I’d venture to say that everyone has experienced a toxic CEO moment.

That moment when a scowling CEO blows through the front door in a bad mood that sweeps through the office faster than the flu. People either hide behind their computer screens, scramble to close their doors or scatter in the hallways.  It’s worse if you’re held captive in a meeting. A grumbling or draconian CEO darkens the room. Everyone gets quiet, stares down at their smart phones, moves around their papers, and holds their breath, praying for the meeting to be over.  Sound familiar?

What neither the CEO or the staff is consciously aware of is that the CEO’s mood is emotionally contagious. It dampens moral, creates an unhealthy office culture and eventually can impair the success of the entire organization.

CEO’s are often under a great deal of stress. The frantic pace of moving from project to project and dealing with everyday management challenges can take a toll.  Leaders who are not aware of their feelings and behavior are susceptible to coming down with a bad case of CEO disease, which Daniel Goleman describes in his book, Primal Leadership. Truly effective, strong leaders understand the power of emotions. They are adept at controlling their own and managing the emotional atmosphere of the work environment.

How are emotions contagious?

Emotions are located in the open loop of the brain’s limbic system. Unlike other physiological systems, which are closed (i.e. the circulatory system), the limbic system is open to the environment and is constantly scanning for connection to others. At an unconscious level, people catch both good and bad moods and our physiology changes. All it takes is 15 minutes and our heart rhythm, breathing, and hormone levels start to sync with others around us. This rapport state is very powerful and can have either a positive or negative influence.

Toxic CEO’s are unaware of their emotional states, and they are therefore unable to manage them. They are, in fact, clueless to how their mood and behavior are affecting others.

The good news is that there is a cure! CEO’s can heal themselves.  The chronic stress they are enduring, and most likely sharing with their teams, can be turned around. First, we have to understand what is happening when stress takes hold.

Under chronic stress, the body goes into a defense state and the brain goes into “turtle mode” – it pulls in.  Under stress, the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and coritsol are released in the body. These hormones turn off the immune system and inhibit brain function.  Under chronic conditions, stress can make people physically sick and cause mental impairment.  This cognitive and perceptual impairment hinders creative, open thought and productive collaboration. It’s toxic to people personally and to the work environment.

So what’s the prescription?

The most elementary aspect of healthy, successful leadership is to create positive professional relationships that nurture an open, creative and happy working culture within organizations. Here are four steps you as a CEO can take to heal yourself and the people you lead.

1 Work on self-awareness and self-management. Consciously consider how you are coming across to others and suspend your own agenda.  Be mindful of the way you project yourself and be compassionate of others.
2 Use humor. It’s the quickest way to deflect a negative situation or celebrate a positive one.  Used regularly, it’s a powerful office tonic and goes a long way to creating a great working vibe.
3 Be inspirational on a daily basis. If you tie the vision of your organization to everyday activities, the daily grind will have meaning.
4 Emote hope with everything you do and say. I think hope is the most powerful force in the universe. It drives success. And don’t forget optimism, it’s a force multiplier.
Cultivate these four steps and you’ll attract the loyalty of your colleagues and staff. Remember, true leaders are those whose followers do not have to follow but choose to follow.

A couple of summers ago, I had the opportunity to hear the late Maya Angelou speak. One statement she made particularly resonated with me. Although she didn’t say it in the context leadership, nevertheless it couldn’t be more true.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Every CEO needs to commit her words to memory and lead by them.

So what if you are reading this, and you’re not a CEO but dealing with a CEO who has a bad case of CEO disease that’s taking a toll on you and your job performance. What can you do?

First, take control of the situation.

You can’t control the CEO, but you can control how you respond.

Here’s your prescription.

1 Set boundaries. Structure your time and your projects so that you can work on them in a positive way. If it means closing the door or not answering a phone call immediately, then do so. Create a cocoon that protects your mental working space.
2 Work on your own self-awareness and self-management. Think about how you might react and construct a more positive way of addressing issues.
3 Be authentic to who you are and love yourself. I know that may sound corny, but under constant stress, self-loathing can creep in and your confidence will take a hit. If it does, you’re not going to have the strength to make positive change.
4 If the above three fail, find a new job. Make a change to a new job with an emotionally resonant leader and a healthy office culture.  That’s where you’ll grow and flourish.
During the thirty years I’ve been in organizational life, I’ve experienced both strong and toxic leaders.

I’ve witnessed strong leaders bring their organizations through almost impossible challenges to succeed in their missions and flourish.

I’ve also observed toxic leaders cause stagnation, poor performance and anemic results. Their organizations bleed staff and volunteers.

I’ve often wondered why toxic leaders stay in their positions. I’ve come to the conclusion either they’re oblivious or they and their boards are too entrenched in the way they’re operating to do anything about it.  They just keep rolling along on a bumpy road to nowhere.

But let’s focus on the positive.

Toxic leadership can be healed, strong leaders can be grown and cultivated.

With leadership in the nonprofit industry currently in crisis, it’s time to invest in leadership development and growth.  It’s an investment in the health of the industry as a whole and the successful impact of individual nonprofits.

Can I help you?

If you are a leader who wants to strengthen your personal leadership or the performance of your teams, or if you are an executive who is seeking to develop your professional performance, I can help. As an executive coach who focuses on positive change and developing emotional IQ, I help build the power of people and their organizations to realize success.

You can read more about my approach to coaching and leadership training at:

For more information on the neuroscience behind emotional contagions, review the article “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance” by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee published in the Harvard Business Review, December 2001.