The Toxic Leader

So much of coaching is about helping people to deal with the effects of toxic leadership. Those who have experienced a toxic corporate culture at its worst, know what one looks like and the inevitable role of the toxic leader. A bit like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, every dysfunctional corporate culture is toxic in its own way. There is one constant. The paradigm of the old order is epitomised by the greed and selfishness of the leadership cult of the 80s and 90s: the narcissistic leader. Ayn Rand once said that “now I see the face of god and this god is one word “I”. 

The more narcissistic the leader, the more arrogant, self-centred and entitled, the worse he or she performs in being able to create a culture of social inclusion where employees are motivated, passionate, courageous and productive. If you know employees who have survived to tell the tale of their experiences with a narcissistic leader, you will know their advice is to get out fast. Unfortunately, these leaders masquerade as “born” leaders, so beware.  

Briefly looking at the characteristics of a toxic leader, we are often deceived by superficial charm, charisma and acting abilities. The Narcissist is emotionally needy and looks for admiration, attention and approval from others. This sort of leader has an agenda motivated by self interest and neediness rather than the common good. They will easily turn nasty if they do not get the adoration they feel entitled to. 

Narcissistic leaders help create and sustain a culture that has a disastrous effect on employee morale, turnover and ultimately productivity. Let’s look at a checklist for some of the characteristics of this sort of toxic leadership. What to look out for? The toxic leader: 

  • Promotes competition (by isolating and/or creating division)
  • Rewrites the narrative to suit short term imperatives
  • Has an agenda: uses “I” a lot
  • Displays arrogance (masquerading as confident)
  • Exploits vulnerability in others (being emotionally needy themselves)
  • Survives as a political chameleon (can change colour to suit the circumstances)
  • Worships, normalizes and prioritizes self interest above all else
  • Supports people like themselves
  • Nurtures a bully club who protect and validate them
  • Blames others for their mistakes
  • Relies on charisma and position power to influence
  • Creates fear through command and control tactics

A tactic of narcissistic leaders is they often create the crisis he or she then sets out to resolve. They are chaos makers. This sort of leader plays fast and loose with the truth regularly making up a story to suit his or her own purpose, changing the story to suit the circumstances. By isolating key employees from each other or key information from anyone else who might understand the situation better, the toxic leader manipulates and manufactures reality to suit his or her own purpose. 

Before long, employees are engaged in a toxic merry-go-round, mirroring the values and behaviours of their leaders and being rewarded for it: temporarily. A culture of jealousy, spite and cliques arises leading to high staff turnover, absenteeism, lack of diversity, nepotism, low morale, low productivity, and importantly, low creativity, innovation and motivation. The organisational impact is the creation of short term strategists, myopic financial objectives, defensive policy setting, cynical decision making, double standards and questionable ethics.

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