TTLS 12 | Disrupt Toxicity


Is your company suffering from low morale, high turnover, or lack of productivity? One of the most common aspects of toxic organizational behavior is that individuals get on autopilot. This takes a toll on the organization as employees become self-serving and short-sighted when working with others. John Riordan joins Dr. Kevin Sansberry to talk about ways to detoxify and disrupt toxicity in the workplace. John shares how he consulted with a broad range of federal, private sector, and nonprofit organizations over the last 20 years, and how his insights provided great value to their success. Learn more as Dr. Kevin Sansberry and John Riordan discuss how we can sustain a culture that counteracts toxicity and keep our hearts and minds open for long-term success.

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How Can We Intentionally Disrupt Harmful Behavior? With John Riordan

One of the most common aspects of toxic organizational behavior is that individuals get on autopilot. People become less conscious of their actions, and in some cases, this is great. However, when it comes to working with others, this is not ideal. In the grand organizational structure, we become increasingly short-sighted and stuck in our own ways. John Riordan has consulted with a broad range of Federal, private sector and nonprofit organizations over several years. His insights were great to hear that relate to this phenomenon. As we seek to sustain a culture that counteracts toxicity, we must keep our hearts and minds open for long-term success. Let’s get to it.

We have John Riordan. How are you doing, John?

I’m doing great. Thanks.

I’m so happy to be able to talk to you about many aspects of toxic leadership, toxic behavior, digging into diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and those topics. I’m excited that you’re here, and I can’t wait for people to get to meet you.

Thanks. It’s good to be here. It’s a pleasure. It’s been great getting to know you.

TTLS 12 | Disrupt Toxicity

Disrupt Toxicity: No matter how challenging the situation may be, an effective leader can bring a team together. Conversely, you can have all the talent on the team in the world, but if a leader is not effective, they cannot bring that team together.


Before we jump in, John, I wanted to give you the opportunity to share with the audience who you are and what work you do.

I do leadership and development training. A lot of folks find that they have the desire to have an impact, make a difference to do something beyond, check the box, and do their job. They want to do something they don’t know how necessarily. They don’t have all the tools. I love helping leaders and aspiring leaders expand their capacity to have an impact. I provide engaging, interactive training and consulting and online courses to give leaders the tools they need to make a difference.

What got you in work originally? Why did you start doing this work?

I have always been drawn to the idea of leadership without knowing what to call it ever. Ever since high school, I stepped up and led on stuff, everything from the exchange program to the student president to the captain of the team. It didn’t occur to me that I had that drive. I got involved in student leadership development, the idea of training and tools and strategies that you can use to be more effective. I then worked with young adults in Uganda for eight years, developing leadership at that level. I finally realized that I could do this as a profession, so now I help adults, professionals, and executives in the professional realm. I do a lot of pro bono work with nonprofits and organizations to help leaders and aspiring leaders expand their capacity to have that impact.

It sounds like you saw the impact leadership had on you. In your journey, it maximizes everybody else.

A lot of leadership is like love. You know it when it's there, and you know when it's not there even when sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it. Click To Tweet

They say leadership is like love. You know it when it’s there, and you know when it’s not there. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s encouraging and inspiring when you are around an effective leader. No matter how challenging the situation may be, an effective leader can bring a team together. Conversely, you can have all the talent on the team in the world. If a leader is not effective, they cannot bring that team together and make it jell. It’s an interesting mystery. At the same time, leaders can use practical tools and strategies.

I like that you brought up the context because some leaders get by because the context is good. We’re in a bull market. Leaders don’t have to do anything because everybody is thriving. People get blinded by the context like, “Our retention is good,” but you have to pay a little market. People stand because of that, not due to anything culturally or leadership-wise.

There are tools and levers for a leader to use, but when you strip those away and try to look just at the leadership component, are you engaging folks where they’re at? Are you longing them towards a particular mission, inspiring them to get going and get charged, and helping them find their own sustainable motivation? Those are the threads of leadership that make that difference. It’s not everything, but it’s a huge thing.

Those tools run out eventually. The research talks about a salary increase lasting about 4 to 6 weeks, then impact on the person. What’s left after that is the leadership. They talk about how people don’t leave bad organizations. They leave bad bosses and leaders. It’s important for us, for people like you, to focus on how we are always trying to develop and become more well-rounded leaders to meet the needs of society and people. What are some things you have been working on that you see as emerging related to leadership?

One is the degree of uncertainty in the future going forward. Not every organization but many organizations, leaders, and teams are facing this tremendous uncertainty about what does the post-COVID world look like either directly for their own organization like, “How do we return to this office workplace? Do we return? Do we go virtual? Do we hybrid? What do we do here?”

TTLS 12 | Disrupt Toxicity

Disrupt Toxicity: Leaders are showing up toxic because of unmet psychological needs that they have. They’re stressed out because of something and they just project that stress into something they have control or power over.


That’s tremendously uncertain, or if it’s not themselves, then it’s their stakeholders, customers, and the rest of the world. There’s this tremendous sense of uncertainty of having the tools and skills to navigate that. It is tremendously important for a lot of leaders now. The other one is I call it sustaining balance amidst the virtual chaos, this moving very suddenly virtual as opposed to intentionally virtual. If I choose to work virtually, I set up my home office and get all the equipment I need.

Most got thrown into the virtual world overnight. I was working at the dining room table with the kids running around, with the noise, and I had a bad internet connection. This office didn’t exist months ago. We had to refine ourselves in terms of the work balance and our work-life balance and how that gets disrupted. We’ll talk later about the toxicity of a culture that pulls you in a million directions. A relevant conversation now is how you find a sustainable way of leading, which encompasses life in the long-term, not just being put into something and burnout.

It’s like how can we be more long-term-oriented because that helps us become more strategic in a short-term culture because it allows us to be proactive, which is not something we are doing in our culture. We’re very reactive.

We are very reactive, short-term oriented, and immediate return like, “I want this right away. I want to get the bang for the buck.” The fact is that we know this intuitively, but that’s not sustainable, yet we get sucked into that culture.

What are some things you’re thinking about where these are some areas in which we need to take that short-term hat off and position ourselves more longer-term and more strategic? Are there any areas in particular that you’re looking at now?

It's important for people to focus on how they can develop more well-rounded leaders to meet the needs of society. Click To Tweet

For me, it breaks down into three levels. There’s the view and yourself. Your being as a leader. Are you thinking long-term about yourself? One metaphor I beat to death is when you get on the airplane, they say, “If the oxygen masks come down, stop screaming. Put the mask over your face. Pick your favorite child and help them.” The reality is you got to put your own oxygen mask on first. Many leaders and people are so inclined to help and invest in work and get engaged. They forget, “I don’t have my own oxygen mask on.” You’ve got to think long-term about you and your capacity.

It’s not about being selfish. It’s about saying, “Am I investing in myself? Am I sustaining myself? Am I turning the camera off? Am I closing my laptop at a sustainable time in other relationships and other areas of my life physically, spiritually, mentally, socially so that I can sustain this leadership as an individual? What about my folks? What about my colleagues?”

It’s not about who you’re in charge of. If you are a supervisor, great, but what about your colleagues? Have you checked in on them? What about your supervisor? It’s like, “How are you doing? You have your oxygen mask on. Maybe we should not have this meeting at 7:00 PM. Maybe we ought to do it tomorrow morning.” Help others get their masks on, be sustainable, and think long-term. There’s the enterprise level. Are we as an enterprise or an organization thinking long-term? We need to act short-term and get stuff done but do we have a strategic plan? Are we thinking long-term and investing for the future?

I like the different levels you talk about. I’ll start with the self-one. When we talk about self-care, I’ve been hearing a lot about well-being. COVID is how people center themselves a little better, but the foundation of a lot of people’s successes is overwork and perfectionism like, “I’m going to endure the stress because that’s normalized.” It has been hard for people to do that authentically.

I’m the poster child of any of us. I can overwork with the best of them. When COVID hit, I had to transform. I’m like a cliché story. Overnight, I went from 100% in-person business to 100% virtual. I had to create an office, create a space, figure out the tools, techniques, and technology, and re-engage with my clients. I had to redevelop. I have deployed a series of almost 30 online course modules to work with clients and give them the training and materials.

TTLS 12 | Disrupt Toxicity

Disrupt Toxicity: Leaders can easily ascertain balance by asking questions and truly getting to know their staff over and above the task they have.


All of that happened in a span of what would have taken years had to happen in months. It was late nights and long weekends, 24/7. The difference being, being conscious of this was a season. When the building is on fire, it’s all hands on deck. We need to put the fire out, but that’s not sustainable and not a good idea for the long term. It is not a sustainable lifestyle. For some people, it might be.

It comes to terms with, “Look how much I got done. I’ll work all weekend next weekend.” I love the concept of balance, which gets overused but am I working in a sustainable way that creates balance in my life? What about my marriage, family, kids, or other investments? I want to invest in myself and in these other areas in a sustainable manner.

It reminds me of the book called Wellbeing. Tom Rath wrote that book. It talks about those five essential elements, career, financial, social, physical well-being, and community. Some people also add spiritual too. As we think about those different forms of life’s well-being, when you talk about balance, I like to use the word harmony because you explain that very well. You had to bring work home a little bit, but you harmonize it versus allowing one to become a lifestyle over the other. I like hearing that. On a team level, a lot of the way you frame it cascades and has a domino effect. If you are able to put your mask on, you’re able to truly put somebody else’s mask on.

Sometimes, leaders are showing up toxic because of unmet psychological needs that the leader has. They’re stressed out because of something at home, and they project that stress to something they have control and power over. Let’s say the leader in this situation gets everything they had to do to bring that harmony from a self-standpoint. What are some lessons you’re hearing as leaders metaphorically put on others’ masks and bring harmony to the team? What are some lessons learned there?

One of my big themes that cut across everything is this idea they call the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Platinum Rule is, “Do unto others the way they would like it to be.” Here’s why that’s important. For me, balance looks like trying to get to the gym every day. It’s like spending time with my wife and kids. I love the outdoors and the autumn. That creates sustenance and oxygen for me. That’s my oxygen mask. You might have an entirely different set of what creates balance for you. It’s like, “Kevin, did you get to the gym?”

Being long-term oriented helps you become more strategic while being in a short-term culture allows you to be proactive. Click To Tweet

Kevin’s like, “I don’t want to go to the gym. It doesn’t help me at all.” It’s not about putting my oxygen mask on you. It’s your oxygen masks. I love that question. I use this when coaching. What gives you oxygen? I’m asking clients to think about and would encourage every reader, “What brings oxygen to me?” Hone in on that. I can’t tell you how I feel about autumn leaves. It’s a soul thing for me.

For other people that care less, that’s not their thing. Good for you. It is finding those touchpoints for oxygen at any time in any place and being able to hone in on those in any situation. It’s awesome when it’s a beautiful sunny day, and there are beautiful autumn leaves. What about on a rainy, cold day? Where do I find the oxygen there? That’s relational, spiritual, mental, physical, and part of that balance point in bringing oxygen into my system.

Leaders can easily ascertain that by asking questions and truly getting to know your staff over and above their task. That’s a piece there because when you go back to that long-term orientation, the biggest piece to a leader and a manager is time orientation. If I’m having that manager mentality, I’m focused on more short-term things and getting things done. From a leadership standpoint, I’m able to think more long-term strategically. That’s where the foundation of a relationship you build with your team is important too.

There was a great quote I wish I could attribute. It’s four words, “Manage things. Lead people.” You have to do these things. There’s a great metaphor around this. I do a lot of work in the Military community. You need to have your boots and your ammunition. You need to have the basics, the food. It is Maslow’s hierarchy. You got to manage the basics of your organization or team, and you also need to lead your people. I don’t care if you’re in charge, even as a frontline staff member. I’m managing my workload, I turn around, and I ask a colleague, “How are you doing? Have you got any oxygen? How’s your balance? How’s your family? How’s your home? What would help? Is there anything I can do to encourage you?” You’re caring and leading people, not managing the human-robot.

When people ask me what toxic leadership is you can take that quote when people try to manage people as assets or resources.

TTLS 12 | Disrupt Toxicity

Disrupt Toxicity: Toxic leadership is when you try to manage people as an asset or as a resource.


I’m sure you’ve seen this in your world, human resources, for a long time. You’ve started to see, as well as I. Organizations are changing that title and getting rid of the word resource. It’s like, “I want a resource to be used, tapped, and exhausted.”

I test a lot of people leaders. How have you changed the way you operate with your little new title? Is it a title change, or is this symbol real? Organizations are very crafty at changing titles but not changing culture. It goes further.

I do a lot of work with emerging leaders that are not yet in a supervisory role. As the language we use in our culture, they don’t yet have a leadership position. You might have a position, but you can still choose to lead. The position gives you certain authorities and tools, but that doesn’t make you a leader. As we all know and talk about, you can have a position and not lead, let alone be a toxic leader. You cannot have a position or authority and lead. What that comes down to for me is influence.

John Maxwell said, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” I love that. That nails it because it is about influencing your colleagues, supervisor, and the organization with your ideas, encouragement, and balance. When you bring oxygen to the team, you’re influencing the team. If I walk in the room and suck all the oxygen out of the room, now I’m the one who has to be rescued. That’s leadership, regardless of position. It is about moving with position and changing mentality in terms of responsibility for others.

That formal authority only goes so far as it relates to influence because the formal authority will eventually turn into coercion. People are doing it because of your title.

You have to think long-term about yourself and your capacity. It’s not about being selfish; it's about investing in yourself and sustaining yourself. Click To Tweet

I’ve done some volunteer work with Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force auxiliary. We would go down to Fort Pickett down in Virginia and see these endless seas of barracks. What is this for? In World War II it’s called farm the front, taking these young men from Kansas from the farms and sending them in six weeks, putting them on the front lines. When you have six weeks and you’re going to a life and death battle, command and control is the way of doing that. Do exactly what you’re told and nothing else.

We have come away from that, and we need to intentionally come away from that because it’s not about six weeks to the front. It’s about developing someone so they can bring their whole capacity to the organization. Now, people have tremendous capacity. There’s a real shift from command and control to leadership as investing and developing you to bring your best to the team and others.

Some people that do not have a military background at times or even people that do bring that command and control mindset to the workplace and wonder why they have issues.

It’s part of the cultural context to some extent.

We expect innovation, but you command and control, so you’re not going to get innovation. It’s like the opposite me. It’s contrast. One of the things that come up a lot is that example. I try to tell people one of the innate advantages that we as homo sapiens have is our ability to tell a story and see symbols and things that don’t have a symbol. We could see a face in the moon, and there’s not even a face. We can be inspired by the sun and worship the sun. We are able to find meaning and derive meaning from that, but what that is our ability to inspire and be inspired. As John Maxwell said, I try to tell leaders that your ultimate goal is to influence and further inspire others to be more and do greater work. You don’t have to command or control that.

TTLS 12 | Disrupt Toxicity

Disrupt Toxicity: Formal authority only goes so far as it relates to influence because the formal authority will eventually just turn into coercion. People are just doing it because of your title.


You could argue that command and control is not leadership in a way if you define leadership as truly influencing you. They say true leadership is when someone does the thing when you’re not even there, when you’re looking, or when you’re not around, regardless of whether they do it because they’re choosing to do it. That’s the holy grail of leadership. Command and control means, “Do it because I told you, and if I walk away, what are you going to do?” You got to stop doing it.

It is about Investing and developing people, not doing that judiciously about a return on your investment in different contexts and organizations, but investing in people so that they can grow in that capacity to deliver. I take pride when I’m coaching clients, and somebody says, “I’m in the wrong organization.” Good for you. That’s a great realization that, “This is not where I should invest.” You need to find the place where you can bring your full self to that investment so that you’re getting the returns on your investment of your life, career, work, and everything.

I wish people thought that way, “How I’m spending my time, and where I’m spending it? Is this the right investment for education, what I want to do, and who am I as a person? What’s the return?” The third avenue you went for is our long-term orientation related to the business, organization, or enterprise as a whole. Tell me more about that.

You can see how this plays out in the difference between short-term returns and our societal or cultural pressure to return on investment for your stakeholders because your investors got to make their profits. The temptation is to add water to the coffee because then we can make more money. It goes for a short spike, and then it’s going to come crashing down because people are going to stop buying your crappy coffee.

In investing for the long-term, there are still bounces. You still got a return of some investment and some profits in the near term and got some near term results. Leadership is holding that balance and asserting the need for a long-term perspective and investment, whether it’s with your people but your people as part of the overall organization. That is tremendously challenging in a culture that is so focused and pressured on immediate return. It’s very hard.

A position gives you certain authority and gives you certain tools but that doesn't make you a leader. Click To Tweet

It is also derived from how we create goals, how the system was, and the system reward. There is some cool research on why do organizations manipulate stock returns. In the end, it’s short-term orientation. That’s short-term thinking, but we need to create a system that rewards the long-term orienting behaviors. That’s the next step.

Another great quote says, “The system is perfectly designed to give you exactly what you’re getting.” Whatever it is you’re getting, the system is operating perfectly to give you that. If it’s not what you want, you got to back up and look at the system and go, “What do I have to shift? What do I have to adjust in order to create a new trajectory and result?”

Leaders have the ability to look at the system and where we need to make those shifts to get different results and not blame the people. A lot of times, we blame people for stuff, and it’s like, “Come on.” They’re being conditioned that way, and that behavior is being accepted, so shift the system and rewards.

This has been awesome. I appreciate that. Before we wrap up, I want to talk to you about some words of wisdom in some different areas based on your career and some learning that you’ve had, especially how we can get leaders to transcend that short-term orientation and operate more strategically. What words of wisdom would you want to leave us with?

Goffee and Jones coined this phrase as part of their research, “Be yourself with more skill.” It is five words. You talk about words of wisdom for leaders and aspiring leaders. I’ve been training and developing leaders for several years with all the tools and strategies. Be yourself, but if you stop there, it’s self-satisfying like, “This is who I’m becoming.” You don’t like it tough. My dad was an old-school Marine Corps. He would tell you, “I’m your boss. If you don’t like it tough, whatever.” That won’t fly at it, but it’s not just be yourself. Those two words alone are a lifelong journey. Be yourself with more skill.

What I love about those three extra words is that it opens up the challenge to be true to myself and add more skillfulness, thought, intentionality, and tools to my toolkit. I’m a diehard extrovert. I could talk for 30 minutes non-stop to a brick wall. I am being myself. I’m enjoying the extroverted aspect of who I am, bringing energy to the room, my clients, and my relationships. More skillfully means trying to shut up from time to time. Stop talking. Create space for others. Be myself with more skill. Those are the words of wisdom I picked up from Goffee and Jones that I have embraced and passed on.

It reminds me of like, “I want to be my best self. How can I be my best self?” I love that a lot because it centers on not trying to be somebody else or trying to emulate. It also centers, “You got to learn who you are. Who are you?” Spend time with that. As you said, it’s a lifelong journey. A lot of the audience wants to get a hold of folks based on what we talk about. How can we reach you, and what initiatives are you working on?

I’m very proud to say that I have recreated my entire existence. My team has helped me create a great website with all the resources on there. It is A lot of folks are frustrated with dry material and not very engaging online training. The reality is to get the tools you need. I have been excited to capture these online course modules’ concepts, tools and strategies. I am delivering virtual training and/or in-person, helping leaders and teams and expand their capacity to make a difference in the world and get the results they’re trying to achieve in a sustainable manner. The online courses and resources are there. There’s a whole set of free resources that I have collected over the years, like articles and video clips on a whole bunch of topics. You click on the resource tab, and you can see all those. It has been fun to have a team that helped me create all that.

Are you on LinkedIn as well?

I am on LinkedIn and Facebook.

It has been nice to talk to you.

Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate it. It has been great to get to know you. I’ll look forward to more conversations in the future.


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About John Riordan

John knows what it means to face the challenges of leadership and produce real results under extremely difficult conditions. Beginning in 1990, he invested 8 years in the future of a nation struggling to overcome a tragic history of genocide, racism, and anarchy. What emerged was Cornerstone Leadership Academy – a comprehensive boarding school community for young adults focusing on leadership, character, spiritual and intellectual development. As co-founder and Director of the Academy, John and his family lived on-site for 8 years and dealt with the challenges of turning a revolutionary vision into a reality in the midst of racial and tribal tensions, scarce resources, and numerous physical hardships.
In 1999, John met Cindy Zook, an experienced Organization Development practitioner, who gave him an opportunity to learn from her as an Associate, and eventually Senior Consultant. Beginning 20 years ago with the Excellence in Government (EIG) Fellows Program, John has supported hundreds of rising leaders from nearly every federal agency in expanding their leadership capacity. He has provided engaging, challenging Leadership Development programs for the US Army, NASA, CMS, and other clients.
John has consulted with a broad range of federal, private sector and non-profit organizations over the past 20 years, conducting hundreds of planning, team building and training workshops ranging from large conferences (200+) to small intact teams.
John and his wife Margaret, from Sydney, Australia, have four children and reside in Ashburn, Virginia. He has been actively involved with the Civil Air Patrol (Air Force Auxiliary), the Loudoun County Animal Shelter, the Honor Flight Network (bringing Veterans to DC) and does pro-bono work with several other community organizations.
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