#230 – A Case Study In Toxic Leadership With Gordon Graham

Thomas Green here with Ethical Marketing Service. On the episode today, we have Gordon Graham. Gordon, welcome. Thank you, Thomas. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to have you. Would you like to take a moment and tell the audience a bit about yourself and what you do? I am a retired information technology professional. I spent close to 40 years in the industry mostly with electric utilities, specifically hydro electric utilities up in the pacific Northwest during that period of time, I experienced a situation with my, actually my longest term employer, where we acquired a very toxic manager and it resulted in my termination. I guess the conflict between our particular management philosophies resulted in my termination.

And as a result, I was encouraged by family, friends, acquaintances to record the story, to write a book about that experience. And it took me quite a while after I had retired to get around to doing it, but then I finally realized I didn’t want to be in a situation where I knew I didn’t have time left to get it done and realized that I hadn’t done that sort of unfulfilled purpose type of thing, and so I wrote a book and it’s called “The Intrepid Brotherhood”, actually on the wall behind me on a plaque, looks like this available most of the typical book outlets. And anyway, it’s been an interesting process, sort of a catharsis for me to finally get the whole episode off of my chest, so to speak.

But really I wrote it as a lesson type of a book, a cautionary tale, so to speak for board members, CEOs, any employee that might be, might want to avoid the same type of dysfunction in their own organization. So that’s who I am and why I’m here. Thank you for sharing. It sounds like a very worthwhile read. You mentioned being cathartic. Was it quite a therapeutic exercise for you to do it, or was it quite painful? Well both, but for the most part it was fun. There’s really no other way to put it. Revisiting those things and having conversations with people that I hadn’t spoken to in years and detecting their level of engagement and cooperation and support that I got from them was extremely rewarding.

And it just, it made me feel better about the whole experience being able to tap their memories and the resources available to me to get this down in print to be able to provide people with this type of guidance or lesson so that they may be able to avoid the same type of thing in their own environment. I would like to get into the, should we say, the story that you have written about, but at the same time, I am interested to know what you’d like people to take from it. So if your aim being, you know, the reason why you wrote the book, what would you like people to take away from reading it? I think the realization especially in today’s environment and contemporary leadership writers, the thing they emphasize is an inspirational approach, a servant leadership approach, in contrast to someone who is self serving and creates a toxic environment for their own benefit, their own advancement, I suppose, at the expense of virtually everybody else in the organization and the organization as a whole because it has a tendency to change the emission and vision of the company and that ripples down through the whole organization and people have a tendency to, well, there’s a dilemma.

You have to decide whether or not you want to support that new strategy or if you believe in what the company was trying to achieve initially when you signed on and depending on which way you go, it will determine whether or not you physically check out. Just decide to unsubscribe to the, the whole situation or if you mentally check out and and decide to become a sycophant and follow this new leadership philosophy and strategy and, and mentally check out, just go to work every day and perform your duties. Um, I suppose I’m still searching for an audience for this book and uh, I think the best application of it is probably as a case study in NBA programs, leadership programs workshops.

It’s a terrific example of what can happen if you get the wrong person in charge of your organization. I hope that answered your question. Yeah, I think so. It doesn’t make me, you said one thing which for whatever reason, I don’t know why I thought it was more than one person. Was it really one bad hire essentially to run the company which then had a highly detrimental effect on the rest of the company. So essentially it was one person. But the interesting thing about it is that depending on that decision people make in that dilemma when they’re trying to decide whether or not they they agree with that individual and want to follow that leadership model um that that one person can just through that synergy can can grow have larger tentacles through the entire organization represented by other people. And so those followers have a tendency to perpetuate and extend that type of toxic environment whether or not they they are conscious of it.

If they have subscribed to that philosophy then yeah, that one person becomes many and I think it happens probably in every situation like that. You will have a number of people who who just haven’t disciplined themselves to to know what inspirational leadership and true leadership really is and can’t recognize what’s happening to them and what’s being done to their company. So you said you mentioned servant leadership and inspirational leadership. If you had to describe what this person’s approach was to leadership, what their philosophy is to taking over a company, how would you describe it? Well, toxics probably the most commonly used term manifested I guess and things like persecution of individuals that didn’t immediately subscribe to his philosophy. I mean just um persistent persecution, progressive persecution.

Um and one of the biggest characteristics that we have uncovered, I think since this book has been written just in the discussions that I’ve had with with other hosts and people in the utility environment in the industry now and rekindling some of the relationships that I had before. People have observed that one of the biggest problems is is non compliance. And by that, I mean, if you have someone who is only interested in advancing their own agenda, it typically is at the expense of of administrative instructions, rules, regulations, state laws, federal laws. They they have the opinion in the operating procedure rules for the and not for me. And so every one of those policies that you in your capacity, whatever it is as an employee has been expected to adhere to for your entire career suddenly becomes optional, discretionary for the person who’s leading your organization.

They can circumvent hiring procedures, contract procedures, virtually everything that dictates how your business is supposed to be run becomes not necessarily unimportant, but a secondary thought to someone who is in the frame of mind of the person that I’m referring to in the the main toxic leader in in my book and my story. So that’s that’s one of the biggest things is that non compliance and it it should as an employee make you feel uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. Because the the whole implication is that at some point, someone’s going to come in. Someone with the the appropriate authority is going to come in and say, well, this is not adhering to the requirements that you’re supposed to follow and so your organization can, and should incur penalties and go through some kind of correction process.

And unfortunately a lot of times it doesn’t happen to the degree that it should. There are things that are overlooked swept under the rug. You know, whoever the audit function is performed by, there is some influence to have them discover another result than what is actually there. And so, you know, the corruption actually extends and grows. But that’s, I guess one of the biggest issues I wanted to make sure to bring out is that non compliance. Um, things like champion mentality where the Ceo would pick someone to manage a particular initiative that had no expertise or experience qualifications in that area just because they were complicit, they were cooperative.

They were, they subscribe to his philosophy and, and so the organization suffers from that perspective because those people typically aren’t successful to the degree that, um, that if someone who had, would someone would be, who had the experience in that area that was required in order to bring those projects to fruition. Um, yeah, those are the, I think the types of things, the biggest things, the circumvention of policies, non compliance. Um, just the whole toxic environment, persecution of individuals that, that don’t subscribe to his or her philosophy, creating positions for people that, that do undeserved promotions, um, endless reorganizations, you know, that are either supposed to be rewards or punishment one or the other.

Yeah, there’s there’s probably an endless list of characteristics, but I got kind of long winded on that one. Sorry. No, you’re fine. I was just listening. I do like the discussion on ethics because it just for me it helps provide clarity and I just to make a differentiation there. There was, I kind of feel like there’s a lot there which should we say, um not recommended behaviors. So perhaps promoting someone based not on merit but based on whether they go along with what I say versus perhaps unethical behavior like you mentioned for example, law breaking laws there for a reason for example. So at what point would you say this person crossed over into unethical behavior? I think probably the best example is is the noncompliance. Um, the the I guess a leader who subscribes to two policies, procedures, Those types of things follows the process is defined by the organization because they have to is is not the ethical leader that you’re looking for.

What you really want to see in them is someone who will be an example and set that example for the entire organization and the people that served them and the organization. That’s probably the biggest contrast I think between for the biggest example of a non ethical factor characteristic whatever is is only only subscribing to established policies, procedures, if and when they have to and actually trying to circumvent those to the greater greatest degree that they can versus someone who knows that the organization is going to achieve more or as much as they possibly can by everyone adhering to to those policies, procedures, administrative instructions, and processes of the organization and adhering to the mission vision and strategy that’s been established.

And and that that permeates everything. If if an individual, a leader decides not to adhere to established processes, those things that are are known and adhered to by everyone else, it can it can permeate every other part of the organization and it becomes apparent that that they don’t possess the ethics that are necessary or that they should have in order to lead to that degree. The interesting thing about ethics, I mean, the linchpin, I guess, and you might you might have been leading into this to bring up in a moment, but the the linchpin for my book is aristotelian ethics, and the only reason that I use that is because when I was going through my M. B. A. Program, actually pretty early in my experience with this individual at that employer, I there were a number of writers at the time who relied on Aristotle and Confucius and and ancient philosophers to establish current leadership and management principles that people should follow.

And so I came across Aristotle a number of times in that program and became pretty familiar with at least the interpretation or translation of his Niko McCann or virtue ethics in management in leadership. But one thing that’s interesting about, about the translation of Aristotle’s virtue ethics is is the the term, the latin term that was used to to describe his writings. His ethical philosophies translated for decades into virtue, the actual term or word virtue in our language. And so when you when you read about Aristotle’s ethics, that that term, that word always seems to emerge and it’s always called Aristotelian virtue ethics. But more recently, I came across a article that said, that word may better be translated as as excellence rather than virtue because we we have a tendency and Western society these days too ascribe different things to virtue.

There’s there’s a religious doctrine, there’s um just behavioral things that, that we think are dependent upon that term, that concept. But if you translate the latin term that described his ethics into, into ethics or into excellence rather than virtue, it leaves you with the impression that what you’re actually trying to achieve is the proper state or are conditioned for a human rather than something that that is virtuous because it just brings a whole lot of things to the table when you use that term. So performing well in the function of being a human is really what he was trying to convey. I think with his, his ethical concepts of wisdom and temperance and bravery and justice. Um, anyway, those those are the things that I came to realize as I was writing this book, I used Aristotle is kind of the centerpiece for a couple of reasons.

One was just to establish the conflict or the the upcoming conflict in the story. So we use that Aristotelian ethics approach or definition early in the story to kind of prepare the reader for the emergence of this toxic leader and the not necessarily the battle, but the the difference between him and the way we had been trying to structure ourselves and and grow ourselves as leaders in our department. And then later on in the book, there is a part where after the trial, my claim against the P. U. D. The company came to trial. There was an individual in the local newspaper who emerged in the letters to the editor section, who supported the the the employer, the district my former employer to the degree that they pretty much assassinated my character and question my motives.

And actually he was the only voice at the time who took the side of of the organization of the company. And he called himself the pseudonym he used was Aristotle. So it was kind of doubly interesting that we we kind of created this, not created but experienced this conflict between our Aristotelian approach to building our our organization, our department, the staff within our purview, so to speak with these ethical characteristics and the battle that we had against the toxic leader. Uh, and and we used Aristotle as the example. Uh, and then this individual emerged with completely the opposite perspective uh, late in the story and characterized himself as Aristotle. And I don’t know, I don’t know who that is.

We suspect, we know who that individual was, but since he used a pseudonym, he or she, we we decided that we didn’t really want to know because it’s part of the mystery and it it fit well, leaving it that way in the story at the end, they’re leaving this person as a mystery and unknown because just relating that the discrepancy, that conflict that I guess juxtaposed position um, was was enough. And calling himself Aristotle was just really, really interesting. It’s interesting that you mentioned the the excellence rather than virtue point, because the quote which is attributed to Aristotle rightly or wrongly is excellence is not an act, but a habit is something that people always say about him. Um, one thing which is completely not related to what I just said that I want to ask you about is the person named in the book.

Yes, that’s one big decision that that I had to make when I went into this because it is a memoir. Um, but you always have the option to use use made up names, use, you know, avoid actually naming people. So I went through a couple of legal workshops, consulted with a couple of literary attorneys as well as my former legal counsel up where these events occurred. And that I also asked my ghost writer who I should mention, I don’t want to overlook john DeSimone who actually put all this together for me. I had, I had the outline, I and I assembled all the resources and most of what he wrote admittedly was from those resources and his interviews with me. And so the book is mine. I’m the author. But john actually put it down on paper, so to speak. And so he, he was a great resource, but he was also someone I consulted about about using real names.

And in the end I am satisfied, I was satisfied that uh, that we could tell this story without defaming anyone. Um, and because it’s the truth, I mean, it’s all based on fact. We had, I had seven boxes of legal files that were retained by my attorney up there that he, he graciously just handed over to me when I told him I was going to write this. Uh, and then the, the archives from the newspaper up there were a tremendous resource, um, you know, absolutely indispensable for getting this done. So yeah, they, it’s all based on fact and there’s hardly anything in there that we didn’t, we didn’t make leaps as far as judgments on people’s character. We just documented the facts related to facts. And some of it’s left up to the reader to make their own judgment or decision.

But yeah, we used we used real names and that individual, that toxic leader is his name um, referred to in innumerable places in this book. So there’s very few people that that we chose not to name. And usually in those situations where we didn’t, it’s because they just weren’t integral or um, it wasn’t necessary as to enhance the story. And have you gotten any feedback from people that you knew at the time or people that were in the story? I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of feedback from people that I knew former staff members, other department heads there. There there’s a concept, of course it’s in the title, but there’s a concept in this book of a brotherhood and what that what that is, is the idea that there were a number of us in mid management positions who realized that what this individual was trying to do was contrary to the mission and vision of the organization and was detrimental, was creating dysfunction.

And so, all of us suffered to some degree. Some were chased out earlier than that. I was some left voluntarily. Some were demoted, persecuted until they got in that kind of constructive discharge mentality and realized that they needed to move on voluntarily. I was terminated. Um, not for cause, but for a reason or a situation that they fabricated and that’s the reason I came back with my claim because I knew that there was no way that they could defend that position. And it turned out that we prevailed. And it was true that they it was obvious the the manipulation, what they were trying to do. Um So the brotherhood concept is, is central to this story. And a lot of those people provided a great deal of material for this book.

And actually a lot of things that we talked about that they related to me, I couldn’t include in here, just for just for the sake of of space and an economy. I guess that if we told all the stories that were available, this would have been huge. It would have taken a lot longer than it did. But it presents the opportunity that we may go back at some time and do a brotherhood revisited or something. And and tell some of the stories from their departments because they’re really, really good. What would you say is the worst thing that this person did? The worst thing? So, just just from a kind of a categorical perspective, I think the worst thing that he probably did was was consciously created the dysfunction in the organization that he did through, you know, the endless reorganizations, persecution of people.

There were a number of things that he did operationally that came into question, especially during the time that we had some commission candidates or candidates for the board of commissioners that were, I mean referred to as reform candidates. They referred to themselves as reform candidates. And they, they made observations about some of the operational things that he had done. one of the big things was there was a, and this is related in the story, but there was a management retreat at one point where, uh, he was there most of the, the corporate level or sea level folks were there in the organization, there were legal counsel, all of the commissioners elected commissioners, were there those that could attend our internal legal counsel. Was there his no other way to put it, His primary sycophant.

And if you’ve got an internal legal council on your side too, to try to perpetuate your philosophy or leadership technique, then I think you’ve got everything you need to get the ball rolling. And so she was complicit and it’s, it’s really, it’s a shame because she had responsibility for all those compliance issues. But back to the management retreat that I started talking about, one of the things, probably the biggest thing that they discussed there was privatization in, in one respect or another. Now, this organization that I worked for was a public utility district formed as a state charged public agency within the laws of the state of Washington. And by, you know, that entity. What it implies, What it specifies is that it is technically, it’s owned by the ratepayers. It’s a, it’s a government, it’s a government institution.

It is not a private utility and the privatization things that were discussed are still kind of squishy. There was no for the final definition. But the speculation, strong speculation. In fact, there’s some documentation to this fact is that what they wanted to do was to spin off or create a private entity that would have jurisdiction over what we called wholesale power sales. Now, the hydroelectric facilities in the Northwest, they produce power to meet their, their committed contractual obligations and to serve the local community. Once those have been met, then there is a surplus typically that can be sold as a commodity. On the open market. Those power markets emerged, Um, back in the 90s, I think, maybe the late 80s, and, and it became pretty lucrative for even public utilities to be able to sell wholesale surplus power on the open market.

Well, the concept that this management retreat was to create an entity to spin off this wholesale power function, privatize it and to have officers, employees, and an elected board that would be paid based on commissions from wholesale power sales. So the whole idea was supported by our current elected board members at the public utility, because the implication was that they would assume responsibilities in this private organization to also provide oversight like they did with the the public utility, but they get paid for it. They get commissions or some part of the commission’s from the wholesale power sale. Well, this raised some hackles, uh, you know, obviously with community leaders when they learned about this privatization attempt because those wholesale power revenues should have been put back into the organization to, to keep rates down to improve transmission and distribution to, to just help with the operation and objectives of, of the public utility side and with a private entity that was distributing gains from those wholesale power sales to individuals.

It would at least dilute that that initial mission and vision to achieve the lowest possible rates for the public power owners or the ratepayers in the organization or in the service area. So that’s what that was all about. That’s one of the biggest operational things that he did that came into question and there were others. But the biggest thing I think that, and the worst was just the dysfunction that he created from his, his leadership approach and his management philosophy. Because it was palpable. It was there every day. You could tell just by walking in the door that this organization was dysfunctional. If you did have, let’s say, an opportunity to say something to the toxic leader, what would you say to them, what would I say? Um, you know, I would, I would ask, I would ask, just like if I had the opportunity, if I was in the capacity these days where I was still employed and part of our responsibility was to to interview candidates for any leadership position.

I would ask them, what type of plan do they have to to stay current in their craft to make sure that they are achieving what should be expected of them as an inspirational leader. Um I and I would I actually did at least in some respects, part of the Part of the story is uh is a recognized meeting that I requested and had with this individual offsite one evening and it was, it was under a a program that was supposed to provide, provide some cover or um I guess lack of accountability for what you said or what you asked. It was supposed to be just kind of an open conversation with with no retribution as possible result.

And so I asked if I could meet with him. We met after hours and I told him about the dysfunction that I was recognizing in the organization and the the overall objective was to get my function which was information technology integrated at the strategic planning level. The observations I made included. Uh if we don’t do that, then this very, very important function. The information technology function will always be reactionary. Ah there will be a group of people, you the commissioners, the rest of the executives who will who will set you know, critical success factors and tactical initiatives or whatever at the strategic level. And then we will be expected to try to to fit our resources to achieve those things for you as best we can with no model to follow.

With no guidance with no inclusion. And it just doesn’t make any sense. If if we had representation at the planning level at the table, then then we would we would at least be able to provide our input at that point. So we could determine what impact it would have on our resources, how we needed to prioritize where we dedicated those resources to get work done in order to maximize the strategic objectives of the organization. But in the absence of that, we will always be reactionary and the reaction that he had the result of that meeting and me making that observation surprised me a great deal. I don’t know why it did because I already knew his character. But he took offense to me making an observation that any organization that he managed would or could be dysfunctional, even though even though the analysis I think would be the same for everyone that he was creating the dysfunction.

And he gave me um kind of a obscure ultimatum that what I really needed to do was to improve my function or there would be consequences. And he didn’t specify what, but he just, he needed to do that in order to bring his reaction full circle because he had already made a parent that he didn’t like the fact that I had recognized this dysfunction or at least purported that that he was responsible for an organization that was that dysfunctional. And I think maybe he recognized that I might be attributing part of that At least part of that to him. So that was that was a big clue and actually started um my downward spiral. There was really nothing I could do to dig out of that hole after that point.

Even though my supervisors and myself we dedicated ourselves to to implementing best practices. I. T. Service management project management and change management procedures within our own department. And we embarked upon a program to transition from um I guess internally focused I. T. Professionals who have a lot of times have a hard time communicating. I mean admittedly I. T. Folks are viewed as a lot of times as cynical and sarcastic and and they are so we recognize that and trying to to get people to uh you know to push their limits and move out of that shell and become more customer focused and so we were doing all of that but we got no credit for it no recognition and I certainly wasn’t going to be recognized for any of those things because he had already put the target on my back.

Well I suppose in a sense you have you’ve already said your piece then to him and you’ve also done a great job of getting the book out. So congratulations for that. I also think it looks like there’s probably a lot to learn from the book. So well worth a read. Is there, is there something that I should have asked you about today that I haven’t, I don’t think so other than I think I already mentioned that the book can be obtained on amazon Barnes and noble. Um I think Apple books uh virtually everywhere that people would normally acquire something like that. And then my my website has a lot of information, it’s just called intrepid Brotherhood dot com. Um And out there there’s a lot about my background, there’s some testimonials, there’s, it shows where the book can be obtained. I just started a blog which is going to keep me busy.

I think I need to invest more time in the promotion of this than I have been. And so I’ll be blogging some stuff about leadership topics and issues and stories from that period of time. So maybe that’s where I’ll insert some of those things I got from other members of the brotherhood. Um let’s see, I’ve got a LinkedIn profile that I really mostly what I do there is share content from other folks that are following inspirational leadership and servant leadership topics and materials. But I also put things like these podcasts out there for for general consumption and so hopefully when this is released I’ll be able to post it out there. Uh Those are the primary places that people can learn more and obtain obtain the book and ask me questions. There’s actually an opportunity to to submit a web form to ask questions about the story about me anything.

I would be remiss if I did not do this, but part of the material in my book and I don’t know if we’re going too long, but there’s a a sketch artist by the name of Dan McConnell and during the period of time that all these events were taking place back a number of years ago, he was submitting, he was submitting these sketches to the newspaper that chronicled each one of them. So Dan was the actual conscience of the community at the time. And after I got this book written, John and I finished the manuscript and I was beginning to look for a publishing outlet. I thought about his sketches and what he had done in the local newspaper at the time. And so I reached out to him, asked him if if he would be willing to let me put those in the book. So we negotiated a little bit, talked about how they would be used and he ended up sending me electronic copies of all those sketches and I went through the manuscript and it was obvious where I should put each one of them just based on the chronology the timeline and the events that occurred.

So I just really plugged them in, in the places that they should have been initially. So he was a tremendous resource. Dan McConnell is a great sketch artist, great artist and it’s been fun using his sketches and keeping up with him and getting in contact with him again, so I just wanted to make sure people were aware of his work and his contribution to the book. Tremendous guy. And thanks for letting me take the time to do that. Yeah, no problem, looks like good comedy anyway, but Gordon, thank you very much for your time. Thank you, this has been great.