Toxic Leadership

11 July 2022

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Toxic leadership exists in too many organisations – indeed we have seen it here in the UK at the very top of government. Unsurprisingly, the result has been a loss of trust by colleagues and the general public in their leaders, and with it trust in the organisations they lead.

A toxic leader is often hugely charismatic, effectively hiding their toxicity – indeed grandiose narcissists often emerge as powerful leaders and are considered as ‘rockstars’. Power quickly becomes consolidated in the hands of a few people who report directly to the toxic boss and anyone who questions them are quickly removed.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer (2021) indicates that “... none of the societal leaders we track — government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders - are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all.”

In some cases, toxic behaviour is actually a way of mitigating self-doubt, but they still create a culture of fear. In fact, toxic leaders don’t typically have a lot of self-confidence and they attempt to overcompensate by constantly elevating themselves at the expense of others; such organisations tend to have a high employee turnover.

Toxic Culture is Driving the Great Resignation

A toxic corporate culture is the single best predictor of which companies suffered from high attrition in the first six months of the Great Resignation. The failure to appreciate high performers is another element of culture that predicts attrition. Compensation and burnout also influence attrition, but other aspects of culture appear to matter more.

Traits of a toxic leader:

  • They focus on their own interests, often at the expense of their team.
  • They are inconsistent and often backtrack on what they said.
  • They don’t always tell the truth.
  • They don’t listen to constructive criticism believing they are always right.
  • They value hierarchy promoting those who share their views, or submissive individuals to retain the control..

There is insufficient accountability in many organisations for unethical and amoral behaviour of leaders. Indeed, we often reward financial results over the well-being of people, or the planet.

As well as focusing on good character and virtuous behaviour as the prime criteria for leader selection, we often recommend a more forensic approach in the appointment of executives with judicious psychometric profiling.


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