Toxic Leadership

One of my blog posts, Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained, discusses the contrasts between being an autocratic leader and a participative leader.  At the very end of that post, I offered some additional resources that discuss toxic leadership and its effect on individual and team productivity and morale.  As many of you know, from day-to-day, a blogger can check to see who’s visiting their blog, where those people found the blog, what posts they are reading, among other interesting statistics.  One of the statistics is the number of page clicks people have made to internal links that appear within particular posts.  I must admit to you that I am addicted to blogging, and I am fascinated who and how many visit my blog.  I keep an eye on my statistics page too much often.  I noticed that nobody has clicked on any of the articles related to toxic leadership; articles that offer a wide-ranging view of traits that can be destructive to people and organizations.  I find these articles to be very good references to the topic of toxic leadership, and I encourage you to read each of them.  Not only are they informative, but they are also enlightening.  Again, at the end of this post, under Additional Resources, I offer those four article links for you.

Beyond ethical leadership, there must be effective leadership that inspires individuals and teams to perform at a high level; mentor and servant-oriented leadership.  As important as it is for a leader to learn and apply themselves to the principles of leadership, core values and the qualities that lead to success, it is also important for leaders to know how to avoid being a toxic leader; an ego-driven leader who thinks they can use fear and intimidation to get results.  As I said in last week’s post, toxic leaders damage the morale and effectiveness (esprit de corps) of their people and organization.  Employing the wrong approach to followers can be quite damaging.

What is a Toxic Leader?

Toxic leaders have very poor interpersonal skills, and all of their actions are dictated by self-interest.  This causes them to be very ineffective, and they are hard to like.  Toxic leaders are also self-promoting.  They will promote themselves over the interests of the organization, mission, profession, and worst of all, their subordinates.  The way they treat others is appalling.  They act aggressive toward them, are critical of them, blame them, and will even try to intimidate them.  They dole out information, resources and tasks to their subordinates in a restrictive manner in order to maintain tight control.  Toxic leaders avoid their followers, if possible.  At every opportunity, they will denigrate them, and they will always act as if the subordinate is disposable; nothing more than a tool for them to use.  Ultimately, the toxic leader is self-destructive.

Personal Characteristics of a Toxic Leader –

– Incompetence                                   – Egotism

– Malfunctioning                                   – Arrogance

– Maladjusted                                      – Selfish values

– Sense of inadequacy                        – Avarice and greed

– Malcontent                                        – Lack of integrity

– Irresponsible                                    – Deception

– Amoral                                              – Malevolent

– Cowardice                                        – Malicious

– Insatiable ambition                          – Malfeasance

– Rigid                                                 – Callous

– Self-serving                                     – Unethical

– Corrupt                                             – Evil

Additionally, Toxic Leaders:

– Do not allow a free and frank flow of open thinking and ideas

– Destroy trust

– Promote themselves at the expense of their subordinates

– Criticize subordinates without considering long-term ramifications

– Cripple the confidence of subordinates; thus derailing other potential leaders

– Cause retention to suffer among the brightest and most talented personnel

– Negatively impede efficiency and effectiveness throughout the workplace[i]

If you have ever been exposed to a leader with one or more of these negative, demoralizing leadership traits, you have first-hand knowledge of what a toxic leader is and how they can affect an organization.  A good and skilled leader will avoid being seen possessing any of these characteristics, and will employ the appropriate leadership style according to the individual, team, task, and goal/objective.  To know how to deal with people is an acquired skill; one that should have been developed from a very young age in grade school.

On his blog, Ovation Leadership, Steve Riege discusses the Integrity of Character, where values, experience, knowledge and wisdom complete the dimensions of the individual.  He writes, “The combination of morality, values and ethics create a strength [of] your Character consistent of being true to values, and doing the right thing because it is the right thing.  This inner strength enables Teams and organizations to trust their leader, whose Character embodies this knowledge, comfort, and trust of their own personal core.”  In his short e-pamphlet, The Rare Leader, Steve calls this Integrity of Character.  Integrity of Character embodies the Golden Rule, because it represents every gift of morality, value, and ethics we would hope to receive from others.  Integrity of Character is the true measure of how you bring the core of your life to the surface for you, and those who choose to follow you.[ii]

Integrity of character is the foundation of a great leader.  To use a metaphor, it is what you build your very being up from, if you so choose.  The building blocks of leadership are built upon the value of integrity and trust.  Each block represents the values, virtues and principles that will house your team.  It will be built with duty, honor, courage, commitment, selfless service, respect, justice, judgment, dependability, initiative, decisiveness, tact, enthusiasm, bearing, unselfishness, knowledge, loyalty, and endurance.  It will be a strong structure if you build with these traits properly and effectively.  You need to make sure the leadership “structure” your team works in is built with these things.  Within that strong structure, under the strong roof of your leadership, your team will be safe and secure.

Leadership is a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the organization in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent.[iii]  A leader’s ability to be situationally aware of the environment they are encountering is obviously developed over time, experience, trial and error.  But, once a leader can master the ‘push button’ ability to adapt their style to the circumstances, that leader’s successes will increase and team morale will improve.  And, they will never become a toxic leader.

Copyright © Dale R. Wilson


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Additional Resources –

“Toxic Leaders” – By Colonel George E. Reed, U.S Army – Military Review – July – August 2004 (pages 67 thru 71) – – Accessed 1 February 2012 – Maxwell Air Force Base (Montgomery, Alabama), United States Air Force Air War College, Gateway to the Internet Home Page –

“Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army” – By Colonel Denise F. Williams, U.S. Army – Thesis – U.S. Army War College – Report Date 18 Mar 2005 – – Accessed 1 February 2012 – The Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) –

“Toxic Leadership: Part Deux” – By Colonel George E. Reed, Ph.D., U.S. Army, Retired and Lieutenant Colonel Richard A. Olsen, D.Min., U.S. Army, Retired – Military Review – November – December 2010 (pages 58 thru 64) – – Accessed 1 February 2012 – – United States Army Combined Arms Center

“Antecedents and Consequences of Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army: A Two Year Review and Recommended Solutions” – By John P. Steele – Technical Report (2011-3) – Center for Army Leadership – Report Date 30 June 2011 – – Accessed 8 February 2012 – Public Intelligence –


Footnotes –

[i] “Toxic Leadership” – John Evans CSP – Accessed 08 February 2012 –

[ii] “Integrity of Character” | Ovation Leadership | Steve Riege | Accessed 08 February 2012 –

[iii] “Toxic Boss”indaba – network toolbox – Accessed 08 February 2012 – (a link from the source page – In “Organizations and Networks” – indaba – network –

16 Responses to “Toxic Leadership”

  1. I know what it is like to be exposed to a toxic leader. It ain’t fun…


  2. Great post Dale! I’m a fan of leadership reads and I appreciate your posts, keep up the GREAT work!



    Thank you for stopping by and enjoying my work.
    Keep up yours.


  4. Really thought you nailed it with this Toxic Leadership topic. Sometimes it’s better to talk about leadership from this point of view than it is to talk about what good leadership is. Enjoyed the read, look forward to more.


    • Thanks, Coach!! I’m glad I have a sports-oriented leader among my many readers. There is certainly a mixed bag of leader-types in your category that are across the board in varied leadership styles, to include toxic. Young people who are in a position to learn the fundamentals of the sport, life, working with people in a team fashion, and accepting responsibility for the game’s outcome (along with accountability), are looking for inspired leadership. Although there are times to criticize a player for poor performance, it should be in a teaching/mentor fashion, not an ‘in your face’ harmful fashion. As I have said before, a good leader allows there people to fail (and leaders teach), instead of making them feel like they are failures. Toxic leadership too often stigmatizes growth and development of people, and it contributes to and results in individual and group failure and breakdown in morale.

      Thanks, again, for your comment and your loyal readership.



  5. […] Toxic Leadership ( […]


  6. Major John Watwood Says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog, and I agree with your insights on toxic leadership. Your point on servant-oriented leadership really hit home with some of my core beliefs regarding leadership. I truly believe that leaders are more accountable to their subordinates than the reverse, and this concept is how I define servant-oriented leadership. I have found that a common theme among toxic leaders is a failure to understand their accountability to those they lead. In my experience, toxic leaders believe subordinates’ accountability to the leader is paramount. In my opinion, this is the over-arching flaw of toxic leaders, and prevents the creation of a solid foundation of trust between leaders and their teams. Leaders are accountable for the team’s performance, but of equal or greater importance is their accountability for the team’s welfare and development. The team’s welfare and development ultimately affect their performance. It is the foundation of building trust and an effective team. Some may think that servant-oriented leadership may be contrary to military leadership philosophy and/or counterproductive for military leaders. However, I believe servant-oriented leadership is fundamental to military leadership, and inhibits toxic leadership.
    I welcome you comments
    Major John Watwood
    U.S. Army


  7. You just summed up a few people i know, very good article!


  8. Dale, believing I was in a “toxic” environment, I googled “toxic leadership.” To my amazement, when I typed “leadership” the drop down revealed “toxic leadership in the United States Army” as the third most popular search. It is disturbing to see what a serious problem we have, but comforting to know that there are lots of studies and articles on this. On the Army side, we act as if our number one problems are sexual harrassment and suicide. So we bombard our Soldiers with briefings, classes and insipid AFN spots. Maybe we are under emphasizing the negative effect of narcissistic leadership, without which there would be less sexual harrassment and suicide. Don’t be too discouraged if people are not hitting your links. There is a lot of material out there and many, like me, are just starting to explore the area. Thanks for the blog.


    • More than surprising me, it disappoints me that this is a trend that exists in our military, and one that seems to be getting worse, not better. Unfortunately, with rank comes affects on one’s ego and percieved power over others. Toxic leadership is an issue that I think will always be a problem. Like the other issues you’ve mentioned, toxic leadership is something that we will have to take seriously because of its adverse affect on the force and its people.

      Thank you, John, for visiting my blog and commenting here. I sincerely hope that you had a chance to surf around my blog for other interesting content, and that you find the time to visit the blog again very soon.



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