Defining Toxic Leadership

Before discussing toxic leadership further, it is important to discuss what toxic leadership is (and is not). Let's start with what toxic leadership is not. It is not a boss we do not like nor a leader who has a bad day and reacts poorly. We are all human and we will all have bad days. Additionally, we will not like all our leaders nor will they always like us. Simply put, these items are "par for the course" in organizations.

Toxic leadership is more. Toxic leaders are leaders who engage in behaviors that inflict harm and cause damage. Toxic leaders leave organizations and followers worse than when they found them (Lipman-Blumen, 2005).

Sounds pretty scary, right? It sounds like the kind of leader pictured in this article or another scary-looking villain. I wish toxic leadership was that simple because, if it was, it would be easier to spot and easier to prevent. Instead, like most things in this world, it exists in a sort of continuum. Specifically, the theoretical framework created by Jean Lipman-Blumen in 2005 lists all below items as toxic leader behaviors. As you will see, there is a large range of behaviors. I like to say it ranges from pure evil to absent leaders.

Range of Toxic Leadership Behaviors

Circumventing systems of justice/Undermining legal systems and authority

Engaging in criminal/unethical activities or violating basic human rights

Feeding followers false allusions to make them seem more powerful (telling individuals they control more than what they do, have more power than what they do, have more experience, etc.)

Lying to mislead followersPitting others against each other (inciting them to treat others poorly)

Using followers’ fears to incite action (if someone is afraid of failure, using that to get them to do things they do not want to do)Identifying and using scapegoats (not the leader's fault--always someone else's)

Not allowing criticism of any kind (even constructive)

Being incompetent—misdiagnosing problem or not addressing incompetenceFailure to develop and mentor/teach other leaders

I contend, like most people would, that many of these are far more damaging than the others. However, technically they all leave organizations and followers worse off. I also can share I have personally experienced all of these behaviors in leaders I have worked for or with during my career. And where the first several items on this list are the most dangerous, the ones in the middle and bottom are harder to see, harder to know they are happening, and easier to ignore.

Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders. Oxford, England: Oxford  University Press.

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