TTLS S2 10 | Toxic Leadership


Today’s guest is Marcel Schwantes, an international speaker, executive coach, syndicated columnist, host of the popular “Love in Action” podcast, and founder of Leadership from the Core.

In this episode, Marcel discusses how organizations can back up and move away from toxic leadership. This episode is important because it was insightful to hear Marcel’s knowledge of how people can cope with toxic work environments.

Listen to the podcast here:

Walking Back From Toxic Leadership With Marcel Schwantes

This episode is with Marcel Schwantes. He is an international speaker, executive coach, syndicated columnist and host of the Love in Action Podcast. This episode was important because it was insightful to know Marcel’s knowledge of how people can cope with toxic work environments. As we discussed, many people have experienced toxicity in their careers. We talked about the purpose of self-awareness and focusing on our mental well-being. I’m sure you’ll all enjoy reading Marcel’s insights. Let’s get to it.

We have Marcel Schwantes. How are you?

I’m doing well, Kevin. Thanks.

I appreciate having you here. For readers, I ran across a well-written article related to toxicity that I saw in Inc. or Forbes. Regardless of where it was, it was awesome. I had to reach out to Marcel. I was like, “I would love for you to be on the show.” I’m happy we are here to have a conversation about toxic leadership in the workplace.

It’s a much-needed discussion.

Before we jump into the very important topic, I want to give our audience the opportunity to learn a little bit more about you and how you came about to get into your work.

I came in through the HR channel of career development at the lowest level. In the HR sphere, I was a recruiter. Through promotion and high-performing, I went up through the ranks all the way to eventually sitting in the C-Suite as an HR person. I got to witness firsthand the behaviors, whether it was an individual or systemic behaviors of what goes on inside of the organization, the good, the bad and the ugly. I picked up a Master’s degree along the way and eventually, in 2013, I decided to go on my own and start my practice, which is what I’ve been doing since.

Where are you based?

I’m in Chattanooga in the backwoods of Tennessee. I was a Los Angeles kid. I grew up there all the way to my early 30s and then moved to Tennessee. It’s a little bit of a culture shock. Not to mention other things that were culturally a shock to me, like the size of bugs and the amount of mosquito bites you get in the summer.

You go from the beach air to the woods and the backwoods.

You go from a dry desert because California basically sits on a desert, most of it, to 80% or 90% humidity in the middle of the summer, where you maybe take 2 or 3 showers a day, which is not a bad thing.

There is a way of managing your emotions through self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

I saw a lot of similarities in our work. I’m glad to be able to talk to you. I wanted to know a little bit about your foray or your entry point into toxic leadership.

This is a horror story. If you didn’t have a toxic story, it’s not going to be a good one. You take me back to 2005 and I was in an HR role. I got to witness firsthand the toxic management structure. Basically, the people that I reported to, CEO, a director and another director-level consultant that was acting as an interim HR director at that time. I reported up to those people and I got to experience toxic leadership. The best way to describe it is it was a very fear-based environment.

You have to go through their system of decision-making and it was, as they say, “Their way or the highway.” If you did not align with their decision-making process, belief system and all that stuff, if you were to encounter that and maybe had your own ideas about something that worked better or more efficiently, it was immediately seen as you’re not being a good soldier.

By nature, it’s in my personality type. If you’ve taken those assessments, I tend towards being a little more free-spirited in a rigid, top-down autocratic environment where toxicity is high that goes against the grain. It comes across as a threat. I was a threat. The more I tried to exercise some level of influence and creativity and doing things that I thought were doing the right thing, the more I kept budding up against the toxic system that I was under.

Because these are people in positions of power and authority, they made my life a living hell. The end of that story was eventually, the stress level was so high that one day, I stepped out of my shower in the morning and fell to the floor. I could not feel my back. I had to crawl commando-style to my cell phone in another room and call my parents. I was young at that time. I had just moved out. I was a twenty-something kid. My parents took me to the ER because I couldn’t move.

The ER doc looked at me straight in the eye and said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how high is your stress right now in the workplace?” I said, “Doc, about 25.” He said, “It makes sense because this is a stress-related issue. The reason that your back is out and you can’t move is that you have so much cortisol rushing through your body that your back could no longer withstand and support it.” That was the biggest wake-up call I ever had. I was able to transition out on good terms after that horrendous experience.

TTLS S2 10 | Toxic Leadership

Toxic Leadership: If you’re under that kind of toxic environment and you don’t want to leave or you can’t, you have to figure out a way to manage your emotions in response to the toxicity coming your way.


The next position after that was the complete opposite of a toxic management environment. It was something that I took them to label as a servant leadership culture. The person I reported to was a servant leader. It was a real before-and-after transformation of what would eventually become my leadership practice. As a practitioner, yes, but also as a philosophy of leadership to live by and help others as well to lead by because it can make a tremendous impact on the lives of human beings.

I’m sorry to hear that story happened to you, but I appreciate the way you bounced back from a resiliency standpoint. One of the things that a lot of people may be willfully ignore is the impact of stress as it relates to those environmental factors that impact our bodies. A lot of talk about in toxic workplaces tend to downplay it because they feel stuck. They’re downplaying the impact, “It’s not that bad.” I’m like, “Is it not really? You’re crying right now and going through this stuff. Your hair is falling out.” I appreciate you bringing voice to something that we try to under-utilize or under-talk about it. For me, there has to be another way.

As we think about our response to toxicity, it shouldn’t be, “I’m going to just go through these health problems and endure,” because some people won’t leave. You left and got into a better situation. Now, you help people all around the world, but not everybody will take that risk or have the privilege to do so. You brought up cortisol, stress hormones and stress responses. From the individual, how do we reverse some of that? How do we walk backward away from the environments we’re in, in a way mentally or physically? How would you see that happening? What would you tell somebody?

If you’re under that kind of toxic environment and you don’t want to leave, maybe for financial reasons and you can’t because that steady paycheck is important, now you have to figure out a way to manage your emotions in response to the toxicity coming your way. If that means that you reframe something that comes at you that you might take personally, this time, reframe it to think, “Maybe that person didn’t mean what the intent is. It could have been a positive intent rather than a negative intent.”

That helps to shift your perspective. Even though, 2 to 3 days from now, you might get a boss to bring the hammer down and tell you basically, “You must do this or else,” there is a way of managing your emotions through things like self-awareness, emotional intelligence and how we respond versus react. We can get into that. There’s also the self-care part. Under my story, I had to up the ante on my self-care.

What that meant is I had to be more mindful of the hour of what was going through my brain and be more mindful of the thoughts I was having. Also, I do a little more meditation work to keep myself from going to stress mode and having those cortisol hormones and adrenaline kick in, which shall lead you to fear and fight-or-flight. A lot of it is, “What am I thinking at the moment?” Step back and go, “Is this realistic or I might just have a freak-out session, which will lead to all kinds of other bad things?”

When you have a mixture of both masculine and feminine traits, you have the ingredients for an amazing leader and an amazing company culture.

Part of the research in emotional intelligence, talk about the more important piece of emotional intelligence is self-awareness and self-management. I also see that as a part of not just our emotions, but psychologically what we’re going through, how we’re feeling and you just haven’t displayed that. That’s important. You mentioned meditation. Finding a centering activity seems important for folks.

I was going to add that meditation is key. I didn’t experience this in a toxic environment that I shared, but I have experienced panic attacks in other instances in my life. What has always helped me is, once I figured out how to manage it from happening, meditation can be something as simple as doing a breathing exercise for less than two minutes to get your system back into more of a balanced state because panic attacks will happen out of nowhere. It’s very unpredictable.

I’ve done those same types of techniques myself, like the 4-7-8 breathing technique or box breathing. It has been powerful because it centers and grounds you not to have that panic response and mitigate that. That’s a very effective technique when in a toxic work environment. I appreciate you lifting that up as well.

Let me know your thoughts on the organization. As we think about an organization, let’s say an organization just found out or they got a report or some kind of survey. They’re like, “We got to do something different.” Talk to me about what that looks like. A reversal or walking backward as an organization as a collective? Where do you think that starts?

I’m going to take a chapter out of a gentleman that you probably know and some of your audience may know. His name is Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. He is a social scientist and organizational psychologist. He and I had a chat on the podcast. What it comes down to is, if you’re going to back up a little bit after you get these horrendous employee engagement results or employee opinion surveys at the end of the year, is to back up and look at who you have in those positions of leadership.

What Tomas discovered is that the wrong people are being promoted into leadership roles. It’s simple as that. As individual contributors become high-performers and rock stars, they then are elevated because they’re seen as, “This person is important. They hold this amount of knowledge and wisdom. We want to be able to bring them up so that they can transfer the knowledge to other people.” They put them in a management position. It’s assumption number one.

TTLS S2 10 | Toxic Leadership

Toxic Leadership: Back up and look at who you have in those positions of leadership. Look at your systems, your structure for hiring and promoting people into leadership roles as a starting point if you want to defeat toxic management structures.


What Tomas found out is that a lot of times, people are seen or promoted. They’re rewarding the behaviors of somebody that is out in the world. The assumption is, if you are a leader, you are self-confident. No problem. You have to be self-confident. I don’t disagree with that. The other thing is that they have to be charismatic. These perceptions are the reason why we place somebody in the leadership role, whether by promoting somebody internally or bringing somebody from the outside. We’re rewarding the behaviors of, “This is a very confident person. They have an executive presence. They are charismatic.”

As that person starts to work, engage and go into their roles, what happens is that somebody that doesn’t have the capacity or the actual skills of a real true-to-life leader, emotional intelligence, humility, authenticity and empathy, the confidence that you initially assessed that person on as the assumption, “They have confidence or charisma,” becomes overconfidence. Overconfidence is almost bordering on something that you studied in your research and that is narcissism.

It’s the same with charisma. As you become even more charismatic, those tendencies that were at one point a healthy level of ego now become this out-of-control state of hubris that will backfire in your organization. As you back up, look at your systems and your structure for hiring and promoting people into leadership roles. That would be my starting point. If you want to defeat toxic management structures, it always starts with, “I’m assuming that these are the traits or the perceptions that make a good leader.” That’s what the evidence is saying that makes a good leader.

We ignore the evidence. To your point, you can back up even further. Let’s look at the modern recruitment process that praises overconfidence or charisma versus actual, “Can you do the job?” All of these perceptions that you’re dictating and describing don’t do anything as we seek to get neurodiversity in the workplace. As we talk about neurodiversity, you’re doing nothing to promote that equity that we need. We’re overemphasizing charisma and extroversion, which sometimes may be erroneous and are not the best leaders per se.

To Tomas’ point, as he dug into the data of what makes good leaders, it turns out that more of the feminine traits rise to the top. What’s happening is that women, as they move up the ranks, are adapting those hypermasculine traits. They’re learning the wrong traits of what it takes to succeed as a leader because, look at the world around them, all they have are these examples of hypermasculinity.

Research even looks at masculine traits as, “These are leadership traits too.” It’s the same thing.

To even the bar for both genders, you start to hire and develop people based on these successful traits that lend to performing well on the job, which tend towards the feminine side. There is a good balance there. Say, the masculine trait of being a driver, being results-oriented, or having a strong vision and then you counteract that with more empathy and compassion. When you have a mixture of both, you have the ingredients for an amazing leader and company culture.

Toxic leadership and fear-based type leading is not sustainable over the long-term.

For the audience, I want to call back an episode we did on toxic masculinity, where we talked about these types of traits. Like in that episode, I always want to preface to say, “If you look at the research on these leadership traits that we’re describing, they framed them using masculine-feminine as constructs and not necessarily being gender per se.” What I want to tell people is it’s not that, “I have to act like a man.” We’re not talking about gender here. These are just how the traits are described in the research.

I was about to go there too in my mind because you’re right. I had a company I was working with one time. They had a management survey, “Take a look at this. We want you to promote our survey and endorse it.” I was like, “Let me take a look.” I looked at it. My background is in Organizational Psychology. I was breaking the survey down and looking at the traits. We did a CFA on it to see if everything matched up, Confirmatory Factor Analysis.

We’ve looked at everything behind the scenes. We got to the traits and a lot of the traits that actually benefited to say, “You’re a manager or not,” because they gave this survey to people who were at promotability, the HIPOs. All the traits that were in there were like, “You’re extroverted. You’re results-oriented.” The majority of people who were deemed promotable in this company were men. When you use this survey, it came out as men.

I told the company that and they were like, “No, that’s not what it is.” They tried to play this thing like, “Our survey is non-bias because we had a mixed group of people in the creation of it.” I said, “That’s great.” To your point, Marcel, some women have to adopt these traits too to be promoted. The problem is that’s the problem. We’re centering the “wrong traits” for promotability and success.

It’s systemic across the board in any industry.

That’s why this show exists for these types of conversations because it’s across the board in a lot of industries. To be transparent, I don’t think a lot of people know and realize. We’re not saying anything like “People are nefarious.” This might just be a blind spot that needs to get illuminated. The final category we want to dive into is, in my opinion, the hardest.

Let’s talk about the toxic leader themselves. Let’s say this is a toxic leader who got illuminated based on some data or whatever it may be. They want to reverse and walk backwards from some of the traits that they’ve developed or some of the perceptions that are about them in the organizational system. What would you tell them? How does that look in the way you would work with them?

There have been instances where I could not work with a client that had those tendencies because they weren’t able to back up and say, “Let me find out why it is that this keeps happening.” What they’re more interested in is protecting self-image and reputation. They want to be right at the expense and the detriment of organizational success or whatever you want to call it, keeping your clients or keeping shareholders happy. They’re not willing to make the transition to back up and say, “This is a pattern. Look at these exit interview reports. Look at these surveys. The data is there that the buck stops with me or it starts with me.”

TTLS S2 10 | Toxic Leadership

Toxic Leadership: You have to be curious, which is a strength of leadership and emotional intelligence. You have to want to know and investigate why things are the way they are. Then, you can do something about it.


For those that are willing or humble enough to say, “Something needs to change,” the first thing is curiosity. You have to be able to be curious, which is a strength of leadership and emotional intelligence. You have to want to know and investigate why things are the way they are because now, you can do something about it. As curiosity kicks in and you follow the data and evidence, then you can sit down with somebody like you or me to say, “I acknowledge that this is a problem.” That takes a whole lot of humility to finally get to that state.

Assuming that you’re a leader listening that you might have been a toxic leader, you realize you no longer want to go this route, even though it has led to short-term success, but this is never sustainable over the long-term. You and I know this. We are all over the data. Toxic leadership and fear-based type leading are not sustainable over the long term. Once you get over that, start to acquire some new self-awareness.

In the coaching process, we do a process of self-discovery, which is one of the most rewarding things you could do as a leader. Literally speaking of neuroscience, it will literally change the brain patterns in your brain. As you adopt new habits and create new systems around rewarding and reinforcing these behaviors, you’ll build new synapses in your brain. I’m not a brain scientist. I’m just telling you what I’ve read. You might be more well-versed than I am in this.

It lends to creating new habits and defeating these old patterns of toxicity. I can’t speak enough about coaching. I’m not patting myself on the back. I’m just saying that whoever you choose as a coach, coaching is one of the most beautiful things for personal and professional development. You are able to see something and address your blind spots and then create a plan around defeating those behaviors that don’t end to good things on the job.

Building those habits is like a tangible thing that someone could say. I know a lot of people put up a wall, “I don’t need a coach. I don’t have time.” Even if you feel that right now, which I think everybody should have a coach and it would be wonderful if we did, what habits can you commit to in the short run? It’s not going to be solving every toxic problem or solving everything in one go. It’s like, “What can you commit to now?”

Even if you can’t afford a coach, something as simple as sitting down with an employee that maybe is a loyal, faithful employee to the company, a high performer, to say, “I need to get some new awareness here.” Ask that person for some feedback on your performance as a leader. This is somebody that you trust enough. Repeat that process for 3, 4, or 5 people and you’ll start to see a pattern develop in these authentic conversations. Make sure that you don’t be defensive because people like to speak their truth once they realize that it’s a safe environment.

If you are looking to succeed as a business and you want to wow your customers, your first order of priority is to wow your employees. You start with putting your people first.

You are seeking help as a leader. You want to change and they see that willingness, “My boss reached out to me and he doesn’t have an ulterior motive. He is seeking help here.” As you make that safe enough for people to tell you the truth, they will. That will confirm for you perhaps what’s already going on, but now it gives you more of a personal feel for, “This is coming straight from my staff who I work with every day. They’re telling me what the data from Mr. Coach or Mr. Consultant has told me already.” It affirms that you’re on the right path of growth and development.

I want to thank you for your tremendous insights. Before we wrap, I want to take you to the WOW moment, which is Words Of Wisdom. If you have some words of wisdom to share with our audience before we wrap up, what would they be?

My words of wisdom are this. If you are looking to succeed as a business and you want to wow your customers, your first order of priority is to wow your employees. As you create an environment for your employees to be happy, be empowered, grow and succeed, there is a direct correlation between a great employee experience to now an amazing, equally great, if not greater, customer experience, which is the business outcome that you’re after. You start with putting your people first.

Before we go, I want to give you the opportunity to share any initiatives you’re working on. How can people reach you?

The thing that I want to let people know about is that everything that I do as a practitioner, I share this with you. It’s from the heart. It’s a mission. If we make money doing this, great. It’s the icing on the cake. I shared with you my story of suffering to the point where I was on disability and could not move for a month. I was not able to get up from a horizontal position for a month because of the stress-related incidents.

My purpose is to eliminate that kind of toxicity and suffering in the workplace by helping to elevate leaders to the level that we’re talking about that will serve people well, which then creates value and good business outcomes. What I did was I created a course to help leaders with that. It’s called From Boss to Leader. It’s 100% online, on-the-go, and self-paced. There is a live coaching component to it with me. If they’re interested, hop on my website and check it out,

I hope everybody checks that course out. We can follow you on LinkedIn and all the social media sites as well. Thank you for wrapping with me and discussing this globally under-talked-about topic of toxic leadership and toxic organizational culture. I appreciate you.

I appreciate you having me on, Kevin. Thank you.

Thank you all for reading.

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About Marcel Schwantes

Marcel Schwantes is an international speaker, executive coach, and syndicated columnist attracting over 1 million readers monthly to his thought leadership. His work has been featured in Inc., Time, Business Insider, Fast Company, The New York Daily News, CNBC, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, and many other global media outlets.

Marcel hosts the popular “Love in Action” podcast, heard in over 150 countries. His company, Leadership from the Core, is one of three or four in the world that provides evidence-based, human-centered, servant-leadership-training programs available in a virtual format.

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