The Six Characteristics of Toxic Leaders
The majority of the articles that I have written are focussed on good leadership. This one focuses on the other end of the spectrum – Toxic Leaders.
The reason I’ve done this is because ‘you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’.
You need to be aware of the impact toxic leaders can have on you and your development because you will be shaped by this type of behaviour.
According to Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser, there are six characteristics of the toxic leader.
These characteristics are tolerated in environments that are conducive to these behaviours. These environments recruit susceptible followers who either collude (pro-active) or conform (reactive) to this environment.
These organisations tend to have a high employee turnover. They’ll dismiss this saying ‘those people couldn’t handle our high performing culture.’
It’s bullshit and often it is their best people who are leaving the business.
You can spot these companies by researching them on Glassdoor and finding out what people are saying about the organisation. If the majority of reviews are negative, you might want to think twice about joining them.
Toxic leaders must not be confused with leaders who make mistakes. We all make mistakes and get things wrong from time to time. The difference is whether we treat it as a learning opportunity or keep doing the same thing over and over again.
The Aims of the Toxic Leader
Toxic Leaders are self-serving. They do not care about the organisation or the people within it. They treat them as a vehicle to help them get where they want.
The Toxic leader is motivated by personal ambition and usually lacks self-awareness. They use positional power and their authority to deceive, intimidate, and coerce people to work for them.
They run ‘informal power networks’ as a means of finding out what is going on in the organisation so that they can take advantage of it. Often this is disguised as ‘mentoring’ people outside of their teams.
They can be quite successful in the short-term but over the long-term, they fail their organisations because they don’t develop strong leaders and high performing teams.
Great leaders by contrast, develop more leaders, so when they move on – there is always someone to step up and replace them.
The six characteristics are:
The leader makes the most out of their position and authority to make things happen. They impose their will without stopping to consider the ideas and opinions that come from their team. They are focussed on maintaining tight control and are intolerant of mistakes falsely assuming that the same mistake would not happen to them.
This, coupled with a lack of trust in their subordinates, means that they don’t delegate. Communication tends to be directive and top-down rather than ‘two-way’.
You can spot people who have a tendency towards these characteristics through their language. They might say things like:
- ‘We don’t have time to discuss this…’
- ‘This is the situation and this is what you are going to do’
- ‘I’ve got so much on my plate…’
They complain about not having enough time because they are poor at delegation. The only jobs they delegate are the ones they don’t want to do.
They view delegation as a way of ‘making life easier for me’ rather than developing their team members.
The only time where this style might be effective is in an emergency situation. I define an emergency as ‘when lives are at stake’ not when you’re ‘too busy’ to ask for people’s opinions.
In reality, there are few situations that require this sort of leadership. Perhaps if you are first on the scene of a car crash and need to grip the situation and coordinate the response. In reality, these situations are rare.
Narcissistic leaders have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They believe that they are special in some way. They have an excessive need for admiration from other people and lack empathy when dealing with others.
These leaders are arrogant and self-serving. They are more interested in personal success and gain than in the long-term growth of the organisation and the development of its people. They lack emotional intelligence and are disinterested in what their subordinates need. They will seek opportunities to build ‘empires’, taking on more responsibility if they feel it can make them look good.
They might say things like…
- ‘I did/achieved this…’ They rarely point to the work of the team that contributed to the success.
- ‘Your personal problems should be left at home, you’re here to work.’
Like all toxic leaders, these traits can deliver success in the short-term.
It can be useful to be able to make vast numbers of people redundant without pausing to think about the effect it might have. It means you can act decisively and dispassionately. In the long-term though, these people do not succeed because they care about themselves more than their people.
The manipulative leader is similar to the narcissist as their focus is still on themselves. These individuals will abuse their position, relationships and organisational systems for their own gain.
They’re harder to spot than the narcissistic leaders as they are often sneaky and hide their activities.
They know deep down that what they are doing is wrong but they will justify their behaviour saying things like ‘it’s not personal, it’s business!’
The intimidating leader will bully their subordinates and those around them to achieve their aim. They are manipulative and have a tendency towards ‘ruling with an iron fist’.
Their team hate them and will actively avoid talking to them unless they are forced to spend time with them. Their subordinates will not offer ideas or challenge them for fear of disapproval or ridicule.
This is the most common leadership style on the Apprentice.
They will say things like, ‘I am not here to be popular’ which is strange because how many great leaders have you worked for that you’ve hated?
The overly competitive leader has a ‘win at all costs’ attitude often leaving a trail of damaged and broken individuals who have failed to keep up with their pace. They have a win at all costs attitude that means that they are quick to make decisions and rarely have time for subordinate input.
They think that they have high standards and are inspiring.
In reality, they create more losers than winners and will often resort to unethical behaviour to win.
The last toxic characteristic is that of the discriminatory leader. They do not value diversity and surround themselves with people of a similar ilk. These leaders do not want to be challenged by people with different points of view so they surround themselves with ’yes’ men who will tell them what they want to hear.
Damian Hughes describes these people well. In his work with professional sports teams, he’s found managers who surround themselves with ‘truth tellers’ or ‘time tellers’.
When 1-0 down in the 60th minute of a football match, a coach might turn to his coaching team and say, ‘what do you guys think?’
The time tellers will say purse their lips and say ‘there is 30 minutes to go’.
The truth tellers will tell them what they think they should do – even if it is the message they don’t want to hear. For example, ‘take your son off, he’s having a bad game…’
There is a significant difference. One of these people has courage and provides value – the other doesn’t.
When I left the Royal Marines and joined Urenco, I naturally found myself gravitating to the people in the organisation that were like me. The Type A personality ‘alpha males’ who worked hard and ‘got shit done’.
When I reflect on my time there, the most valuable relationship I developed was with a 50 year old man, Geoff, who’d be at the company for his entire career. The way he thought was completely different to me but because we had mutual respect we were able to work extremely well together.
When I think about the best work I did there, the things I am most proud of, it usually originated from a conversation I’d had with Geoff.
What should I do if I see these at work?
These six characteristics rarely live in isolation. Toxic leaders tend to lean towards being a combination of a few of these behaviours. There might be one primary one with a couple of secondary characteristics.
Either way, these people are loathed.
They are focussed on the short-term game and what they can get out of a situation as opposed to the long-term game and what is best for the organisation and the team.
I have no doubt that you will have met some of these people before. Good.
This is because you can learn as much from bad leaders as you can from good ones. People remember not what you say, but how you made them feel and bad leaders give lessons that people rarely forget.
There are two other elements that need to be in place for toxic leaders to thrive. They need a conducive environment and susceptible followers. I will talk about these in my next article.
If you find yourself in an organisation that permits toxic leadership, start planning your exit strategy.
The reason for this is that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with – and you cannot afford to spend time with these people.
At some point you will be forced down one of two paths.
You will have to conform with this behaviour and accept it or you will have to collude with it and adopt these behaviours to get promoted.
Toxic leaders breed toxic cultures.
Toxic cultures develop more toxic leaders – and you don’t want to be one of them.