Friday, January 17, 2014

Leadership Toxicity

I was reminiscing with some former colleagues over the holidays and, as often happens in such situations, we were laughing it up as we shared anecdotes about some of the highly placed, handsomely paid, sometimes incompetent and occasionally "toxic" leaders we had worked with over the years.  Of course it's easy and maybe even therapeutic to laugh about such people once they are in your past and no longer part of your daily life experiences, but I think it is fair to say that the truly toxic leaders weren't ever really funny--they were dysfunctional and destructive.  If you have worked with one, you know what I mean.

What is a toxic leader?  Toxicity, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder, but when Dr. Marcia Lynn Whicker (Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad) classified leaders by type, she used three categories:  trustworthy, transitional and toxic. The toxic leaders were described as maladjusted, malcontent, malevolent and malicious enforcers, street fighters and bullies who destroy productivity, operate with a sense of personal inadequacy, and who are selfish and clever at concealing deceit.  It gets worse:  according to Col. George E. Reed, US Army, toxic leaders are viewed as "arrogant, self-serving, inflexible and petty" and they "rise to their stations in life over the carcasses of those who work for them." Andrew Schmidt has even developed a Toxic Leadership Scale that considers five dimensions of toxic leadership:  abusive supervision, authoritarian leadership, narcissism, self-promotion, and unpredictability.

One of my favorite books on this topic is Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters by Barbara Kellerman.  She describes seven types of bad leadership that are most prevalent--incompetent, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular and evil--and illustrates them with stories about public figures from business and politics.  Several years ago, I worked with a group that used Kellerman's categories as a framework to try to articulate what bad leadership looked like in their workplace so they could root it out and eliminate it.  The finished product looked something like this:



  • Lacks knowledge, skill or will to sustain effective action
  • Oblivious to his/her lack of knowledge, skill or will 
  • Focuses on peripheral or unimportant items
  • Gets in the way of direct reports (trips the players on their way out of the dugout)
  • Foolishly and inappropriately confident and arrogant
  • High maintenance


  • Stiff, unyielding, smug
  • Unwilling to consider and adapt to new ideas, new information or changing times
  • Believes he/she has superior knowledge (smartest person in the room)
  • Gets trapped by bad decisions (unwilling to admit mistakes)


  • Lacks discipline and self control in professional or personal habits and behaviors
  • Has tantrums, screams, throws things, slaps the table, slams the door
  • Substance and/or people abuser
  • Uses inappropriate language or makes unprofessional comments
  • Needlessly hostile and provocative


  • Uncaring and/or unkind
  • Ignores or discounts needs, wants and wishes of others
  • Acts without respect
  • Bullies subordinates and/or treats them with contempt
  • Makes disparaging comments about employees to other employees


  • Lies, cheats, misrepresents, or steals 
  • Takes the credit, avoids the blame
  • Conspires against, demeans and marginalizes others 
  • Deals dishonestly or disingenuously with others
  • Says one thing, does another


  • Disregards the health and welfare of others 
  • Fails to listen, or listens to the wrong sources
  • Micromanages
  • Intolerant of alternate viewpoints
  • Ridicules opposing opinions


  • Vindictive
  • Intimidates and demoralizes others
  • Hurtful and mean-spirited
  • Uses pain and fear as an instrument of power

Sadly, the CEO at that company was the person exhibiting most of these behaviors, but he was a "kick down, kiss up" kind of guy and the board that had hired him apparently believed he was an outstanding executive.  I have always wondered how people who behave this way ever landed a leadership position, never mind kept it, but I suppose the more interesting question is how and why  such "leaders"  have any followers at all.  Jean Lipman-Blumen, in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders, points out that people exposed to a toxic leader often come up with excuses to tolerate the abuse--job security, paycheck, prestige--thus the behavior goes unchallenged. So while we usually have three choices when we are facing something we don't like--(1) grin and bear it, (2) change it, or (3) leave it behind--most of us either find a way to put up with it, or we leave it behind, so we generate little or no pressure for change.  Unfortunately, this emboldens toxic leaders and encourages them to stay the course.

Then this week when I read an article in Strategy and Business entitled Are You Your Employees’ Worst Enemy? I realized that while toxic leaders are a problem, a more insidious and prevalent leadership problem might be this:  according to the article, a majority of employees surveyed, even in successful companies, viewed their leaders as an obstacle to their effectiveness.  Apparently many well-intentioned leaders get caught in a "hindrance trap", described as "a cognitive bubble in which leaders erroneously conclude that the success of their teams is a reflection of their good leadership", so they inadvertently derail their employees by:

  • communicating purpose and direction poorly
  • not considering organizational capacity when rolling out new initiatives
  • failing to set policies to help the organization achieve superior performance

Sounds a bit like early stage leadership toxicity to me.  Is it any wonder that leadership consulting, training and coaching have emerged as high profile growth businesses?

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on Property Casualty insurance claims and operations. He can be reached at or through

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