Toxic “Leadership”: The Other Pandemic That Afflicts Us

Toxic leadership. Two words that, conceptually, can’t coexist. But two words that, practically, are all too real, pervasively so. Two words that, rhetorically, capture as no other label can the essence of this pervasive reality.

In the abstract, toxicity and leadership are antithetical, oxymoronic. True leadership is about motivating others, inspiring them, to follow willingly. To follow unwillingly is to bow to the fear of coercion. To follow conditionally – I scratch your back, you scratch mine – is to give in to the self-serving bribery we euphemize as persuasion. But truly leading is qualitatively different, a supremely more elevated form of human interaction than we commonly experience. It’s about being out in front rather than on top; about eliciting willing deference from others because they want to, not because they feel they have to; about synching the hearts and minds – even the souls – of followers by the exemplary example a leader sets.

Where the poison of toxicity is at play, true leadership is absent. That, regrettably, is much more the norm than the exception today – not only in this country, its institutions, organizations, and communities, but abroad as well; at all levels of human interaction. Its paragon, of course, was and is Donald Trump, foremost practitioner, proponent, propagator, and embodiment. But it didn’t – and doesn’t – begin or end there. We have all experienced it in varying degrees, in various forms, at various times in our careers and our lives. It’s everywhere: in the organizations and institutions of politics and government, business, sports and entertainment, the media, education, medicine, even religion. It has been celebritized, commercialized, commoditized as a practice. If you want to understand the underlying causes of the manifold divisions afflicting this country today, for example, look no farther. It is, unquestionably, the defining sign of our times – a crisis of pandemic proportions; and January 6, 2021, was its political apotheosis.

The military – what some might otherwise, naively, consider a model institution of sorts – is in fact supremely susceptible to toxic leadership. It is a breeding ground for such behavior because of its hierarchical, authoritarian culture, a culture that extols the intrinsic goodness of command and subscribes to an ethos of obedience to authority. Insiders and outsiders alike rarely if ever question the chain-of-command imperative that underlies the institution’s modus operandi, presumably because of what is commonly accepted as the urgency of the military’s mission. The military preaches leadership; it lives behind and perpetuates the false image that it nurtures and rewards leadership; and unsuspecting, uncritical outside observers buy this line of false advertising, even to the extent of patterning their own organizations after military structures, processes, and values: discipline, duty, command, authority, responsibility. What the military actually nurtures and rewards, though, isn’t leadership; it is dutiful followership. Those who get ahead, who rise in rank, are those who most unquestioningly carry out the dictates of their superiors. Disobedience in any form is a punishable offense, invariably conflated with dissent, and dissent is so discouraged that it infiltrates itself into the self-imposed quiescence and censorship of those who serve. After all, isn’t such deference to authority the underlying premise of civilian control of the military? By the same token, ironically, not unlike the abusive offspring of abusive parents, those who have suffered at the hands of toxic leadership all too often turn around and inflict those selfsame practices on others when it’s their turn to be in charge. There thus should be no doubt why recent events have uncovered the enduring presence, if not prevalence, of extremism in the military’s ranks.

Let us not, though, focus on the military to the exclusion of the many other organizations and institutions, public and private, in our lives. We’ve all experienced the toxicity of jerk bosses. Many of us have never known anything different, even if we haven’t fully faced up to or admitted its widespread existence. In fact, most of us have probably become so accustomed to its presence that we have unwittingly resigned ourselves to it as an accepted, even acceptable, norm. We don’t need empirical studies to validate its existence or its nature. We don’t need to name names – though we could of course. Intuitively, at least, not unlike the late Justice Potter Stewart’s axiomatic pronouncement on the meaning of pornography, we know toxic leaders and toxic leadership when we see them.

Toxic leaders are, above all else, bullies. They capitalize on rank and position to rule by fiat. They lord it over others. They look for weakness and exploit it to their advantage. They impose themselves on others, always through threat and intimidation. They verbally and psychologically muscle others into emotional submission or exhaustion. Their twin metiers are disparagement and contempt – as when a Commander in Chief refers to those who give their lives in combat as “losers” and “suckers.”

At the root of such bullying lie the deep insecurities that haunt all toxic leaders. Bullying is the disguise they wear to hide their own jealousies, weaknesses, and cowardice. Acting tough and domineering with others is their preferred way of counteracting the deflating self-image they see reflected in the mirror when nobody else is around. They’re never as good, as strong, as tough, or as capable as they would have others believe. To be sure, all of us have insecurities. We’re human, trying to survive and progress in a world that is premodern-Darwinian and postmodern-Orwellian at one and the same time. But most of us have somehow learned to live with and manage these insecurities in ways that aren’t purchased at the expense of others. Toxic leaders have never “matured” in such fashion; they’re stuck in adolescence.

The dogmatic tyranny toxic leaders practice on others is born of their outsized arrogance. The irony of their insecurity lies in the extent to which they demand to be accepted by others as the smartest guy or gal in the room, at all times, regardless of circumstance, no matter the subject: “Nobody knows the system better than I do.” “Nobody knows more about technology than me.” “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.” The irony of ironies is that toxic leaders are all too often profoundly incompetent – demonstrably unable, when push comes to shove, of performing the basics of their job – and ignorant – totally lacking in knowledge or understanding of what their subordinates do.

Such incompetence and ignorance feed and feed off of the toxic leaders’ intolerance of and insensitivity toward others, who by definition are inferior. That’s what being a subordinate means, doesn’t it? “If they weren’t inferior, they wouldn’t be working for me; I’d be working for them.” “If they were worth a damn, they’d have money, not crying about the cost of healthcare or education.” “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you in charge?” Toxic leaders are basically narcissistic sociopaths, outwardly in love with themselves, but totally lacking in the compassion or empathy that would dissipate their ingrained loathing of others.

Toxic leaders are invariably shameless sycophants who consistently suck up to their superiors and, in turn, actively seek out other sycophants among their subordinates to unquestioningly endorse and carry out their dirty work. Lying to superiors about shortcomings and exaggerating accomplishments are the norm for toxic leaders in their dealings with those above them in the hierarchical pecking order (even as they won’t tolerate such deceptive legerdemain from their own subordinates). Though almost always possessed of a poor eye for true talent (which, by its very nature, is threatening to the less able), they have an excellent eye for the innate weakness of other sycophants, whose unquestioning obsequiousness they rely on, and conversely for strong personalities who could become outspokenly critical “dissidents.” The key to their success and continued advancement, in fact, lies in their wholesale outsourcing of the dirty work they create to sycophantic middlemen for purposes of execution.

If bullying is the starting point for describing toxic leaders, vindictiveness is the end point. Toxic leaders are nothing if not vindictive. They brook neither disagreement nor resistance from subordinates – who, again by definition, are inferior and thus not worth listening to. Self-absorbed and self-serving to the point of selfishness, they are indifferent to the needs or feelings of others. They thrive on meanness as their vehicle for exercising dominance over others. They mercilessly go after those who disagree with them or appear to stand in the way of change, however ill-conceived, however inappropriate, however disruptive and even destructive. Their aim is punishment, retribution, retaliation. Measured reflection and gradual implementation, they think, are merely smokescreens for stonewalling and subversion by uncooperative, clueless subordinates.

We know all too well the effects toxic leaders have on the organizations and institutions they are charged with leading. First, they demoralize all but the “Mini-Me” sycophants in the organization – especially experienced hands with talent who have devoted a notable share of their careers to the organization, have a vested interest in its success and reputation, and tie their own identity to that of the organization. Toxic leaders ironically feed unethical, unprofessional behavior – dishonesty, cowardice, surreptitious disobedience – from those whose self-respect, self-preservation, and survival are at stake.

Second, toxic leaders feed division and disunity within the organization – most notably between the loyalists who align themselves with and tie their career prospects to the toxic leader and those in forced opposition, who resist capitulation to or complicity in the tyranny being visited upon them. Dividing and conquering take precedence over unity of effort and action. The question this raises is which is the higher-order virtue: loyalty to the boss – the despot-in-charge – or loyalty to a victimized institution and one’s colleagues?

Third, toxic leaders undermine, diminish, and even completely destroy established norms, standards, processes, organizations, and institutions. That is the ultimate measure of their corrosive impact. The link between leader character and organizational climate is all too intuitively clear; that between toxic leader character and dysfunctional organizational climate even more painfully so. Human exposure to poison, we are told, leads to death about 10 percent of the time. If one out of ten organizations were to die from exposure to the poisonous character of its leader, wouldn’t that be grounds for alarm? The answer is self-evident.

What then, if anything, is to be done to deal with the widespread presence and effects of toxic leadership? On an individual level, there is little if anything to be done. This is real life, not Robin Hood policing Sherwood Forest or Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon” or Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons” standing up against the forces of evil and oppression. The deck is totally stacked against any individual, however courageous, however righteous, acting alone; the system is irreversibly rigged in favor of the oppressor, who has been granted the legitimacy of rank and position. Toxic leaders are the soulless supervisory zombies who walk among us. They can’t be eradicated or effectively neutralized. For every one that passes on to other assignments or occasionally self-destructs, there is always another, and another, and another to take his or her place. If their presence and their impact are to be minimized, two things and only two things will work: collective action under cover of official mediating bodies or grievance mechanisms (like inspectors general, whistleblower procedures, faculty senates) and public exposure/disclosure (such as we have seen with the likes of the MeToo Movement) that exposes abuse to the light of day.

We joke about a zombie apocalypse because it isn’t real. Toxic leadership isn’t a joke because it is real. We dare not ignore it, however meager our ability to contest it, lest it assume apocalyptic proportions that threaten the survival of our institutions and the livelihood of society.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses are his own.