swimming with jellyfish

Swimming with Jellyfish: A Sea of Virulent Leaders

 “Even if toxic people are right about what is ‘good,’ they are wrong if the approach is not healthy.” – John Lewis Lund

Help!  I have found myself frantically swimming to shore, the salt water stinging my eyes, and have come to the stark realization I am surrounded by Jellyfish. No matter where I turn, there they are—bobbing aimlessly into me–hindering progress, and making my path to safety and success unclear.  Worse yet, with each sting they are leaving marks that could be with me the rest of my life. My daydream of the ocean starts to fade and the realization hit me: I was actually in my weekly office staff meeting. The salt water symbolized the abundant waves of tasks pounding on the table…and the jellyfish were the many virulent leaders who seemed to permeate the organization. At this moment, I realized I was swimming with jellyfish in toxic seas!


In nature, jellyfish are everywhere—and at all depths of the ocean.  Similarly, virulent leaders can be found in almost every organization, and can flourish at every level of leadership.  These leaders drift through their surroundings stinging everyone in their path.  Sometimes it takes a moment of clarity like the one above to realize you’re not the Jacques Cousteau you envision yourself to be—sometimes the environment is fraught with peril and you are ill-equipped to handle the situation.

A virulent leader lacks vision and, like the blind and light-sensitive jellyfish, seeks only to put the spotlight on themselves.  This comes at a detrimental cost to the members of the team, who continually find themselves toiling in turbulent seas to keep the ship upright, while the leader anchors progress through self-serving motivation.  The result of the team’s effort to stay afloat is met with resistance—even backlash.  Much like the sting of the jellyfish can cause results ranging from minor skin irritation to death, working with a virulent leader is like swimming with jellyfish every day…their wrath resulting in simple irritation or, at worst, the death of your career.  Swimming away isn’t always the answer, as the wake we churn up can sometimes make the situation worse.  Rather than flee, you might be better served by diving in headfirst to net this challenge.

A virulent leader lacks vision and, like the blind and light-sensitive jellyfish, seeks only to put the spotlight on themselves.  This comes at a detrimental cost to the members of the team, who continually find themselves toiling in turbulent seas to keep the ship upright, while the leader anchors progress through self-serving motivation.

In his book, “Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win,” Michael Useem shares the value of teams helping their superiors to lead.  Such an approach relies upon upward flow of information and advice with the understanding that making the team look good largely depends upon helping the boss lead well.  However, in order for this strategy to work, upward information flow has to be accepted.  What if you find yourself swimming in a jellyfish “bloom?”  In this environment, virulent leaders surround themselves with colleagues sharing similar styles and the number can exceed expectations.  In cases like this, the only redeeming factor is knowing their reign is usually quite limited in duration.  Survival becomes your instinct as you let the natural cycle take its inevitable course.

Take comfort in knowing that jellyfish are composed of 98% water.  When one washes upon the beach, it will gradually disappear as the water evaporates.  Like the jellyfish, virulent leaders are all wet.  When they find themselves outside their comfort zone—transiting the ladder from tactical execution to strategic thought (a la, “the Peter Principle”) – they will eventually disappear from site as their limited experience and capability evaporates around them.

The best course of action when swimming with jellyfish is to remain calm.  Sudden, irrational moves are likely met with stings.  When this happens, you must treat yourself immediately.  Contrary to myth, urinating on jellyfish and their stings is not an effective cure—in fact, it can aggravate the stingers into releasing more venom.  Rather, natural seawater or cleansing vinegar is the solution.  Follow this advice in your own sea of virulent leaders, who seem to do a very effective job of urinating on the team without your assistance.  Focus, instead, on cleansing solutions for yourself and your team by allowing the bloom to pass.

As a leader, you have hopefully realized your ability to coexist in an environment with virulent leaders is dependent upon your tact, skill and patience.  You should also remember your true value to the team is defined by your ability to shield and screen the leader’s tentacles from reaching too deeply or painfully into the environment you’ve worked so hard to create for your teammates.  Focus your attention, instead, upon the subordinate leaders within your team.  How are you creating an environment inoculated against the spread of virulent leadership?  What are you doing to prevent similar jellyfish from flourishing in your own seas?


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Copyright: dml5050 / 123RF Stock Photo

Matthew Fritz & Chris Stricklin

Matthew Fritz and Chris Stricklin are leaders and mentors in the fields of complex organizational change, negotiations, emotional intelligence, public relations, and strategy. Both are field-grade officers in the United States Air Force who write independently for Switch&Shift as contributing authors. Together they direct our collaborating partner, GeneralLeadership.com, where they share their unique brand of military leadership with all of America. Matt and his wife, Stacy, enjoy life with their two children in California while Chris and his wife, Terri, have four children and are enroute to Turkey for their next assignment. Collaborate with them on Twitter individually (@fritzmt or @chrisrstricklin). Alternatively, you can reach both of them simultaneously at @genleadblog.

  • http://leadershipheartcoaching.com/ Bill Benoist /Leadership Heart

    I loved the analogies you offered in your post – definitely was grinning a little as I read this.

    One thing that comes to mind about virulent leaders is the culture of the organization. I know of one such leader who seems to be a train wreck whenever he enters an office – yet he continues because his manager, and the manager above him seem to be fruit from the same tree.

    I think the perception is his style of management works, but in reality the company is simply riding the boom of a recovering economy. It would be a different tune under a different economy.

    Great post!

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com/ Deb Mills-Scofield

    This is one of my favorites of yours & Matt’s — having grown up with jelly fish — thank you for sharing your wisdom!! (as usual)

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  • http://www.GeneralLeadership.com Chris R Stricklin

    Thanks Deb! We both appreciate your friendship and mentorship.

  • http://www.GeneralLeadership.com Chris R Stricklin

    Bill– True that some companies ride a recovering economy and this progress covers for poor leadership but we must remember when swimming with jellyfish that the value of what we learn from bad leaders about what not to do and how not to carry ourselves is as crucial as the good lessons we learn from strong leaders. I know Mathew Fritz would agree.

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