In Defense of Toxics

When we talk about organizational leadership, which we will be doing quite a bit this year, we like to talk about how most people within any given organization can be bucketed into three groups or types:

  • Oarsmen: As a one-time college rower, I like this one a lot. This person knows the organization’s mission, believes in it and is exerting all his or her effort to row the boat in that direction and in sync with the other oarsmen.
  • Kimonos: This person’s watchword is personal comfort. They’re along for the ride more than anything else. Instead of pulling on an oar, we like to think of them wearing one of those silky Japanese robes, maybe sipping some tea, while the oarsmen pull hard. They don’t get in the way and they’re perfectly happy to be there, but they’re not really adding anything to the effort.
  • Toxics: These are the people who, whether for personal or other reasons, just can’t get in sync with the other people in the boat. Maybe they’re pulling in the opposite direction, maybe they’re rowing in such a way that their oar interferes with those being pulled by the Oarsmen, maybe they’re whispering nasty gossip about the coxswain (the small dude in the front of the boat who’s steering it and calling the cadence) to the Kimono in the seat next to them.

There’s plenty to talk about regarding how to effectively lead these groups, but I want to take today just to speak briefly in defense of Toxics.

We like the name Toxic because it perfectly captures their effect within an organization, but I think it’s hugely important to draw a line between “our” Toxics and the culturally popular notion of “toxic people,” who have been the subject of many, many a self-help book over the years.

In TIP World, toxicity is completely context-dependent. People are not toxic; rather, each of us is more than capable of ending up in situations where we become toxic to a given group, organization or effort. One of the goals of our teaching at The Iron Project is to help people develop the leadership self-awareness necessary to recognize when they are toxic.

When I teach, I often tell the folks in the classroom about three different areas of my life right now. In one, I am an Oarsman and that’s great. I’m pulling hard and having impact.

In another I am a Kimono, just along for the ride. That may change in the future, but for now and in that situation, I need to just be a passenger in someone else’s boat.

In a third, I have no doubt I am Toxic. That is painful to admit, but it also has a freeing element to it, because it allows me to understand why that situation has been the source of so much frustration and unhappiness in my life. More importantly, it allows me to think about the situation in terms of how I need to either change or remove myself from it, rather than continuing to bang my head against a wall.

If you’re reading this, I encourage you to take stock of your own life. Where are you an Oarsman, Kimono or Toxic? How can recognizing your own toxicity free you to extricate yourself from situations that are making you and others unhappy and where you’re not contributing to forward movement?

And if you want to learn more on this topic or hear about TIP’s approach to organizational leadership training, please contact us.

Tim Whitmire