An Examination of Toxic Leadership

January 2024
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The “Seinfeld” fans among us may recall the episode where George Costanza experiences temporary success by doing the opposite of what he usually does in life. 

As students and practitioners of leadership, we typically gravitate toward theories, philosophies and practices that favor the positive qualities we can emulate to bring out the best in those who follow us. 

But what if we borrowed a page from Mr. Costanza’s playbook and did the opposite of how we usually studied leadership and examined the qualities not to imitate when interacting with our followers? 

Jean Lipman-Blumen is a renowned expert on organizational behavior who has written extensively about toxic leadership. She describes toxic leaders as lacking integrity, consumed with an insatiable need for power and glory, possessing enormous egos, deficient in self-awareness and blaming others instead of assuming responsibility, among other nefarious qualities. 

They seek to enhance their power base while diminishing the capacities of others to act independently and leaving followers worse than before their relationships were formed. In other words, the actions of toxic leaders are diametrically opposed to those of good leaders. 

By agreeing to study harmful leadership qualities, we give ourselves a blueprint for how not to lead, just as researching positive leadership qualities provides foundational guidance on improving our interactions with our followers.

Charisma: the tipping point between good and toxic leaders

While charisma as an individual trait is not inherently toxic, there is a tipping point when leaders use their profound influence over followers for evil rather than good.

Some of us have likely incurred the wrath of a toxic leader at some point in our lives and vowed never to treat our followers the same way we were treated. With this initial background in mind, let’s analyze the role followers and environmental circumstances play in enabling toxic leadership.

The toxic triangle: the role of followers and the environment

In a 2007 study, Art Padilla, Robert Hogan and Robert Kaiser proposed the toxic triangle model to illustrate the formative relationship between destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments. According to the authors, destructive leaders possess the previously referenced quality of charisma but with an added thirst for personalized power, narcissism, a negative life story and an ideology of hate. 

Susceptible followers can be conformers with unmet needs, low self-esteem or lack of maturity. However, they can also be colluders who share the toxic leader’s ambitions, values and belief system. Finally, conducive environments are often exemplified by instability, perceived threats, cultures that espouse uncertainty avoidance, collectivism, high-power distance, and an absence of institutional checks and balances. 

Lipman-Blumen asserted adverse conditions create an environment ripe for toxic leadership to emerge. While a charismatic and confident leader might be needed to help navigate a crisis to a successful resolution, individuals with these qualities can also take advantage of their environmental circumstances and the vulnerabilities of followers who crave their guidance during periods of uncertainty. 

How can we stop toxic leaders?

Confronting and stopping toxic leaders is a challenging proposition. Doing so takes courage and sometimes a willingness to suffer the adverse consequences of crossing these individuals. 

With that warning in mind, Lipman-Blumen suggested a few approaches followers can employ to impede the toxic leader’s exploits:

  • Counsel the toxic leader to facilitate situational improvement. In other words, find a way to privately and constructively share concerns with the leader to explain the harm caused to followers and the organization.
  • Quietly work to undermine the toxic leader. If counseling does not work, then perhaps undermining the leader is a plausible step, albeit a toxic action in and of itself. This can be as simple as ignoring toxic directives or reporting the leader’s transgressions to a higher authority.
  • Join with others to confront the leader. This action entails forming coalitions with other colleagues and leaders to put pressure on the toxic leader, which creates safety in numbers relative to individual confrontations. 
  • Join with others to remove the leader. This action extends beyond the confrontation approach to oust the toxic leader from power. Taking this step requires collective resolve in working with those to whom the leader reports to force removal.
  • Leave the toxic situation. This is a personal decision in which followers admit “enough is enough” and extricate themselves from the toxic environment. In doing so, it is essential to remember that this approach likely won’t change the situation for the remaining followers hopelessly trapped in the toxic leader’s domain. 

Manfred Kets de Vries, in his book “Essays on the Psychology of Leadership: Leaders: Fools and Imposters,” aptly quoted General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.” 

Ultimately, there is no place for toxic leadership in our organizations. While a toxic leader may bring susceptible followers temporary relief due to environmental circumstances, the long-term implications can be severely damaging and leave organizations and followers worse off than before. 

Finally, while studying the negative aspects of leadership isn’t always appealing, sometimes doing the opposite and learning how not to lead can reveal valuable insights to help us become better leaders.  

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