What are the characteristics that define toxic leadership?

In South Africa, citizens are struggling with general corruption among its ruling elite and everyone it appears are on a veritable witch-hunt for corrupt leaders in the country after the publication of Thuli Madonsela’s “State of Capture” report. For these reasons and many others, it becomes important to ask a few questions.




By Dr Paul Vorster

Recently toxic leadership has garnered great attention both domestically and abroad. With Donald Trump now being the president-elect in the United States, many are wondering whether he will be a good leader, or live up to his reputation. His “reputation” refers to the way he handled his election campaign, which many would argue was the most brutal, bigoted, and sexist by an American presidential candidate in recent history.

Firstly, how did these leaders work their way into positions of power, and secondly, how on earth did they dupe the general public? Another more pertinent question is what did these leaders do, and say to get such widespread support from followers despite their less than pristine reputations? President Zuma was elected during a furore over rape allegations and involvement with corruption regarding the multimillion-dollar arms deal. Trump was elected by the majority of American voters even though his projected reforms were openly bigoted, racist and sexist. The truth is, people knew about these character flaws before these leaders were elected, and still they were able to garner support from the general public and entrench themselves in top leadership positions. In South Africa, excuses can be made due to the effect of “party politics” where people vote for a ruling party and not necessarily a leader, but no such excuse can be made in the United States. It can further be argued that in South Africa the ruling ANC should have ejected President Zuma at the first signs of trouble, which raises interesting questions about the level of collusion individuals in the party have with this leader.   

If one considers President Zuma and compares him with former South African President Thabo Mbeki, one realises the depth of the problem and the stark difference between the two. Mbeki was recalled by the ANC ruling government because of allegations of misuse of power, and possibly but not entirely, because of his position on HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe. President Zuma, on the other hand, has survived numerous scandals which are far more concrete than what Mbeki faced. Where is Zuma now? He is still in power and has recently survived a second motion of no confidence in his rule in the South African parliament.  

In the United States, Bill Clinton was impeached because he lied under oath and obstructed justice regarding the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. However, Trump in comparison was elected president despite openly attacking minority groups and women in his presidential campaign and in election debates with Hillary Clinton. Trump’s policy statements are even more worrying on a global scale, where at times he indicated that he would use nuclear weapons against ISIS militants in the Middle-east, and eject asylum seekers from the country. This doesn’t even cover the statements he has made about African-American, Mexican-American, Muslim-American, and Cuban-American minority groups which have been openly racist and abusive.

So again, how did these leaders gain so much support and entrench their power and could they be considered toxic? Were the public who voted for them fooled, or did these leaders meet some sinister needs in their followers that made them overlook, or like, aspects of their characters?

These are all interesting questions and individuals have to introspect to understand why they supported these leaders, to begin with. Although, we could argue that Trump and Zuma could be toxic leaders, are we sure that they fit the mould? I would refrain from calling them toxic leaders directly, but many characteristics these leaders have may indicate a high probability that they are indeed toxic and destructive. In Zuma’s case, toxic characteristics have been more concrete from a social and economic perspective. Trump on the other hand still requires a term in office before we can really make that call.

But what are toxic leaders? This question has fascinated numerous psychologists and sociologists and the answers may indeed come from these disciplines. Many have argued that toxic leadership is not leadership, but if you look closely at numerous toxic/destructive leaders from the past one realises that these individuals were able to influence a great deal of people to do unspeakable things. Adolf Hitler was able to mobilise Germany to wage war on the world and engage in reprehensible acts against minority groups. Slobodan Milosevic played an instrumental role in the Yugoslav Wars and ethnic cleansing in Serbia and Bosnia. Joseph Stalin’s influence regarding purges, expulsions, forced displacements, and mass murder is also well documented. What makes this even worse is that these leaders had good support from the majority of people in their respective countries.  

Today, toxic leadership is especially important in corporate organisations where these leaders entrench themselves very quickly. Once entrenched, these leaders appoint colluders with similar values and exploit followers that have very specified unmet needs (more about this in the next iteration of toxic leadership). But, in order to understand Toxic leaders, we first have to understand what makes leaders effective and then look at toxic characteristics that define this type of leadership. For more information about toxic leadership and the contexts that support them please refer to Padilla, Hogan, & Kaiser (2007) from where these characteristics were drawn).

Characteristic 1: Toxic leaders intentionally make decisions that benefit them and harm their followers and organisations over the long-term

Generally, effective leaders act as a functional resource for the group that put their own selfish needs aside to enact behaviours that benefit the group or organisation over the long-term (Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, 2007). According to Hogan (2006), the leader’s performance should be measured by the effectiveness of his policies for the benefit of followers, not to meet his own selfish needs at the expense of others. Additionally, this benefit to followers should be viewed from a long-term perspective (Padilla et al., 2007). Questions should be asked about the outcome of the leader’s term. Has the leader left the organisation and followers in a better more tenable position after he leaves office, or has his rule resulted in negative outcomes for the organisation and followers.

Interestingly, most toxic leaders seem positive in the initial to medium term of their rule, it is only later that the negative effects of their leadership become evident (Padilla et al., 2007). They are also experts at making others see the good aspects of their behaviour and ignore the bad aspects. This also distinguishes toxic leadership from mediocre leadership. Whereas mediocre leaders do not really work to benefit others, they also do little harm. Conversely, the toxic leader tends to leave followers in a very negative state of affairs after or during his rule. It is also important to realise that toxic leadership is often confused with good or mediocre leaders that make mistakes in their term of leadership. Bill Clinton could be viewed as such. Although he made mistakes, was he really toxic? Did he leave the United States in a worse position after he left office? Was the negative impact due to some selfish or negative motive, or rather because of a mistake? Brian Molefe the ex-CEO of Eskom could possibly be characterised by this type of leadership, and not necessarily the toxic kind. 

Characteristic 2: Toxic leaders prefer to coerce followers and be in control

Most destructive/toxic leaders tend to want absolute control over their followers (Padilla et al., 2007). This means that the toxic leader does not take his/her followers into consideration when making decisions. They do not want to debate issues or listen to alternative input. These leaders want to do what they want to do when they want to do it. If people oppose their decisions they will either get rid of the opposition or marginalise them. This characteristic often comes from a personality trait referred to as dominance which is a sub-factor of Extraversion. Dominance is characterised by being assertive, forceful, and self-assured (Anderson & Kilduff, 2009). Interestingly, this trait is strongly related to influence in groups and is often prized in leaders. It is important to note, however, that not all dominant individuals are toxic leaders, but most toxic leaders are dominant. It may be important to ask whether a leader is authoritarian (where followers are controlled entirely by the leader and no input from followers are allowed); authoritative (where the leader takes charge but is more relaxed about follower input) or collaborative (where followers are consulted and included in decision-making).

Characteristic 3: Toxic leaders are selfish 

Toxic leaders often make decisions that benefit them, and not the general public or their constituents (Padilla et al., 2007). Often this is referred to as narcissistic leadership, where the leader is so pre-occupied with their own needs, social standing, status and power that they make decisions that benefit them and no one else. This type of leadership also comes with a certain amount of arrogance, grandiosity and self-absorption which usually stems from a fragile self-esteem (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006). These selfish motives are entirely self-serving and do not benefit anyone but the leader and his/her colluders. Often when toxic leaders are in peril, they will take steps to hold onto power, instead of relinquishing it, seeing an attack on their policy as a personal attack, and not something that needs to be debated (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006).

Again, a contrast can be drawn between President Jacob Zuma and Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. Whereas Zuma has tried to hold onto power, Molefe has resigned. This once again raises questions about the toxicity of Molefe compared to Zuma. Additionally, toxic leaders will often hang colluders and followers out to dry if it can benefit them. If one considers what happened to Schabir Sheik during the arms deal inquiry, one can draw one’s own conclusions about the toxicity of Zuma’s leadership. Another parallel can be drawn by looking at how Trump has recently treated his own party, openly criticising and berating individual leaders to benefit his own position. Or consider the personal attacks Trump made against his opponents in the run-up to the election.  

Draw your own conclusions

Although toxic leadership traits can be seen in the leaders mentioned, I believe it is up to the general public to decide whether these leaders are toxic. It must be clearly understood that leaders may have some toxic traits, but may not be considered toxic leaders per se. Look at the following checklist to determine whether a leader is possibly toxic:

  1. The leader only makes decisions that benefit him or her.
  2. The leader has a negative impact on followers in the long-term (this is a retrospective characteristic, but ask whether the decisions made now will be beneficial to followers over the long-term).
  3. The leader does not allow the input of followers.
  4. The leader marginalises or attacks anyone that disagrees with him or her.
  5. The leader does not take minority groups into account.
  6. The leader vilifies a certain group of people to make his or her point.
  7. The leader relies on emotive arguments and not rational arguments.
  8. The leader often uses stereotypes to make his or her point about groups he/she does not like.
  9. The leader is arrogant and self-serving.
  10. The leader makes grandiose self-references.

Although this checklist cannot determine with complete accuracy whether a leader is toxic, this checklist can help individuals to be more aware of toxic leadership dimensions and how to identify them. It is also important to remember that this checklist is by no means exhaustive and that everyone has individually felt that their managers or leaders embody some of these aspects, which is especially true if you do not like your manager. It is when this is true for the majority of people and situations that the type of leadership can be considered toxic. Ask yourself whether the leaders mentioned in this article fit all, or most of these characteristics and draw your own conclusions.


Other factors

Although toxic traits are important indicators of toxic leaders, certain contextual elements need to be considered before this type of leadership can be truly destructive. Firstly, these leaders need followers and colluders to hold power. Research has demonstrated that certain followers and colluders with very specified characteristics are more susceptible to this form of leadership. Additionally, certain environments also assist toxic leaders in taking control. We discuss more of these in the next two articles on toxic leaders.


Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. J. (2009). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? The competence signalling effects of trait dominance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 491-503. doi: 10.1037/a0014201

Hogan, R. (2006). Personality and the fate of organizations. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 176-194. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.03.001

Rosenthal, S. A., & Pittinsky, T. L. (2006). Narcissistic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 17, 617-633. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2006.10.005