What is toxic/destructive leadership?

Recently, Dr Paul Vorster was asked to present his views of leadership identification and assessment on “The Leadership Platform” on CliffCentral hosted by leadership activist Adriaan Groenewald.


Dr. Paul Vorster (The Ethics Institute)

Recently, I was asked to present my views of leadership identification and assessment on “The Leadership Platform” on CliffCentral hosted by leadership activist Adriaan Groenewald. I was asked to do this interview because of a chapter I co-wrote with Dr Nicola Taylor on Leadership Assessment which can be found in the recently published book: “Leadership: Perspectives from the Front Line” edited by Professor Theo Veldsman and Dr Andrew Johnson.

Interestingly, there appears to be great interest in this field at the moment in part due to the uncertain political climate in South Africa, but also because of the impact poor leadership (and/or destructive leadership) has had both domestically and internationally in both the public and private sectors  Although we discussed the subject of toxic/destructive leadership on the show (you can listen to the podcast here http://cliffcentral.com/the-leadership-platform/master-lesson-sponsored-sibanye-gold-4/), I would like to unpack some of the characteristics of toxic leaders in a little more detail. For this reason, we will be presenting a continuing series of these articles every month to delve deeper into the characteristics of toxic leaders.

But first things first. What are toxic leaders? Generally, a toxic leader can be defined as someone who influences others for the primary purpose of obtaining personalised power (i.e., power that is not shared with others), to meet the leader’s selfish goals/interests, and which result in negative outcomes for their followers, and colluders over the long-term (Padilla, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2007).

Generally, this form of leadership is a self-centred form of leadership where the enjoyment of influencing others (having power over others); and meeting selfish desires are primary motivators. The outcome of this is that others (followers and colluders) are often short-changed over time. One may surely want to know how these leaders are capable of entering top positions in organisations if they have mostly selfish characteristics. How can these aspects of the person’s character not be identified before they are selected for such a position?  The answer is simple. Selfish traits are often rooted in an inflated sense of self or arrogance. This arrogance is often perceived by others as self-confidence, self-assuredness, or high self-efficacy, which are traits that are prized for leadership positions.

In toxic/destructive leaders these traits go beyond simple self-efficacy into the realm of narcissistic tendencies (high levels of selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a strong need for admiration from others). The fact is, individuals with these traits do fantastically in interviews, and are especially good at “Leaderless Group Discussions” which are assessment centre exercises constructed to elicit leadership traits (such as creating structure, influencing others, and taking charge). In other words, leadership selection criteria are often biased towards leaders with narcissistic tendencies. This does not mean that good leaders are not narcissistic, but what we do know is that most toxic/destructive leaders are.

A second element to the definition of toxic leadership is that the outcomes, over the long-term, of this type of leadership is negative. Interestingly, the initial effects of toxic leadership are usually perceived as good and positive by followers. This is because the toxic leader often identifies individuals in the organisation with unmet needs, and low self-efficacy, and generates outcomes to meet the needs of these prospective followers in the short-term helping the leader to gain influence and a power-base.

Additionally, the toxic/destructive leader will often identify individuals that have similar values to them as well, and turn these individuals into colluders. This is also usually accomplished in a threatening context (i.e., situations in the organisation where uncertainty thrive, and/or a threat is perceived) where the toxic leader purports with self-confidence to know how to solve the problem, or eliminate the threat.  In this regard, the toxic leader builds followers that will blindly follow their lead and colluders who engage in similiar, but condoned, negative activities that parallel those of the toxic leader.

Toxic leadership is therefore,  more than just leadership traits, but also involves an environment conducive to this form of leadership (i.e., threatening situations) where followers with low self-efficacy and colluders with similar toxic values are rallied to execute the will of the leader. Because of this power-base it is often difficult to judge whether the leader is performing effectively or not because the followers and colluders protect the leader, but also because the leader is capable of focusing attention on his/her positive contributions while hiding the toxic aspects of their leadership style.

What is certain, however, is that eventually the outcome of this form of leadership is to disempower followers and control colluders, often at the expense of these individuals and the organisation as a whole (refer to ENRON for example). This often results in an authoritarian style of leadership (when the leader controls all activities without any input from his/her followers).  

In the next iteration of this series we will look more closely at the characteristics of the toxic/destructive leader and how they gain power over followers in the organisation.