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Just Another Case of Toxic Leadership

September 26, 2011

Only by entering the narratives of leadership and corporate life can we walk the road toward positive transformation. – Alan Goldman


ArtLeaks, Zampa di Leone, 2011

As a response to the letter of complaint issued by Pavilion UniCredit, I want to tackle a singular but central recurring point – the question of leaders and leadership in their words. Their case and their actions mark them out as a possible extension into the backwaters of the art-world, of Alan Goldman’s arguments presented in his book Transforming Toxic Leaders.

In short, Goldman offers a unique view about life behind closed corporate doors (as well as hospitals and other important modern institutions). His book is based on a long personal experience in doing professional executive coaching and consultancy, while trying to find out what is wrong with company leaders and what the remedy is. Alan Goldman is not afraid to investigate the “metastasizing” long term patterns and bad behaviors that emanate from the top leadership. The high cost of bad behavior in corporate circles at top management and executive levels bears witness to this in our daily lives.

On a smaller and more insignificant scale at the art-world level, we have struggled to understand and find a possible way out of Pavilion UniCredit – offering artleak revelations into “behind-the-scenes fears, hostilities, and internal warfare” plaguing some of today’s art institutions and contemporary art centers, because, sadly enough, financial institutions are not isolated cases.

In the meantime, Pavilion UniCredit’s enemies have been labeled un-productive, incompetent, lacking initiative, sucking the chrome, being drunk&destructive&drugged, and downright envious about the many “accomplishments” of Pavilion UniCredit – of taking sides with their former employees and sabotaging their holy organization. In fact, the most poignant issue to consider is their fear of being ousted, of losing the grip over their small but autocratic art kingdom. The very understandable and human fear of not being a leader any more, the frightening possibility of not being seen as leaders and masters anymore, is truly unbearable.

I would like to dispel all fears of a coup-d’état, of taking over or of becoming the next leader in their place. I know it is very hard to make the leaders feel at ease in their current and tenuous situations. They need the unanimous vote, the audience applause and the cheering employee chorus.

But the question still stands: If we do not pose a threat to the organization and its top leadership, why the desperation to hang on to such a bewildering array of pompous titles, high priestly functions, boisterous name-droppings, directorial signatures, monolithic headers, glorious overachievements and venomous reactions? Why the theatre of success and why all the vanity metrics?

We know that the media and the audience ask leaders to show big growth numbers. Start-up guru Eric Ries puts the blame on vanity metrics as responsible for furnishing a false sense of permanent success, making it impossible to judge the true health of a business or the way the leadership treats their collaborators and clients. Pavilion UniCredit was a real leader in a more general trend of spewing out big numbers by the load, fashioning self-importance through hypnotic academic credentials, and by always feigning innocence and benevolence. But this was also their (and many other CEOs’) major weakness, we might add.

We also know that the current artistic and economic environment puts a lot of pressure on the leaders to boast about their five-year-plans, to outstrip their competitors’ claims, to attract outside support and to never even dream of disappointing their overlords. Being an over-achiever is not easy nowadays, and institutions can become self-inflicted burdens very quickly, from their inception onward.

We are just trying a bit to transform a toxic leadership and the Pavilion UniCredit CEO‘s life so that may it may stop infecting their executive board and/or management teams. And I think our warnings were heard and taken into account, and that we are ever more close to detoxification in seeing how our executive consultancy has worked out for their present collaborations. If we cannot stop the abuse immediately, at least we can maybe make it easier for future collaborators. This is what Goldman said about toxic leadership, and we think that he was right. It is our firm belief that many of our actions would, in the best sense, also function as a “detoxification” and warning model, a guided and positive pressure to transform toxic leaders and their organizational authoritarian rule into something more benign.

Let’s be clear that we do NOT envy any of the toxic existence and bad vibes that are a fact of company and Pavilion UniCredit life. One has to really ponder such heavy questions. How could we? How could one ever envy it? With Goldman’s help we try to distinguish different levels of toxic leadership as well as their prognoses and remedies.

Goldman identifies a predominantly authoritarian and bullying leadership style that was enacted during massive corporate downsizing, rightsizing, and layoffs. This is not just a characteristic of banks, life insurance companies, or Wall Street life. Compassion and genuine responses to others (ex- or present employees) are lacking, as well as a truly emotionally intelligent leadership. Like many other modern countries, Romania has had a long history of monarchic and autocratic rule, a tradition that is now kept alive by art centers, institutions kept under the reign of toxic leadership.

Like Goldman, we know that toxicity is a fact of life in such institutions and companies, but it is little talked about and generally taken for granted and usual. It is, most of the time, a topic of general consent that the CEO’s sovereign power must remain unquestioned –  firm in the face of critique, absolute and unswerving in order to function smoothly, to get the next Biennale going, to publish the next anniversary magazine, and to crackdown on any dissenting parties. But, as Goldman says quite clearly, hiding out behind academic titles, hollow data and magical surveys is definitively over.

Stefan Tiron of Paradis Garaj/Kunsthalle Batistei, ArtLeaks co-founder

Many thanks to John M. Stokes  for editing assistance.

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