“Why do we tolerate
and follow toxic leaders?”
For most of us that question is too painful to confront. Our
fear of losing income, reputation or self-esteem edges us into
compromises that damage our hearts and souls. We are willing
to bear these burdens and accept these scars because the alternatives
frighten us too much. How can I sacrifice my family’s wellbeing
or feed my children if I’m constantly marching away from
positions that upset my fragile moral frame of reference? Life is
hard, so I just need to put up with my bullying boss ... right?
And it is true: many leaders
suffer from some degree of toxicity. If any part of our religious position
recognizes fallenness—original sin or evil in the world—then
we understand that leadership, grounded by power, has potentially
toxic roots. This is not such a bad theory because it gives
us a clear starting point for identifying and surviving toxic
leadership, both as leader and as led.
Toxicity manifests in numerous and pungent ways—bullying,
toxic ambivalence, pretension, fantasy and hypocrisy.
Bullying and Commanding
Bullying involves things like unfair treatment, public humiliation
and other forms of threatening behavior. While some bullying
is straightforward, other behaviors can be subtler yet still
create toxicity. These include undermining one’s position or responsibility,
falsely taking credit, spreading rumors and halftruths,
and social ostracism.
Some research identifies bullying as an epidemic, especially in
the workplace. For example, in the United States over a third of
the workforce may have been bullied. The practice can be a form
of same-gender/same-race harassment not covered by numerous
laws and judgments of recent years. Nearly three-fourths of
bullies are bosses. This, of course, makes it a leadership issue.
Whenever a leader commands, the power dynamic shifts and
can become problematic. There is a thin line between commanding
and bullying. Bullying can involve shouting, swearing, name-calling,
malicious sarcasm, threats to safety, or actions that are threatening,
intimidating, humiliating, hostile, offensive or cruel. To
cement their position, bullies evaluate performance unfairly,
deny advancement, steal credit, attack reputations, give arbitrary
instruction, and even assign unsafe work. They can interfere,
sabotage, undermine, and encourage failure. The underlying phenomenon often identified as workplace
bullying can result in physical as well as emotional and psychological
disorders, including a diagnosis such as post-traumatic
Toxic Ambivalence: Sins of Omission
We can probably agree that toxic leadership does not necessarily
require intentionality—it can be accomplished quite effectively
as a sin of omission rather than commission. Simple
ineptness and rank incompetence breed toxicity in their own
way. Followers experience frustration where managers do
Steven Sample, former president of the University of Southern
California, describes “thinking gray” as an attribute of a contrarian
leader. It refers to avoiding, delaying or deferring a decision
until it has to be made, which really is a decision in itself.
In some highly charged political situations the leader may walk
a thin line between pragmatic indecision and toxic ambivalence.
While this may preserve college presidencies or other
newly installed senior leaders, it can also be a quick route to
Pretension: The Problem of Celebrity
“As soon as enough people give you enough compliments and
you’re wielding more power than you’ve ever had in your life,
it’s not that you become arrogant or rude to
people, but you get a false sense of your own importance and
what you’ve accomplished. You actually think you’ve altered the
course of history.”
The fact that this quote came from a movie star, Leonardo
DiCaprio, rather than an executive only amplifies its relevance.
Characterizing the leader as celebrity may sound like an odd
take, but we can see how aptly it fits. Through a variety of circumstances
any public event (physical, virtual or broadcasted),
we create celebrity. It is a form of leadership that emerges from
visibility and branding. A name becomes increasingly recognizable,
and a set of meanings is attached to it. There can then
be a subtle shift, as a normal human being becomes a brand.
followers, attracted by the brand,
ignore a host of warning signs.
A foundational indicator of
toxic celebrity is a lack of accountability.
Leaders enthralled with celebrity
are literally “in thrall” to the unholy freedom to do exactly
whatever feels good at the moment. This is the dark side of
celebrity. At the same
are placed under extraordinary pressure without the benefit of
being held responsible for results. Those followers who are eventually
disappointed or hurt are also usually the ones who bring
down celebrities once they discover their feet of clay.
The phenomenon is not limited to Hollywood stars. Some
leaders consciously leverage a personal brand to be more effective,
giving little thought to the moral or ethical implications
of their burgeoning celebrity. These leaders
represent a fair and balanced cross section of politicians, corporate
executives and preachers.
To varying degrees we all want to be celebrities because it
means others are impressed by what we say, do things for us,
affirm us, become our “friends,” don’t criticize or hurt us, and
primarily allow us to exercise power over them—only because
we are important, not because we are right. That is the bad news.
Because celebrity is a form of leadership, it can become
toxic. But in and of itself, celebrity is not bad. We start with a
neutral concept and by understanding it attempt to deal with
its realities. If leaders are defined as those with followers, then
anyone with one or more followers will deal with some aspect
of celebrity as we are defining it.
Celebrity in this generic sense is going to happen to leaders
with visibility, whether desired or not, so how do we keep it
from getting toxic? Toxic celebrities are generally humorless
about their own shortcomings, travel with uncritical followers,
seek more celebrity and constantly build their own brands.
Their celebrity can turn into notoriety when toxicity becomes
public. However, these celebrity leaders may also remain effective
(as they define it) or even become more effective in inappropriate
The bottom line is that celebrity without community is toxic.
Community, in some sense, provides accountability and prevents
toxicity, if understood properly. But what kind of community?
A group of mere followers, an acquiescent community,
does not exercise accountability. The only community of any
worth is a community of loving detractors.
Hypocrisy: the Problem of the Servant Leader
Jesus’ counterintuitive teaching on
servant leadership reputedly launched this often-praised ideal of leadership (or at
least gets cited often).
But what are all the implications of
becoming a servant? How often is slave associated with servant
leadership? How would a leader exhibit slave-like behaviors
when leading? Jesus gave his life “as a ransom for many”; are we
willing to link our eventual physical death—becoming a literal
ransom for our followers—to current discussions of servant
leadership? Biblically, this is a fairly narrow concept, which has
become embellished with extrabiblical meanings.
Certainly a servant-leader is sharply different from one who is a leader first,
perhaps because of a need to assuage an unusual power
drive or to acquire material possessions. The difference
manifests itself in the care taken by the servant, first to
make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are
being served. Robert Greenleaf has done much thinking on this and in his book, Servant Leadership, writes, “The test I like best, though difficult to administer,
is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while
being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous,
more likely themselves to become servants? And,
what is the effect on the least privileged person in society;
will she or he benefit, or at least, not be further deprived?
No one will knowingly be hurt, directly or indirectly.”
However, sometimes followers have
a higher expectation for clear
(or even forceful) direction
than a leader does, which
can confuse the leader in his or her
attempts to be a servant. It
can also cause a breakdown
of communication and an
abdication of responsibility for results where a leader attempts to
be collaborative at all costs. Lack of direction, of managing, of exercising
leadership, can just as quickly create chaos among these
types of followers and allow silos to fester.
Perhaps we need to step back
and realize that in one sense everyone in an organization serves.
Support functions serve the mission as well as serving the operations
functions; operational people serve the mission and the customer,
and so on. Ultimately, though, the manager serves the institution, and not
its employees, customers or shareholders.
The manager’s first task is to make
the institution, whether business, hospital, school, or university,
perform the function and make the contribution
for the sake of which it exists. Servanthood must contribute to the
institution’s performance. If the institution or organization does
not perform, it has no reason to exist (and servant leadership
becomes irrelevant). Of course, the manager can generate performance
through good leadership, ethical behaviors and affirming
relationships with followers and subordinates; but the
priorities must never be confused.
In the final analysis, for those who refuse to part with the
term servant leaders (and especially if you think you are one),
have someone check with your followers anonymously. The only true test for a so-called
servant leader is a confidential reality check with the followers.
A Final Thought: Am I a Toxic Leader?
It is easier to recall occasions when we have been bullied than
it is to remember when we have done the bullying.
In the midst of enthusiastically cataloguing the various injustices
that another leader may have perpetrated on us,
we might need to work through our own “due diligence” and
explore our personal capacity as leaders for battering followers.
Once aware of our problem, most of us will
hopefully seek a solution, recognizing that self-regulation is
part of our job as a leader. However many leaders still refuse to
confront the signs of toxicity and instead assault their followers
until they are stopped or retire. Without this honest appraisal we have no right to complain
about those who batter us.