Here's the best way to cure toxic leadership, says former Yum Brands CEO

  • News of toxic leadership is all too pervasive these days. From business to Hollywood to government, no industry or organization seems to be immune.
  • The harsh reality is that toxic leadership is eroding trust, destroying company cultures and killing the bottom line.
  • Here's how every employee can become a better leader and improve their own work environment.
David Novak
Olivia Michael | CNBC
David Novak

We have a huge leadership gap in our work force and it must be addressed now.

News of toxic leadership is all too pervasive these days. From business to Hollywood to government, no industry or organization seems to be immune.

The harsh reality is that toxic leadership is eroding trust, destroying company cultures and killing the bottom line. Headlines point to ousted CEOs, advertisers pulling dollars, red carpet statements, and public outrage demanding change. Overall trust in institutions has crashed according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer (Edelman).

The negativity is not lost on today's workforce. Research underscores how individuals, organizations and the U.S. economy are paying a big price. Gallup found that two out of three employees are not engaged at work. Actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. as much as $600 billion each year in lost productivity. That's bad news for the bottom line.

It's even worse for Millennials, the largest and fastest growing segment of the workforce. They are enormously frustrated. They have three times the job turnover rate of other generations. Millennial turnover alone costs the U.S. economy over $30 billion.

Sadly, I think the biggest cost of all is on a personal level, not feeling like you have control over your career, your environment or your life path. All the uncertainty creates confusion, anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness.

"The fastest way to take control of your career, work more effectively with others, positively influence them and build a healthy workplace culture is to become a stronger leader yourself."

Unfortunately, too many people in the workforce today - what I call the 'Now Generation' of workers – aren't receiving the leadership development they want and need. Studies show that the majority of managers say they wished they received more training when they first took on the role. Over half of Millennials say their leadership skills aren't being fully developed.

So how do people who want to get ahead find a way to navigate such a challenging environment?

The fastest way to take control of your career, work more effectively with others, positively influence them and build a healthy workplace culture is to become a stronger leader yourself. It also helps you differentiate yourself, take control of your own destiny and make a bigger difference in the world.

It used to be that leadership was translated as being The Boss. That's an old line hierarchical way of thinking that puts a few in power up top, and the rest below. Today, leadership needs to be in the hands of many. I believe that everyone has the power to become more proactive in whatever role they may have and that everyone can learn how to be a better leader.

The reality is that transforming your personal leadership doesn't happen overnight. It takes commitment, a solid plan and action. It means not just thinking or wishing about what you want to have happen, but creating a practical plan of attack to make it happen, and then sticking to it. What I refer to as closing the 'Intention-Action Gap'.

To be an effective leader, you need to learn the skills to engage others, equip people to be successful and elevate everyone around you by building up others through actions and words rather than tearing them down. True leaders can bring out the best leaders in others which leads to the best possible results. So where exactly do you begin?

Leadership starts with the right mindset. The best leaders realize they can't accomplish anything big in life if they try to do it alone. We need people to help us along the way. Good leaders understand the importance of casting a positive leadership shadow that motivates people and brings them along to get things done. Start by being a good listener, truly caring about your people and believing the best about them and build from there.

Effective leaders are also self-aware. They are confident about their strengths, but are also honest about their vulnerabilities and what they don't know. They have a hunger that makes them avid learners so they not only know themselves, they grow themselves. They have humility that lets others know their input is valued. They realize no involvement means no commitment.

More than ever before, today's leaders need to create positive and engaging work cultures where everyone feels that they count. Start by acknowledging the importance of each person's role on the team because it demonstrates that the only way to achieve bigger goals is to harness the full potential of everyone.

Don't underestimate the power of recognition and how vital it is to create a positive work environment. Recognition is universal; everyone likes to be appreciated for their contributions. It helps drive performance because it gets the team pumped up and focused on the mission.

Celebrate great work and great ideas whenever you see them along the way, don't just wait for a big monumental event. That way you'll build momentum in your business and work environment. The best recognition is personal, from the heart and fun, always reinforcing the behaviors that will drive success.

Leadership may be in a state of crisis today, but I believe that together, we can change the trajectory. We have the solution. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind building stronger, more positive leaders will a change for the better.

Commentary by David Novak, co-founder, former chairman and CEO of Yum Brands and founder and CEO of oGoLead, the digital leadership training platform that includes the new oGoLead Heartwiring and Hardwiring Your Leadership ™ Online Program. Novak is also author of three leadership books including The New York Times bestseller, Taking People With You.

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