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Behavioral Patterns of the Toxic Leader


I am often asked, “How do toxic leaders become so powerful? Everyone knows how abusive they are. How do they get away with it?” Truly, toxic leaders have a detrimental effect on the members of an organization – degrading morale, motivation, innovation, collaboration, and performance. So, how do they thrive and why do others tolerate and enable them? Research has provided insights.

  1. They create the appearance of high performance. Toxic leaders tend to be highly skilled and intelligent. They are experts in creating an image, using propaganda, and manipulating data and information to sell themselves as successful and accomplished, to get noticed and to extract praise. While they may have achieved some early and limited success, their accomplishments are short-lived and superficial. They magnify and exaggerate their achievements and blame others for failures. They can never accept responsibility for failure. They take credit for others’ success and achievement. The end result of their propaganda is people trust them for their abilities but are unaware of their true intent.
  2. They create suspicion and distrust of other team members. They create division, and chaos, resulting in feelings of threat, fear, and anxiety. As people feel a threat to their existence, they become overly concerned about their basic human needs for safety and security. Toxic leader tactics include: creating conflict by exploiting divisions; favoring a majority group over a minority group; degrading, undermining, and questioning others’ intent, abilities, integrity, and performance; degrading and belittling others with personal attacks and public humiliation.
  3. They create a codependent relationship with superiors, peers, and direct reports. As people become increasingly distressed, toxic leaders present themselves as the one and only savior. People begin to tolerate their abusive behavior as they perceive the toxic leader is contributing a great deal to the organization. Those the toxic leader favors buy into their deception as they give their whole-hearted, unexamined support. Leaders and members come to believe they cannot survive without the toxic leader. They need him. Firing him is unthinkable.
  4. They challenge and violate systems of ethical behavior and practice and organizational policy to establish personal, political power. They exploit weaknesses in the systems for personal gain, such as, guidelines and policies that are ambiguous and have no clear accountability; unclear and duplicative role responsibilities; and divisions among various demographic groups. As a result, ethical standards (honesty, policy, conflicts of interest) and core values (respect, integrity, selfless service) continue to fade.
  5. They redirect resources for personal gain. Having created suspicion around the effectiveness of organizational systems, they claim justification for disregarding ethical standards and for using organizational systems and resources (funding, equipment, systems, subordinate teams, and especially employees) for self-interest and their personal agenda. They demonstrate a lack of compassion for others, denying essential resources for projects that do not support their agenda, power base, and image. They redefine priorities according to that which people fear the most and that which will establish their power base.
  6. They marginalize and eliminate anyone who challenges their authority or who conflicts with their personal agenda. They specialize in bullying and passive hostility. As a result, the experts, who are targets of their toxicity depart, leaving behind sycophants of questionable competence who tell the toxic leaders what they want to hear and so reap the benefits of their favor. Toxic leaders cannot allow anyone to succeed or appear to be more accomplished than they. They marginalize others’ achievements and sabotage team performance so they are always on top. Loyalty to the toxic leader becomes the priority value as anyone who challenges his agenda is viewed as disloyal and not a team player.
  7. They entrench themselves as the guardians of a status quo of favoritism, discrimination, division, and self-interest. Toxic leaders portray themselves as the savior of the disenfranchised who will bring order to the organization. However, they do not allow any dissension or difference of opinion. The order they intend is submission under their total control and exclusively for their followers. Order for dissenters means suppression, punishment, and retaliation. Targets of toxicity develop coping mechanisms, such as, avoidance, tribalism, resistance, break room chatter, and absenteeism, which both enables them to survive and adversely affects team and organizational performance. As a result, the targets of toxicity are blamed and labelled as disgruntled, poor performers.

The end result is an organizational culture in which all systems, resources, and people exist to support the toxic leader’s ego, self-interest, agenda, and enrichment. Simply put, they become a black hole in the center of the universe.

While this description is that of extreme toxic leadership, and there is variation in toxicity, all toxic leaders demonstrate these behaviors to some degree.

This process gives us some clues regarding how an organization’s culture tolerates and enables toxic leaders and how organizations can detoxify the toxic leader. More to follow.

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