Toxic Leadership: Destructive Characteristics & Examples
November 8, 2021
4 Clues To Identify a Toxic Leader
What makes a great leader? A transformational leader can see the opportunities in turmoil and inspire people to follow them to a better future. This has never been more important than in our current world situation. Managing employee productivity and performance needs to be combined with working remotely and overcoming new problems, all while maintaining psychological health, positive morale, and a strong organizational culture.
An incompetent leader, on the other hand, leaves you to deal with everything alone or is so busy putting out fires they aren’t available to lead. Even worse than that, however, is a destructive or toxic leader. These individuals see only the potential for self-enhancement, exploiting others to maximize their gain without any regard for the emotional damage they might cause.
Cleary, toxic leadership styles need to be avoided at all costs. What causes these negative leadership patterns? And how can you be aware of these and avoid hiring this type of leader? In addition to answering these questions, we’ll also look at four clues that will help you identify a toxic leader.
People leave managers, not companies.
As mentioned, there is a difference between incompetent leaders and destructive ones. While both create negative consequences, there are key differences in their attributes and their management styles that are important to understand.
Incompetent leaders might lack charisma, but that wouldn’t make them actively destructive. A destructive leader intentionally and systematically behaves in a way that violates the organization’s members' and stakeholders’ best interests. This behavior—and its results—often goes unnoticed until it’s too late to do anything about it (e.g., Enron). However, four clues will help you identify toxic boss characteristics earlier. Each of these clues reflects behaviors and attitudes that can reveal the hidden damaging nature of an otherwise seemingly competent leader.
Before delving into these clues, though, let’s look at what causes these detrimental patterns in leadership.
What causes toxic leadership patterns?
First, it’s important to point out that we all have some characteristics that annoy the people around us. With our unique ways of doing things, processing information, and responding in a variety of circumstances, it makes sense that we’d be opposed to people who do things in a way opposite to our own. Our characteristics are inherited in our DNA and influenced by the environment in which we grew up.
But toxic leadership characteristics aren’t just a matter of personality clashes. Instead, these types of individuals don’t exhibit typical behavior patterns but extreme distortions, powered by the brain’s more primitive parts—namely, fear. When these patterns become habitual, responses to them become unhealthy.
For example, if someone experienced excessive criticism in their early development, the ego would record a perception of being diminished by important caregivers. In return, this would provide a heightened sense that their very survival depends on not being criticized. This could easily lead to obsessively seeking superiority in all situations to alleviate the fear of feeling inferior.
What is toxic leadership? Fear and its role in destructive leadership
As humans, we experience imperfect systems—no matter how wonderful our upbringing is, most of us bring traces of fear into adulthood. These fear behaviors can puzzle and very often annoy others. Prototypical examples of these types of behaviors include, but aren’t limited to:
- The constant worrier who is always second-guessing themselves
- The storyteller who seems to live in an ideal world no one else can relate to
- The dominant driver who wants everything to go their way
- The prideful judge who doesn’t realize they can’t possibly know everything there is to know
In destructive leadership, however, we’re not merely referring to annoying habits unless they have become very extreme or frequent. Toxic leaders have little interest in how they are perceived, so they are rarely interested in how they could improve. This, as you can imagine, is a big problem.
Toxic leaders are single-mindedly self-interested.
Generally, healthy leaders have some annoying habits. But when you look beneath the surface, two major things set these leaders apart from destructive leaders. Healthy leaders:
- Adopt a mindset that conveys they care about their impact on others and are willing to listen, learn, and exert the choice and character to change.
- Hold a positive intention toward others and work for the good of the mission and the enterprise they serve.
On the other hand, examples of toxic leaders include those who are:
- Uncoachable because they adopt a rigid mindset that conveys they don’t care about their impact on others and will use their authority to manipulate their subordinates to bend to their will. Their motto would sound most like: “I am who I am, so deal with it.”
- They have a hidden ulterior motive for wanting and using power to serve themselves at the expense of others, the mission, or the enterprise.
As we look closely at the four clues of toxic leaders, keep this in mind. Is the leader well-intended and willing to work on themselves? If so, they are likely trying to serve their organization the best they can, even if they need to learn additional leadership skills.
What is a toxic leader? Here are four clues you might be working with a destructive leader.
Clue 1: Behaviors or words that imply “I’m kind of a big deal!”
Excessive fabrication and exaggeration that is nowhere near the truth.
Frequently this negative pattern arises from an adult stuck in a childhood dilemma around not getting enough attention from caregivers early in life. The result is an individual with an insatiable attention-seeking appetite and an inflated need to be special, unique, or novel.
Trapped in loneliness or sadness over not being “special” enough to those who matter, these individuals feel shame due to their perception of being attention-deprived or unworthy. This often results in rebelling from authority figures whom they believe couldn’t be trusted. Instead of following appropriately, they become rebellious and provocative, conning others into going along with their fantastic plans.
Clues to look for in this toxic leadership style:
- Exaggeration of the truth to the point of fantasy
- Unapologetic self-promoting and self-aggrandizing
- Excessive talking to dominate others
- Pontification and fabrication of elaborate stories
- Disrespect for authority figures
- Disregard for rules that are contrary to their aims
- Automatically dismiss ideas from others
- An insatiable need to be the center of attention
- Terminally individualistic, unique, or novel
- External image is unusually extreme in some way
Results in a chaotic climate
These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they demand attention but don’t want the restrictions that come with being front and center. When they are in the limelight, it can be exceedingly uncomfortable because they also unconsciously fail to believe they are impressive enough.
So, they attract attention, initiate excessive activity, and then thwart the attention this draws. This pattern makes them unpredictable, so the climate they create around them is chaotic and confusing for others.
Clue 2: Behaviors or words that imply “None of this is my fault!”
Excessive conflict avoidance by deflecting personal responsibility.
This destructive pattern arises from a childhood dilemma about not getting enough approval and acceptance. This results in insatiable approval-seeking and an excessive need to be liked by everyone, even strangers. The inner fear is to be rejected or ridiculed by others as unlovable by those who matter.
Because they perceive themselves as being unacceptable to others, they feel powerless and unworthy of care. This experience can become painful, and they are unable to communicate or ask others for what they need because they don’t feel they deserve it. They defer to those in authority roles and suffer quietly in dependence, hopelessness, and are seen as “needy” for any shred of approval.
Clues to look for in this toxic leadership style:
- Complaining, blaming, gossiping about others
- Disgruntled resentment of those in authority
- Giving up their power and being dependent on others
- Come across as “needy” and draining
- Asking others to decide and then resenting it
- Avoiding leadership to avoid culpability later
- Unconsciously inviting others to dominate them
- Blaming others for being the “bully”
- Not open to taking responsibility
- Desire to be the “nice” or “good” one
- An insatiable need to be liked, accepted, included
Results in a conflict-averse climate
These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they put extreme energy into taking care of or helping others with an unstated expectation that there will be a reward in return. For example, they take care of someone with the expectation that the other person will take the responsibility of making decisions for them.
However, they may not tell the other person this expectation. There is an unconscious deflection of blame because they don’t want to be accountable for potentially adverse outcomes. In this way, they can remain blameless of all actions and continue to believe that they are “good” or “innocent.” This pattern creates an environment of bitter finger-pointing and undermines the mission, their leaders, and others, all so they can remain blameless.
Clue 3: Behaviors or words that imply “Just do what I say!”
Excessive dominance over others by disregarding their humanity.
This destructive pattern arises from a childhood dilemma about not getting enough autonomy and power over circumstances because of controlling authority figures. This dilemma results in insatiable power-seeking and an excessive need to dominate others or even objectify them.
Instead of valuing other human beings, they see them as objects that are useful to their objectives and manipulate them. They often don’t take the time to build meaningful relationships. They fear being considered weak or vulnerable. Because they need to perceive themselves as all-powerful, they seek to be the heroic warrior who will save others, when the real underlying intent is to protect themselves from their deep-seated fear of vulnerability. They end up feeling angry at anyone who shows signs of weakness or being human in any way, in favor of demonstrating impenetrable vitality that is invincible.
Clues to look for in this toxic leadership style:
- Dismissal of others as useless to their agenda
- Frequent impatience with how slow others move
- Disregard for the values or needs of others
- Appears unsympathetic to others concerns
- Apparent inability to be still long enough to have a two-way conversation
- Apparent inability to be quiet long enough to listen to others
- A belief that they are the heroic warrior who will save the weak
- Disdain for human frailty or weakness of any kind
- Objectifies others and uses them for their goals
- Demands for loyalty at all costs in exchange for protection
Results in an autocratic climate
These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they demand unquestioning loyalty. They will use their power to protect others from harm, but they require absolute subservience in return. They disregard moral values that may get in their way, and they expect those around them not to question them and do the same. They are aggressive toward anyone who shows a lack of loyalty in any way. The disloyal are dismissed and disregarded quickly. You are either “in” or “out,” and there is no in-between.
Clue 4: “Trust me; I’m never wrong.”
The excessive diminishing of others and disdain for their lack of knowledge.
A childhood dilemma about not being smart enough to make logical choices because authority figures consistently discount them contributes to this destructive leadership style. This results in insatiable status-seeking and an excessive need to be seen as important by others.
The inner fear is being seen as insignificant, which is painful because it implies that you are less than others or not enough. Being “less than” causes intense feelings of inferiority. Because they see this as intolerable, they do everything in their power to earn external credentials that will prove outward signs of accomplishment.
Clues to look for in this toxic leadership style:
- Dismissal of others as stupid or unintelligent
- Never forgets mistakes
- Interrupts to say what is wrong before others finish speaking
- Unwilling to rely on others who cannot live up to their standards
- Come across as cold and unapproachable
- Perfectionism that becomes excessive and obsessive
- Moralistic whistleblowing and condemnation of authority
- Judging others as idiots who don’t know anything
- Excessively critical of anything that is not perfect
- Creating impossible standards that no one can reach
Results in a climate of stagnation:
These destructive leaders are challenging to work with because they set standards so high that nothing and no one can ever be good enough. The insatiable desire to outwit others and prove them wrong leads to an uncertain, withholding climate. The focus is a negative perspective on everything. Tossing out objections immediately becomes the norm, and the unintended consequence is avoiding the work required to do everything right.
Toxic leadership theory: next steps
If you recognize these patterns in your current leadership team, you may want to be cautious. Remember that toxic leaders are more than just annoying. They are intentionally self-serving to the detriment of others. This self-focus does not mean they are incapable of improving since people are always capable of change if they choose, but it may indicate they don’t want to change.
Understanding their motivations can help you recognize when they are using you to satisfy their unconscious internal fears. You can use this knowledge to create a strategy to interact with them in a way that minimizes damage to yourself. If that’s not possible, you can begin to plan your exit or transfer to a new leader or company if needed. If you’ve already thought about leaving your organization because of one of these leaders, you are not alone.
If you see some of these clues in yourself, all is not lost. Most people can identify with one or two of these patterns. But if they become extreme, they will eventually hurt you and everyone around you. Destructive patterns may create short-term wins but will not help you in the long run because they are not sustainable.
While quick wins may seem “right” now, they come at a high cost and later are likely to backfire. However, if you are aware of these tendencies, you can move past these fear-based behaviors with conscious development. You have the choice to stop fear from controlling your actions and decisions if you commit to becoming a better leader.