  • Process losses
  • Communication
  • Diversity of viewpoints, knowledge, skills, and abilities

Small teams are able to focus well on very specific tasks. As the team’s scope or goals increase in number the team may need to increase in size. A small team requires very little infrastructure, communicates easily, is generally very flexible, and can adapt to new information quickly.

A larger team requires more structured processes, creating what we call process losses, taking time away from task work. All teams must find a comfortable balance between time spent on tasks and time spent on processes.

Think of communication channels as the wiring or nervous system for the team. As team size increases these channels and processes must be formalized to ensure all team members have access to information. Many tools are available today for the storage and sharing of team documents.

Diversity is an important factor, especially in groups requiring innovation. I’m not talking about gender and cultural diversity here, but more importantly diversity of viewpoints, knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). At one extreme, if everyone on the team has the same KSAs, then there is no need for a team except to add more bodies to complete the same task. At the other extreme, if the KSAs and viewpoints of the team members are so radically different they may be unable to communicate and understand each other’s ideas. A balance is important here. A team should be composed of individuals who each bring some unique value to the table that may enhance or build upon others’ ideas. Some studies have shown that larger groups will generate more ideas in creative settings although there will certainly be a point at which diminishing returns begin.

As you build your team, as always, begin with your goals and determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities you will need. Then make an estimate of the number of people the tasks will require and where the people will be located. This will determine the types of communication channels you will need to put into place. Determine the stages of your project and the processes you will need, and how much time you wish to devote to agreeing on and creating the processes. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate these decisions along the way and make adjustments as appropriate.


  • Natural team size ranges from about six to 50
  • Small teams are likely required to focus on very specific tasks
  • Determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities required, and then the number of team members
  • Allow the team to create the communication channels they feel are needed
  • Become aware of the amount of time spent on team processes vs. task and adjust as appropriate

Keywords: leadership, I/O psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, team size, team diversity, communication, process


  • Bales, R. F. (1953). The equilibrium process in small groups. In T. Parson, R. F. Bales, & E. A. Shils (Eds.), Working Papers in the Theory of Action (pp. 111-161). Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Birdsell, J. B. (1968). Some predictions for the Pleistocene based on equilibrium systems among recent hunter-gatherers. In R. B. Lee & I. DeVore (Eds.), Man the Hunter. New York: Aldine.
  • Dennis, A. R., & Wixom, B. H. (2002). Investigating the Moderators of the Group Support Systems Use with Meta-Analysis. Journal of Management Information Systems, 18(3), 235–257.
  • Gallupe, R. B., Dennis, A. R., Cooper, W. H., Valacich, J. S., Bastianutti, L. M., & Nunamaker, J. F., Jr. (1992). Electronic brainstorming and group size. Academy of Management Journal, 35(2), 350-369.
  • Heider, K. G. (1970). The Dugum Dani. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
  • Hill, K., Hawkes, K., Hurtado, A. M., & Kaplan, H. (1984). Seasonal variance in the diet of Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay. Human Ecology, 12(2), 101-135.
  • Hülsheger, U. R., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Pscyhology, 94(5), 1128-1145.
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An Open Letter: The Choice is Yours

I’ve gotten a few questions over the week on last week’s blog post and how to bring traumatic issues to closure and move forward. As I was driving one afternoon I began to imagine myself as a plant manager for a Japanese owned factory in China. Some of these factories have been shuttered due to the protests over the Diaoyudao islands in the East China Sea.

Senkaku Islands

The relationship between Japan and China has many dark moments. Most recently, between 1931 and 1945 Japan carried out barbarous attacks in China. While one could argue that several generations have passed since then, the trauma and losses are not easily forgotten.

I drafted a statement and have worked with Nancy Wiser of Wiser Strategies who advises clients on how to handle crises, to craft a message that would help in such a time of crisis. Here is the statement I would make…

“We understand the concern the citizens of China have over the islands between Japan and China and we understand the history between our two countries. We regret what our ancestors have done in China and unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the past except to acknowledge it and express our regret for it.

“Beyond that, there is nothing you can do about that, there is nothing I can do about it. We can only move forward.

“We respect all of you as citizens of China and citizens of the world. We would like to continue to work with you. We would like to move forward. We would like to put the past behind us.

“You and I cannot control what our governments do. While we can vote and express ourselves peacefully in the streets as you have done, we cannot absolutely control our governments.

“I would like us to focus on moving forward. What can we do in this city today, at this factory to move forward? You can make a choice, we in our company can make a choice. Do you wish to prosper together? We are in business together. We have a factory here and would like for all of us to prosper.

“Every day that we are closed you lose money and we lose money. If you would like to work together to move forward, to create jobs, to help build a lifestyle that you would like and that we would like, then let us figure out how to work together peacefully.

“In this moment the choice is yours. Again, we respect each and every one of you as citizens of the world. We ask that you come together with us to build a prosperous business. The choice is yours and we sincerely hope that you will choose to move forward with us. Thank you.”

Keywords: leadership, trauma, grief, protests, riots, Senkaku islands, Diaoyudao islands

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Bad News Brings New Information

Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to observe individual’s behavior when I have told them that I was unable to do something for them or chose not to purchase their product or service. The responses have ranged from quiet anger to ignoring me to an attitude that continues to engage with me in hopes that we will be able to work together in the future.


Observe Your Team Member’s Behavior

You may have had similar experiences when you have had to give a team member bad news. Their reaction tells you a lot about their personal beliefs, maturity, and ability to work through problems. Suppose you have a team leader position open and two candidates for the job. You discuss the position with the two individuals, give it some consideration and make your choice. Once you deliver the bad news to the person who is passed over for the job, observe their behavior. Do they handle it appropriately and ask about future possibilities or get upset over sour grapes? If it is the latter, then you probably made a good choice and will want to reconsider making a similar future offer. If it is the former then you know you’ve got someone with a clear head and positive attitude.

I have found that almost uniformly managers procrastinate in confronting difficult situations or delivering bad news. I often counsel them to look beyond the discussion to the positive aspects the outcome will bring. In addition, you can look at them as situations in which you will learn more about your team members. I’ve also found that, sadistically, some leaders will invent bad news to test an individual’s response and loyalty.

Your Behavior When you Receive Bad News

Similarly, what is your behavior when you receive bad news? Do you try to find a positive element and continue to move forward? Most likely your boss is observing your behavior as well.

While inside you may be angry or struggling with disappointment, learn to cultivate a positive attitude that all situations—positive and negative—bring learning. There is something positive in every situation and it is our job to figure out what it is.


  • Observe your team member’s behavior in response to bad news
  • Assess the values and beliefs behind the response
  • Cultivate a positive learning attitude as a part of your response to bad news

Keywords: leadership, resilience, positive attitude, behavior observation


  • Carver, C. S. (1998). Resilience and thriving: Issues, models, and linkages. Journal of Social Issues, 54(2), 245-266.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.
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Rita Builds Bonds Beyond the Ropes

Rita Hayan-Feruz Kleinstein, or just “Rita” as she is affectionately known, is considered by most people to be the top female singer in Israel today. Turns out she also happens to be extremely popular in the land of her country’s archenemy—Iran. Jewish Rita was born and raised in Iran until the age of eight when she immigrated to Israel. Throughout her life she cherished the Persian folk songs passed on to her by her mother. Last year she chose to modernize and record them, producing her latest album, My Joys. Since Western music is banned in Iran, Iranians have purchased bootleg copies on the black market or discretely downloaded digital versions. And so Rita is building an enthusiastic bond between the people in the land of her birth and the land of her heritage.

Rita Yahan Farouz

Such bonds can help your team perform better as well as maintain its viability over a long period of time. Research has shown that group performance is correlated with the individual team member’s ability to work together toward a common goal. This is known as task cohesion. Similarly, when team members get along well socially, i.e. have high social cohesion they are able to function well for an extended period of time.

For example, you might have a team in which the members don’t really enjoy each other’s company but all are motivated to complete the goal. They will likely perform well and finish their task. However, they may choose to switch teams at the end of the project phase or, in extreme cases where the team degenerates into dysfunction the team may dissolve.

So-called “ropes” courses are meant to be physically challenging exercises where individuals discover they can complete a task only by working together. Research has shown that these courses increase cohesion within groups for a time but that follow-up sessions are required to continue the momentum. This is analogous to research on virtual teams. The virtual team research shows the importance of face-to-face meetings to build both social and task cohesion.

As those of you who have attended one of my training sessions know, I am a big fan of experiential learning. To be effective, experiential learning must incorporate two sets of polarities: abstract concepts vs. experiences and action vs. reflection.

The experiences, like the ropes courses imbed the knowledge or learning in our bodies. Explaining the concept or theory imbeds the knowledge in our heads and helps us relate the new information to existing knowledge, or schema as it is called in the psychology world. Applying the new information via multiple channels also helps reinforce the message. Incorporating reflective individual questions and discussion helps reinforce the actions participants take in the exercises.

One of the classic experiments involving group cohesion is the Robbers Cave study which was carried out in 1954. This study of two groups of 11 year-old boys illustrated the value of task cohesion and the resulting social bonds it could build. The study was carried out in three phases. In the first, the boys were divided into two groups and over a week’s time were allowed to develop social bonds and group norms. During the second week the two groups competed against each other and rivalries developed. The third week researchers introduced goals which required resources and effort beyond the capability of one group. As the two groups joined forces toward common goals they were able to achieve them and social bonds resulted.

Returning to Rita, I am delighted with her energy and enthusiasm toward building a bond between the Israeli and Iranian people. Music is frequently a common denominator across cultures. I have traveled the world and marveled at the universality of music, from classical to pop. My hope is that her efforts spawn similar experiences, building bonds across all cultures across the globe.


  • Create and communicate a common goal
  • Build social bonds between team members for long-term team viability
  • Generate and treasure common experiences

Keywords: leadership, cohesion, ropes course, adventure course, challenge course, adventure programming, outdoor management training, OMT, outdoor experiential training, outdoor challenge
courses, adventure education, virtual teams


  • Birx, E., LaSala, K. B., & Wagstaff, M. (2011). Evaluation of a team-building retreat to promote nursing faculty cohesion and job satisfaction. Journal of Professional Nursing, 27(3), 174-178.
  • Carless, S. A., & De Paola, C. (2000). The measurement of cohesion in work teams. Small Group Research, 31(1), 71-88.
  • Chang, A., & Bordia, P. (2001). A multidimensional approach to the group cohesion-group performance relationship. Small Group Research, 32(4), 379-405.
  • Gillis, L. H., & Speelman, E. (2008). Are challenge (ropes) courses an effective tool? A meta-analysis. Journal of Experiential Education, 31(2), 111-135.
  • Judge, W. (2005). Adventures in creating an outdoor leadership challenge course for an EMBA program. Journal of Management Education, 29(2), 284-300.
  • Kass, D., & Grandzol, C. (2011). Learning to lead at 5,267 feet: An empirical study of outdoor management training and MBA students leadership development. Journal of Leadership Education, 10(1), 41-62.
  • Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212.
  • Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). The Robbers Cave experiment: Intergroup conflict and cooperation. Norman, OK: Institute of Group Relations, University of Oklahoma, reprinted by Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
  • Shooter, W. (2010). A closer look at the “inner workings” of adventure education: Building evidence-based practices. Journal of Experiential Education, 32(3), 290-294.
  • Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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The Power of Collaboration

This past week I had the honor of working with 200 high school sophomores from all over the state of Kentucky. These bright, hard-working students were hand-picked by their high school teachers and administrators to take part in the state-level three-day Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) program.


The students were divided into 10-member groups and I had created an exercise which provided a unique role for each student. One student was the leader and the others had other specific roles on the team. We held two rounds of discussion which were facilitated by the leader.

In the first round, the leader was to have described the project and quash any discussion of broadening the project scope. In the second round of discussion the leader was told to take a more collaborative approach and explore new ideas with the team members.

During this second round the students revealed information regarding new features that could be included with little additional schedule risk or budget ramifications. They were able to work together more productively, came up with more creative solutions, and felt more satisfied in their roles. We then held a discussion with the entire group and talked about the differences between the two types of leadership style. When asked if they would have considered quitting their job during the first round had it been real life, several said that they would have quit.

These students experienced two powerful aspects of leadership firsthand—the significant influence a leader has over the process within the team and the power of working collaboratively.

Research has illustrated these factors as well. Fostering collaboration allows each team member to contribute their unique and valuable knowledge, skills, and abilities. Frequently, one individual will add to another’s contribution, thus developing something more than originally envisioned. Creative insights, such as these synergies are the innovations which fuel organization’s profits on a continuous basis.


  • Does your leadership promote a framework within which your team can actively and safely pursue creative ideas?
  • Do you bring individuals onto your team who have a diverse set of skills and knowledge?
  • Do you challenge your team to think beyond existing products, services, and paradigms?


  • Your leadership will shape the type of process your team will use
  • Collaboration is a powerful tool for high performing teams

Keywords: leadership, collaboration, Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, HOBY


  • Amabile, T. M. (1998). How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76(5), 76-87.
  • Ansell, C., & Gash, A. (2008). Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of public administration research and theory, 18(4), 543-571.
  • Bennis, W. G., & Biedermann, P. W. (1997). Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Perseus Books.
  • Chrislip, D. D., & Larson, C. E. (1994). Collaborative leadership: How citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Cohen, S. G., & Ledford, G. E., Jr. (1994). The Effectiveness of Self-Managing Teams: A Quasi-Experiment. Human Relations, 47(1), 13.
  • Deiglmayr, A., & Spada, H. (2010). Collaborative problem-solving with distributed information: The role of inferences from interdependent information. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13(3), 361-378.
  • Rentsch, J. R., Delise, L. A., Salas, E., & Letsky, M. P. (2010). Facilitating Knowledge Building in Teams: Can a New Team Training Strategy Help? Small Group Research, 41(5), 505-523.
  • Schrage, M. (1995). No more teams!: Mastering the dynamics of creative collaboration. New York: Currency Doubleday.
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Michigan Rising Under the Leadership of Governor Rick Snyder

The state of Michigan, long a manufacturing bastion of the United States, was on the skids in the heart of the recent recession. Unlikely gubernatorial candidate and self-proclaimed nerd Rick Snyder was swept into office on the heels of the recession. Willing to press forward and sometimes take an unpopular stand, Governor Snyder is leading the way to a better future. We can learn many lessons from him.

Rick Snyder

The first lesson is courage. Governor Snyder has eschewed conventional political wisdom and taken a firm stand on issues such as budget cuts and tax reductions. He has been able to improve the business climate by changing the business tax to a flat 6%. While the budget cuts have been painful for many and have cost a significant amount in political capital, Governor Snyder continues to press forward.

The second lesson we can learn is to take a holistic view. Creating a favorable business climate with low and simple taxation is simply one step along the journey. Businesses require an educated, talented workforce. Governor Snyder noticed the mismatch in number of students graduating with technical degrees and workforce requirements, and then promoted a program to retrain workers in areas of shortfall. Similarly, people want to live and work in a desirable living environment. And so, two of the points on the Reinventing Michigan plan are restoring Michigan cities and protecting the environment.

Finally, we can learn from the simple, clear way that the Governor communicates. In a throwback to President Ronald Reagan, he boils the issues down to a few. His card for Reinventing Michigan is a case in point. The points begin with “Create more and better jobs,” and continue from there. He doesn’t shy away from his scorecard, either. He adopted the use of a simple dashboard in order immediately determine the progress or lack thereof.

Not without his detractors, the governor is facing a second recall campaign after the first one withered on the vine, unable to gain the required votes. Despite the best of communication and rationale, none of us want to have to give up any pay, perks, or educational funds.

Some wonder if Governor Snyder deserves the credit for this renaissance. Sure, the global economy has improved and he’s enjoyed the bailouts for the auto companies, but when I talk with business owners in the state they tell me they believe he’s authentic in truly wanting to turn the state around. So far he’s made great strides.


  • Summon the courage necessary to move your initiative forward
  • Take a holistic view
  • Communicate simply and clearly

Keywords: leadership, communication, holistic view, courage

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The Leadership Style of Osama bin Laden

Last week, on the one year anniversary of the fatal raid of Osama bin Laden’s house, a set of documents was released providing us additional insight into the mind of this famed terrorist. While certainly a despicable character, I find his charisma and longevity remarkable. Let’s take a look at his approach.

Osama bin Laden


Osama bin Laden had a clear and consistent vision—attack America. He viewed the United States as an immoral nation, full of homosexuality, gambling, alcohol, and an unacceptable alliance with Israel.

Loosely allied terrorist groups frequently adopted this mission and expanded it to include local governments. This caused bin Laden quite a bit of consternation. He made a considerable effort to moderate these more extreme groups. In this sense he was a moderate.

He admonished rogue groups who reinterpreted ancient Islamic law regarding collateral damage in the event of an attack into enemy territory. While Islamic law may allow this only in extreme circumstances, these regional groups considered it acceptable to inflict casualties to innocent bystanders, including Muslims during “normal” operations.


As these regional groups adopted more radical terrorist tactics bin Laden attempted to persuade them to come back into the fold and moderate their behavior. Surprisingly, based upon the materials I have examined, it seems that he did not attempt to use coercion or punishment as tools in this regard. Other al Qaeda leaders wanted to take more polar positions with these errant groups, either distancing themselves or bringing them under their wing in order to broaden the reach of al Qaeda central.


Osama bin Laden’s journey from country to country has been well-documented. He fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, then returned to his home country of Saudi Arabia from which he was expelled. He chose to live in Sudan and continue to build a network of terror. Pressured to leave that country, he boarded a chartered flight back to Afghanistan. Upon his return he struck up a friendship with Mullah Omar and began to establish the fighter training camps. Each stop along bin Laden’s journey he adapted to the local culture and developed a strong network of allies.


In order to execute successful terrorist attacks significant training is necessary and bin Laden knew this. He invested both time and money in people and equipment. The September 11, 2001 attacks are a prime example of meticulous plans executed well.


From the beginning, Osama bin Laden felt that discipline and a code of conduct were necessary. The al Qaeda manual obtained in a raid on a Manchester, England house reveals a number of values and behaviors demanded from all members. These included patience, a calm personality, a commitment to the organization, and the Islamic faith.

And so we can get a better picture of Osama bin Laden the leader. Far from a feckless leader, he developed a vision and remained steadfast in it. He adapted well to contrary events, trained his people, and demanded the best of his men.

Osama bin Laden: loathsome—yes. A successful leader—yes, unfortunately.


  • Maintain a clear and consistent vision
  • Use power wisely and effectively
  • Remain adaptable, able to adjust to changes in outside forces
  • Invest in training for your people
  • Communicate well to assure alignment of everyone in the organization

Keywords: leadership, vision, power, adaptability, training, alignment


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Are the Mics on? What to Communicate

On March 26, 2012, US President Barack Obama was in South Korea and met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. As they were preparing to give remarks to reporters President Obama leaned over to President Medvedev and stated that he would “have more flexibility” in missile defense negotiations after his election.

This blunder is reminiscent of an off-the-cuff declaration by President Ronald Reagan on August 11, 1984 prior to his weekly radio address. Reagan announced, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

These comments bring to mind the issue of what to communicate to your team. As a leader you may frequently undertake exercises or explorations with radical negative team impacts. Since these exercises often have a very small chance of being executed and a release of an incomplete plan can install fear into team members, it is important that they stay within a small group of colleagues. While this may smack of clandestine and unsavory business dealings, it is the smart thing to do.

If you are negotiating with an external party this complicates matters further. You do not want to tip your hand to the other party, inadvertently providing them with an advantage. Negotiations can sometimes involve multiple individuals with specific roles, including “good cop/bad cop” duties, the technocrats, the diplomats, and so on. To share such details with your team is both unnecessary and a waste of time and energy.

When considering how much information to share broadly with your team, a litmus test I use is to consider:

  • Likelihood that the scenario will play out
  • Ramifications on the psyche of individual performers
  • Effect of a transmission of partial information or information taken out of context to other groups
  • The value of your team having the information vs. not having the information.

Whatever information you do share with your team, assume that it will be spread widely. I often chuckle at the comment, “Don’t tell anyone, but…” If everyone follows this common policy then everyone ends up knowing the information.

On a related note, I routinely have leaders confide to me that team members are talking behind their backs. Expect that. Accept the fact that everyone is talking about everyone and forget it. Move on to more important issues. People share thoughts and experiences to expand their knowledge and to attempt to bring certainty to uncertain situations. This is why rumors start.

As humans, we abhor uncertainty. Rumors are an effort to find certainty in uncertain circumstances. It is best to deal with rumors using frequent, clear, honest communication. In these communications it is acceptable and reasonable to say that you cannot divulge all information. A good example is potential layoffs. If rumors begin you may need to state that layoffs are being explored but that they are a last resort. You should also state what actions are being taken in order to avoid such an action.

Here’s a parting thought on what to communicate… Think about what you would tell an eight year old child of yours about a possible negative event. On one hand you want to prepare the child, on the other you don’t want to instill him or her with anxiety or fear. So remain thoughtful and diligent about what and how you communicate.


  • Communicate only what is valuable and necessary for your team
  • Assess the ramifications of what you are planning to share
  • It’s acceptable to state that you can’t share everything at the moment but that you will provide updates as more information becomes certain

Keywords: leadership, communication, rumor, negotiation


  • Allport, F. H. (1924). Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • DiFonzo, N., & Bordia, P. (2006). Rumor psychology: Social and organizational approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Hersey, P., Blanchard, K. H., & Johnson, D. E. (1993). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (6th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Leidner, D. E. (1998). Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(4). Retrieved from
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