Toxic leadership critical essay


Webster dictionary defines “ toxic” as containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation, exhibiting symptoms of infection or toxicities or extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful. “ Leadership”, by definition is when an organizational role involves

  • establishing a clear vision
  • sharing (communicating) that vision with others so that they will follow willingly
  • providing the information, knowledge, and methods to realize that idea
  • coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members or stakeholders.

With that being said, the phase Toxic Leadership as a concept was coined by Marcia Lynn Whicker, in her book: ” Toxic Leaders: When Organizations go bad” which is all about the abuse of power and its destructiveness.

In this paper, we will explore the special characteristics of toxic leaders, the different styles and the Who, What and Why toxic leaders exists in an organization.

Special Characteristics of Toxic Leaders

When thinking of toxic leaders, we often look at certain traits or attributes where the leader is always rude too and screaming at their subordinates in order to get the job; this is one feature of toxic leaders. The leader can be know to always lie to their followers in order to make themselves look good or even intimidate their subordinates so that they’re feared.

There may be hundreds of other characteristics that toxic leaders possess, what we will take a look is a few characteristics that are outlined in Marcia Lynn Whicker book: ” Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad” [New York: Doubleday, 1996. ]:

  • Maladjusted: Leaders who are viewed as maladjusted are often behaving awkwardly in social settings; they’re unable to cope with everyday social situations and personal relationships. These so called leaders are maladjusted to theirenvironment, their position, their business, and certainly to their supporters.
  • Malcontent: A leader that has a characteristic of being malcontent, they’re never satisfied with anything. They often look at past failures to find reasons to complain about something. My guess is that they may have a restless desire to strive for something that they do not have.
  • Malevolent: Malevolent is defined as having, showing, or arising from intense often vicious ill will, spite, or hatred. Malevolence in leadership is the constant, severe hatred for others that these leaders have in order to counter their own insecurities. They often wish for the downfall of others and then often celebrate due to an individual’s misfortune.
  • Malicious: Maliciousness is when a person has the intent of cause severe damage or harm to others. Leaders that have malicious intents are often looking for ways to deceive their followers in order to get the job done. Usually the ideology may seem link it has good intentions, but in reality it causes disruption and confusion amongst its followers.

Different types of Toxic Leaders Style

At first glance toxic leadership indicates an intimidating person that bullies others, but in reality a toxic leadership can be present in a meeker category or in a multitude of types between these extremes.

The nature and degree of harm that results helps to characterize the toxic leader type. In ” Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters,” Barbara Kellerman (2004) suggests that toxicity in leadership may be analyzed into seven different types.

The Incompetent Leader

In order to effectively lead your subordinates; one must be a leader that has the competent I making it happen. Competent is about having the requisite (the necessary ability), qualities, knowledge or skill to do something successful.

An Incompetent leader is an individual that may be good at delegating to the one’s (followers), who may be the subject matter expert, in gettinggoalsaccomplished. However, a leader must know his or job as well as the subordinates. It’s good to be book smart or being able to talk-the-talk, but they must also be able to walk-the-walk. The leader and at least some followers lack the will or skill (or both) to sustain effective action. With regard to at least one leadership challenge, they do not create positive change. Usually these leaders lack practical, academicoremotional intelligence.

These leaders also are often careless, dense, distracted, slothful or sloppy or they are easily undone by uncertainty andstress, unable effectively to communicate or educate.

The Rigid Leader

The rigid leader is “ stiff and unyielding” and is “ unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information, or changing times. ” This type of leader doesn’t adapt to change well. They are often view as “ The Dinosaur”. They like the ways of the old but will often become extinct if unable to surround themselves around those who has the same thought process.

Usually these type of leaders have the knowledge and the ability (competent) in getting the job done but their followers will become stagnate because they know how to perform the new way of business, but the “ rigid” leader will continue to have them in the prehistoric era thus cost a decline in their overall productivity.

The Intemperate Leader

The Intemperate is one who lacks self-control and is aided and abetted by followers who are unwilling or unable to effectively. It is said that we have a lot of these types of leaders. Point in case, The Rev.

Jesses Jackson, who a few years ago was found to had a child with another women while he was married as well as a respected figure of this nation. This type of leader is similar to former President Bill Clinton with his extra marital affair while married and holding the highest office in the United States. Though people found these actions a surprise, but still follow these individuals.

The Callous Leader

The callous leader is “ uncaring or unkind”; ignored or discounted are the needs, wants, and wished of most members of the group or organization, especially subordinates.

They have no desire to be concerned about thehealthor wealth of their followers; the callous leader has no compassion towards his or her followers. Their precedence usually does not align with their employees’ best interest.

The Corrupt Leader

The corrupt leader is one who is motivated by power and greed. They and at least some followers lie, cheat, or steal. They put self-interest ahead of the public interest to a degree that exceeds the norm. These leaders are often not trusted, thus cause an organization to not fully develop.

The Insular Leader

While those in the inner circle of the insular leader may not suffer directly from his actions, there is a cost to others. The insular leader separates himself and his organization from everyone else and then utterly disregards the health and welfare of those not in his organization. To the insular leader, “ human rightsin general are less important than the rights, and even the needs and wants” of his or his followers. It might otherwise be commendable that the insular leader feels so strongly and will go to such lengths for his followers, but the cost is high to those outside of his following.

Insular leadership may be observed primarily in the political arena where national boundaries are apparent and leader may have a tendency to protect their own constituents above all else.

The Evil Leader

This “ leader and at least some followers commit atrocities. They use pain as an instrument of power. ” The evil leader must have loyal followers to remain in a position of authority. The evil leader uses pain as a way to obtain power; causing severe harm to others is central to this leader.

Why Does Toxic Leadership Happen?

When we take a look the different examples of toxic leadership styles, we all can take a mental note that we’ve encountered someone that fits into this category. Needless to say, with the exception of the incompetent leader, history would show that these forms of leaders have had some form of short to long term success; being a leader is all about influencing people to get results for the good of the cause in most situations. In all aspect of live itself, we all are generally competitive. We compete to be number on.

Whether it’s running for a political position, working hard to move up the “ corporate ladder”, making good grades to be valedictorian in school, makingmoneyand the list can go on and on. The same concept applies to anyone that is in a leadership/management position, they strive to be forever number one; especially at the cost of others. I once had a leader tell that “ you must step on the shoulders of others in order for you to move ahead. ” What he said is basically true, now how you go about doing it is a different ball game.

You can either do in a transformational style of leadership or transactional style of leadership. If we take a look at Eron situation, Bernie Madoff, Adoff Hitler and Muammar Gaddafi to just name a few would be considered Toxic leadership/leaders. If anyone was to do a thorough investigation of their background, you would notice that they were able to deceive others with their form ofmotivationin order to achieve their true intentions which were socially, morally and organizationally unacceptable.

Why Is Toxic Leadership Tolerated?

It is my belief that toxic leadership is tolerated in the working environment due to the fact that it has become “ norm. ” This does not mean that anyone wants to be in a toxic leadership environment, it’s that we have learned to deal with or in most cases overcome it. At the follower and leader relationship, some people, in most cases are in fear of standing up against a toxic leader. They really don’t fear of what type of reprisal that would come from that leader, it is the fear of standing alone or being label as the “ whinner” of the organization; this is just my assumption.

From my experience, I’ve seen and known of situations where a leader was brutally toxic to its employees and nothing happened until this individual did something that would put their superiors in a negative spotlight. Usually with the leader and the leader’s superior relationship, if the leader is toxic but their subordinate’s productivity increased because of their toxic nature, the leaders superior would look away (sweep under the rug) because it’s making them look good in the eye’s of their superiors or society.

Though this situation would seem both morally and ethically wrong, these are dilemmas that happen in an organization throughout the world. In most cases these norms has become a part of the businessculture.

Positive Leadership Verses Toxic Leadership?

Can toxic leadership be cured? I would ask this question with a yes if superiors and senior leaders take decisive action(s), perhaps they can diminish the negative effects of toxic leadership. The decisive action on the part of the superiors is positive leadership itself.

Leading, mentoring, coaching, training and educating in an accountable, honest, non-toxic manner may be the best way to eliminate toxic leadership within an organization; toxic leadership should not be rewarded. With that being said, positive leadership certainly exists in an organization, but it is difficult for it to have a positive impact on toxic leadership due to lack of knowledge and understanding. If an organization management system is not aware, the leadership is not either.

Therefore, further research and theneducationis the first necessary step for positive leadership to have a dynamic impact.


Toxic leadership exists in organizations throughout the world, and seems to be tolerated. It is doubtful that toxic leadership can be reduced; better detection and further study on the part of the more senior leadership within an organization could very well reduce its dysfunctional effects. In this paper, we have discussed that there are several personal characteristics and types of toxic leaders.

Most if not all of them can be found in an organization to varying degrees. Detection in the early part of a leader’scareeris a good first step toward decreasing the possibility of continuing or worsening toxic behavior. This acknowledgment and detection is critical and can only be achieved through further study and teaching of superiors as to the need to recognize it and take immediate action to disband it.


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