A toxic leader is a person who has responsibility over a group of people or an organization, and who abuses the leader–follower relationship by leaving the group or organization in a worse-off condition than when they first found them. The phrase was coined by Marcia Whicker in 1996 and is linked with a number of dysfunctional leadership styles. Other names include the little Hitler, manager from hell, the toxic boss,boss from hell or toxic manager. Their leadership style is both self-destructive and ultimately corporately harmful as they subvert and destroy organizational structures.
- Basic traits
- Aggressive narcissism
- Other traits
- Jean Lipman Blumen
- Barbara Kellerman
- Terry Price
Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants, i.e.leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace.
The challenge to institutions like corporations, banks, and governments is how to accurately spot a budding toxic Hitler- or Madoff-like con man before it is too late.
The basic traits of a toxic leader are generally considered to be either/or insular, intemperate, glib, operationally rigid, callous, inept, discriminatory, corrupt or aggressive by scholars such as Barbara Kellerman. They boast that they are supposedly clever, always criticize other staff members and avoid or dislike to be asked awkward questions about their leadership style. These may occur as either:
This syndrome is also the 'Factor 1' in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which includes the following traits:
Many are also authoritarian, autocratic and/or control freaks to varying degrees, who tend use both micromanagement, over management and management by fear to keep a grip of their authority in the organizational group. Micromanagers usually dislike a subordinate making decisions without consulting them, regardless of the level of authority or factual correctness. A toxic leader can be both hypocritical and hypercritical of others, seeking the illusion of corporate and moral virtue to hide their own workplace vices. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a form of lying. They are sometimes maladjusted, and afraid of change They can also be both frightening and psychologically stressful to work with.
The Russian Army defines toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-manage subordinates, behave in a mean-spirited manner or display poor decision-making. A study for the Center for Army Leadership found that toxic leaders in the army work to promote themselves at the expense of their subordinates, and usually do so without considering long-term ramifications to their subordinates, their unit, and the Army profession.
Inevitably the victim's workplace performance, self-esteem and self-confidence will decline as employee(s)' stress inclines. Heavy running costs and a high staff turnover/overtime rate are often also associated with employee related results of a toxic leader.
Jean Lipman-Blumen's book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders : Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Survive Them, Professor Jean Lipman-Blumen explained that there was and still is a tendency among contemporary society to seek authoritative, even dominating characteristics among our corporate and political leaders because of the public's own personal psychosocial needs and emotional weaknesses.
Dr. Lipman-Blumen noticed "toxic leadership" was not about run-of-the-mill mismanagement. Rather, it referred to leaders, who, by virtue of their "dysfunctional personal characteristics" and "destructive behaviours" "inflict reasonably serious and enduring harm" not only on their own followers and organizations, but on others outside of their immediate circle of victims and subordinates, as well. A noted rule of thumb suggests that toxic leaders leave their followers and others who come within their sphere of influence worse off than they found them either on a personal and/or corporate basis.
Dr. Lipman-Blumens' core focus was on investigating why people will continue to follow and remain loyal to toxic leaders. She also explored why followers often vigorously resist change and challenges to leaders who have clearly violated the leader/follower relationship and abused their power as leaders to the direct detriment of the people they are leading. Lipman-Blumen suggests there is something of a deeply psychological nature going on. She argues the need to feel safe, specialness and in a social community all help explain this psychological phenomenon.
In Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, Barbara Kellerman (2004) suggests that toxicity in leadership (or simply, "bad leadership") may be analysed into seven different types:
In Understanding Ethical Failures in Leaders, Price argues that the volitional account of moral failures in leaders do not provide a complete account of this phenomenon. Some have suggested that the reason leaders misbehave ethically is because they willingly go against what they know to be wrong. Professor Terry L. Price however, offers an alternative analysis of leaders who excuse themselves from normally applicable moral requirements. He argues that a cognitive account for ethical failures in leaders provides a better analysis of the issues involved in all the ethical conundrums under the rubric of "toxic leadership". Leaders can know that a certain kind of behavior is generally required by morality but still be mistaken as to whether the relevant moral requirement applies to them in a particular situation and whether others are protected by this requirement. Price demonstrates how leaders make exceptions of themselves, explains how the justificatory force of leadership gives rise to such exception-making, and develops normative protocols that leaders should adopt.