Today’s episode is with Sean Leahy. Sean is a Proven leadership consultant with experience in various industries including sales, digital marketing, IT & organizational strategy.
This episode is important because as many leaders are looking for ways to detoxify their behavior and organizational culture, a commonly avoided aspect is feedback.
My hope is that this episode illustrates why feedback should be viewed as the gift that it is.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on Linkedin to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry. At KEVRA: The Culture Company, we partner to effectively evolve your organizational culture by focusing on competency development, best practices, and leading research to deliver systemic and innovative solutions for company success.
Have a question for Dr. Sansberry? Visit askdrkev.com to send your leadership and organizational-related questions.
Listen to the podcast here:
Is Feedback An Antidote To Toxic Leadership? An Interview With Sean Leahy
This episode is with Sean Leahy. Sean is a proven leadership consultant with experience in various industries, including sales, digital marketing, IT and organizational strategy. This episode is important because as many leaders are looking for ways to detoxify their behavior and organizational culture, a commonly avoided aspect is feedback. My hope is this episode illustrates why feedback should be viewed as the gift that it is. Let’s get to it.
We have Sean Leahy here. He is here to discuss some trials and tribulations of the toxic leader and some growth stories. How are you doing?
I’m doing well. Thank you for inviting me to your show. I appreciate this. I’m looking forward to this conversation a lot.
I enjoyed your experience and expertise in different things you’ve dealt with throughout your career. Talk to us a little bit about your background, where you came from and what you’re working on.
I’ve been working for a family business for many years. It’s a fourth-generation business. We had some issues as it relates to the pandemic. During that time, I took a step back and re-evaluated some things in my career. I’m working on getting my Doctorate in Business Administration and also teaching courses in MBA at Louisville University.
Never put people in so many manager traps that will hinder them from working at their best.
Prior to that, in my previous career, I was Director of Sales. I led a number of sales teams working in the hospitality industry. I’ve worked a number of careers and pivoted from one area to the next over those years. I did everything from marketing. I did project management with CRM software and Office 365. I was in sales before that, managing and directing sales teams, and then I was a sales rep. Prior to that, I was in finance. I had a broad background when I worked there.
Even before that, I had spent a number of years working on my own, working for some distribution companies, a nonprofit for the hospitality industry. I worked in some advertising companies. I got my feet wet for a number of years. I got to see some interesting sides to leadership and management during that time. I got to see the good, the bad and the people that helped me in my career. Unfortunately, I had people that weren’t necessarily the most beneficial either.
Luckily, I’ve had some great mentors in my life and that’s helping me a lot. It has been quite a journey over the years. I’m at a totally different point in my life where the sky is the limit. As I’m pursuing my doctorate and teaching as an adjunct, I’ve gone into consulting as well. It’s a little scary in your mid-40s to start thinking about new things, but with the experience that I have had over the years, I want to be able to bring to other people and help guide them in their future endeavors as well.
It’s so good to know the wide array of industry experience that you bring to the table. The focus of this show is discussing toxic leadership. Overall, what is your experience?
As a practitioner, I’ve learned a lot from the individuals that I’ve reported to. I even learned from the people that report up to me. A lot of my direct reports I’ve learned from as they should be. One thing I have learned time again is feedback. You’ll hear me say it a lot in this episode. Feedback is something that people don’t seem to recognize or appreciate.
How people give it to you is so important because there are people that give you feedback that isn’t necessarily giving you constructive feedback. It’s not even feedback. It may be criticism. It’s one thing to give criticism, but if you’re not giving something in return or suggestions on ways to handle situations differently, then you’re not helping that individual to grow.
In one of my first roles, I had a manager. It was her first time managing people and I could see the struggle there. She didn’t necessarily know how to do it per se. That wasn’t so bad thing. Everyone has to start from scratch somewhere. I was young. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was after that that I realized I hadn’t learned a lot from that individual. There were two individuals that stood out, my direct manager and the manager above this individual. I learned a lot. I wouldn’t say it was a good thing.
I remember my direct manager sat next to me in the cubicle. It was non-confrontational and I couldn’t get if the individual needed something. I would get emails, “Where is this file?” It was this whole thing saying, “I need the file now. Get it to me. Why haven’t you get it?” The emails were very negative. The funniest thing was she used to pulled a chair back and said, “Sean, where’s the email?”
I guess I could justify it by saying she had a record of it by saying she sent an email, but the way that many of the emails came across were more about she couldn’t confront people in a constructive way. We never had meetings. She never could get us all in a group to have a meeting. That was odd. The manager above her was definitely a struggle.
It was funny. I knew the CIO from a previous life. I said, “I was interested in working at the business.” I was networking. I was young. I said, “Could you help me out?” He said, “We may have a position for you.” I said, “Great.” He was like, “Let me meet with my eCommerce person.” I said, “That’s fantastic.” We sat down and she asked me how I knew the CIO. I said, “I knew him. I was interning at this other company.” I didn’t want to reveal a lot of it. He was the CIO in our family business. He taught me all my computer skills when I was a teenager. That’s how I had that relationship with him because when I was a teenager, he would come over and teach me all the stuff.
In any leadership or management role you’re in, recognize the people that came before you.
She asked me this question about how I knew him. I didn’t want that getting out there. I was trying to get in on my merits and background in marketing. She was like, “Cut the crap. I already know how you knew him.” I was like, “Okay.” It set the stage for the type of relationship I had with this individual. In meetings, the individual puts people down for whatever reason. She would try to make you feel stupid in your role. There wasn’t a lot of great feedback to help build you up and want you to move up in that organization.
I suspect a lot of it is based on conversations with this individual. This individual had come from a similar environment that was very toxic. When you see how bad that person’s experience shaped them, it made sense in the way they managed other people. Their experience clearly wasn’t positive. It came out in the way this individual manages the entire team. A lot of people were scared of this individual. It was difficult to work with this individual.
Finally, after eight months, I struggled with this individual and gave my notice. I had gotten a job somewhere else. Interestingly enough, when I told her I was leaving, she used that as a point to try to put me back in my place, letting me know that I was not a good fit for this job and, “I could see you working to make that.” I remember thinking to myself, “Why did you hire me if you think that?”
It was funny. I had left. A few months later, I was talking to someone that had worked there. I was relating this story and they said, “What did you say in the exit interview?” I said, “I didn’t have an exit interview.” They said, “You should always have an exit interview. That company always gives them.” I said, “This individual made sure you didn’t get one because they were nervous about their job.” At that point, I was gone. I was like, “Let bygones be bygones.”
I remember learning some key lessons from there, which was that empathy is a big deal when it comes to managing people. I wasn’t going to let myself that when I got into a leadership or management role allow myself. I wanted to hear other people’s opinions about how they felt. If they had strong opinions about the direction that I wanted to take our team, then I wanted to hear. I didn’t want them to be backseat drivers and complain after the fact.
I wanted to give them the level of respect that they felt. I wanted them to feel the same way I would want to feel. When I’m working with somebody and someone doesn’t treat me well, and I haven’t done anything to deserve it, then I get very upset by this. I said, “What can you do? How would you want to be treated in that situation?” I always ask myself that same question. If I’m not being treated well, something else is going on there.
It’s the Golden Rule like, “Do unto others as you would want to be done to you.” It’s simple but it’s amazing in Corporate America that people seem to forget that. For me, I was never going to allow that to happen. I never did. When I eventually became a manager, did I make missteps in the beginning? Yes, I did but I learned quickly. I learned what I needed to do. I put my people and teams first.
I said to myself, “I want to do whatever I can to build them up. If they were willing to work hard for me, I was going to do whatever I could to help them be successful in their career. If they wanted to be in a higher position than me, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make them successful because they’re going to make the rest of the organization successful.” I always put that foot forward.
It was important for me to work with emerging leaders to see that in them because if people were just doing it for the sake of doing it, what were they getting out of it? Did they want to be managers of people, or did they just see that as the next level up? That was part of the job I had to work with managing people. I never wanted people to go into roles that they didn’t feel they were qualified for. I wanted them to feel comfortable and they could be successful in those roles. I never want people to fall into the traps of all these managers that I had before that I felt weren’t that successful.
This has been great to know because I want to point out to readers that there were a lot of great opportunities and nuggets for learning. My first observation is you showed empathy even in your story. The moment you talked about the leader who may have been tearing you down, you realized they might have become a product of what they surrounded themselves with from a previous environment, which is absolutely true. Leaders get shaped by the environments they’re in.
A servant leader does not have an ego. They are humble, learn from their mistakes, infallible, and can be self-deprecating in many ways.
We talk about toxic leadership on this show, but the toxic leaders are sometimes in toxic organizational cultures. It could be chicken and egg, but we both know that comes up a lot. They’re correlated sometimes. Another thing I’ve heard was the fact that it’s optimal if leaders are spending time to build people up and not tear them down. That also goes with how feedback should be given. Talk to me a little bit more about why isn’t feedback viewed as a gift as we like to think it is. Why do people view it as a weapon? Why is it sometimes viewed that people should defend from? Talk to me about what are your thoughts on that.
I don’t think people understand feedback. I teach a course in Leadership Development and it has been enlightening. I love the students there. A lot of them have never managed people before. In all the management training you’ve done, traditionally, there isn’t this aspect of giving constructive feedback to people. I don’t know if people know how to give that to people in such a way as to help them.
There are multiple sides to feedback. Feedback could be taken as criticism. I had this manager. He was absolutely phenomenal. He was one of the best managers I have ever had. He could give feedback in such a way that was so bad about your ability to manage people, but you still walked out of that meeting feeling so good about yourself because he offered it in such a way as, “These are areas of improvement.” He never put the negative on it. He made you feel that you could take that information and learn from it. He also knew that I liked getting feedback and I could take that feedback. I learned a lot from him helping me with that.
I realized that any feedback I got was going to make me more successful. In feedback, there’s a balancing act because you don’t want to be too critical. You want to be able to use the feedback as an opportunity to develop them. I never want to use negative connotations with things, but it’s “Here are some areas of opportunity to develop that I think may need to be strengthened.” Asking them, you throw it back to them and say, “How do you feel that you need to be able to work on managing these skillsets that may need a little more massaging?”
I’m glad you brought that up because you demonstrated that even these “servant leaders” still have to give feedback that people may not agree with sometimes. It’s all about the way. There is such thing as toxic feedback that a lot of toxic leaders utilize to tear people down, where it comes across sometimes as personal where it’s like attacking the person and not the thing. You go on the internet and see all these feedback models, acronyms and stuff. Regardless of all of that, to me, it starts with as the leader, how are you managing how you show up?
My intent in any feedback I give to someone is to help them develop. I want them to learn from it.
I love that because whether you follow the acronym or whatever, as long as you’re in that mindset of development and being compassionate, it’s the Golden Rule. You want to treat people like you want to be treated, but it seems like a lot of leaders try to get mechanical with it like, “What’s the letters I got to follow? How do I say the magic words so they don’t get upset?” When in reality, you need to examine in the mirror your intention behind it.
That’s a good point. You have to put the ego aside. A servant leader does not have an ego. The best leaders out there are the ones that are humble, learn from their mistakes, are infallible and can be self-deprecating about themselves in many ways. That’s a good thing. I may sound egotistical and I’m not trying to. I’m just saying this is what I’ve seen in great leaders. They’re humbled in the role that they’re in and a humble servant to others. That’s important.
That’s the only way to earn respect. It’s not that they were looking to you as an equal. They’re looking to you for respect. You have to earn their respect. You can’t demand respect as a leader. For me, I learned that early on. The more you listen, the more that they can take that feedback and learn from it. If that feedback works for them, they’re going to come back and say, “Sean really got it.” They’re going to appreciate much more the feedback you give to them and learn from that.
That’s the goal. It seems like a lot of leaders like to utilize feedback. It comes across as coercion and domineering. I coach a lot of leaders and I tell them, “If somebody is not ready to receive the feedback, it’s probably not going to get anywhere.” It’s all about how you as a leader are approaching that conversation.
At the end of the day, there are going to be people out there that will not take feedback. They don’t want to listen to it. They don’t want to hear it. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot change a person completely. It isn’t always going to be effective. Sometimes, those people are happy where they’re at. They’re not going to move beyond what they’re in and that’s okay. They have to recognize at some point that other people who are willing to take feedback, learn from it and move forward in their career or take advice is going to help them in the future.
For that employee who may not want to take feedback or what have you, it is another honest conversation about expectations from the leader. As it relates to this feedback, these kinds of mental errors tend to happen because I could see leaders who are like, “My employee is not willing to accept feedback, so I’m going to stop giving it.” I could definitely see that as a reaction. When we think about a toxic leader, what if I found out I was the toxic party in the situation? For readers, you could be caught in that trap sometimes. It could be the way you give feedback. How do you keep yourself out of that? How can you be reflective and introspective?
You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot change it completely.
First of all, I meditate almost daily. I use that time to think about what I did. I make a lot of mistakes. I’m human and fallible. I have a family. I make mistakes with my children and wife. I’m a little of a hothead sometimes. I jump and sometimes I have to step back and think about things. One thing at least I would like to think is I’m pretty introspective in the sense of I like to look at myself and say, “Okay.” I’m not trying to brag. I try to use solitude to think back to the things that I did throughout my day.
I’m not as much into journaling. I’ve done that in the past. I get through states of journaling for days or weeks and then I just stop. I come back to it and I haven’t done it in a while. I try to look back at all the things that I’ve done and then ask myself, “Was that the right way to do it? Did I handle it the right way?” Even when I’ve managed people, I’ve asked them to give me feedback and say, “How are things going with me?” They’re always taken aback by that. I’m not like, “How are things going? Any feedback for me that you want to talk about?” They appreciate that I’ve done that.
It’s great if you ever have a manager who will do a leadership development program with you. You and I have talked before about 360 reviews. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that in roles as a sales rep and then as a director. As a director, I was able to get feedback anonymously from some of my direct reports. It was nice and honest feedback. Some of it wasn’t great. Some were good and I took it to heart.
I still have that report and they were pretty honest. It said, “Sean sometimes gets in over his head. Projects take on too much and can’t seem to focus sometimes.” At that time, when I did the 360, I thought these people were smart enough to know. They respected me enough to give me an honest answer. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have done it. I would have gotten flying colors, but I didn’t get flying colors, which was good. They still liked me but they still were honest enough in their responses. I appreciated that.
Something I’m thinking about is the importance of the leader cultivating that environment for feedback upwardly. It’s important to not just be, “Accept my feedback as a leader.” A leader also needs to reciprocate that same behavior. It’s all about signals. At the end of the day, if you take us out of the workplace, we’re humans. We’re human in the workplace but you know what I mean. Based on our conversation, you’ve dropped a lot of great insight on feedback and the importance of creating that environment and taking that ego out the way. What other wisdom would you leave readers with
For people who are emerging leaders, emerging managers, not necessarily the role but are looking to go into areas where they want to eventually manage people. I would say, A) Ask yourself why you want to be a manager of people. B) What do you want to get out of it? C) How are you going to do that role? Keep in mind that in any leadership or management role you’re in, recognize the people that came before you that helped teach you. We all had good and bad leaders. We’re all going to have good and bad leaders. What we learned from those individuals is how we structure our own way of leading people. That’s the most important thing to keep in mind when we find ourselves in a leadership position. Learn from our past but use it to create our own future.
How about sharing with our readers how they can reach out to you if they have any questions.
I’m available on LinkedIn. You’ll find me on LinkedIn. I have my own consulting firm that I’m starting up. We don’t have a website but once I get it up, I’ll post that on LinkedIn as well. The best way to reach me is through there. My email is SeanFLeahy@Gmail.com.
I can’t wait to hear more about some endeavors you’ll work on. I would love to invite you back in the future.
Thank you so much, Kevin. You’ve been a wonderful resource as well and someone to bounce ideas off of. I appreciate everything.
I want to thank everybody. Until next time.
- Sean Leahy – LinkedIn
- @ToxicLeadershipPodcast – Instagram
- @ToxicLeaderShow – Twitter
- KEVRA: The Culture Company – LinkedIn
About Sean Leahy
Proven management coach and leader in sales, digital marketing, IT, eCommerce development, finance, supply chain, & organizational strategy | firstname.lastname@example.org | 224-212-0744
Skills: Office 365, SAP CRM, Power BI, SAP eCommerce Cloud, RStudio, Python, SPSS, SalesForce
Specialties: Strategic Sales implementation, development, & management, digital marketing, innovative product sales, ad sales, organizational change and development, sales leadership development, eCommerce management, strategic account management, financial analysis, computer & networking administration