Toxic Leaders

“Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.” John F Kennedy

I came across the work of Jean Lipman-Blumen recently.  She wrote a book in 2004, ‘The allure of Toxic Leaders, why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians – and how we can survive them’.  For those of you who don’t have time to read the book, here is an article and a summary.

Toxic leaders are not restricted to the realm of politics, they can be found in any organization that has leaders and followers. 

In this short piece, I will give you a quick summary of what I learnt.  I even spoke about it on my latest podcast, The Human Leader Podcast, episode 10, take a listen and let me know what you think.

I have experienced and seen the destructive nature of the Toxic Leader and I believe that the world is at a point when we need strong, humble, authentic leaders who are willing to step up and serve their communities, to bring about positive changes that enable and inspire greatness, not to be use or manipulate for their own personal gain.

While reading the description below, think of the leaders who fit this description.  Have an open mind and see how easy it is for a follower be caught in this trap of leader worship.  Recognize the fears and needs that the toxic leader uses to manipulate their followers. 

Build the leader within yourself, be honest with yourself of the realities around you to avoid being sucked into false flattery.

Toxic leaders are created by followers who are willing victims, allowing these leader to appeal to their fears, desires and needs. What’s the problem? When you look at all the genocides in the world, there is a leader who inspires feeling of greatness and superiority within a group of followers and these followers willingly do terrible things without thought for consequence or for anyone who is other.  When we see the ‘other’, we dehumanize ‘them’ and they are seen as less than and not worthy of living in the same space as ‘us’.  A terrible example of this is the Holocaust.  75 years ago Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets. More than 6 million people killed because of their beliefs, at the command of toxic leaders, aided by willing followers.

Toxic leaders are often charismatic, arrogant and offer simple solutions to complex problems such as; “ we will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it”.  In a time of crisis, people choose to follow a leader who gives them a vision, preferably a grand vision, that can fuel their imagination and give them hope.

What are the characteristics of a toxic leader, how do you recognize one?  How do they behave?

·        They lack integrity and honesty – will lie to followers to boost their big, big, powerful vision

·        They have oversized ambition – placing their own quest for glory above the well-being of anyone else.

·        They are arrogant – this arrogance fosters incompetence and corruption.

·        They carry out actions that:

o   Intimidate others

o   Demoralize others

o   Demean others

o   Marginalize others

·        They breach their opponents and their followers basic human rights and will not allow criticism of themselves.

·        They hold tight onto power by undermining potential successors.

As humans we long for something beautiful and pure or something that appears to be such, even if it has a core of malignancy, we will excuse anything that doesn’t fit into our vision.  This allows us to not just follow the corrupt leader but also to elevate them to god-like status.

The toxic leader appeals to the human need for authority, need for security, need to feel special and need to belong. By creating a narrative that feeds this need, that he/she is powerful and can protect them or take them into a grand future, where they will be safe and secure.  They get convinced that they are part of an exclusive group, that anyone else is lesser than, criminal or bad.  They believe they are part of a grand, exclusive tribe with a ‘grander’ future, capable of great things because their leader told them so. 

The leader uses the human fear of being ostracized, isolated, powerless and rejected against their followers.  Keeping them in check and preventing anyone from speaking out in objection. No disloyalty is allowed, all criticism is severely discouraged and punished.  The group elevates the leader to a god-like status, worshipping the leader with a fervor that is bewildering to outsiders. Anyone who doesn’t follow the ‘party line’ is rejected, ostracized and cast out of the group.

Followers are loyal to the leader personally versus to the organization they represent.  This loyalty means that the organization/institution’s best interests are not taken seriously and the end result is a complete destruction of the organization/institution. Followers are even ready to take the fall for the leader regardless of their own guilt or innocence.  Any success is attributed to the leader, regardless of the leader’s competence or part in the success.

What role does the media play?  There is a love/hate relationship with media.  The toxic leader wants adoration and coverage from the media but is selective about who can cover their story. We have recently seen political party leaders choosing who could and could not cover them, the latest being Boris Johnson’s aides.  The media want to sell stories, these leaders provide shocking stories and move in unanticipated directions that everyone wants to cover their story. In a way, it is a symbiotic relationship of a parasitic nature.

Why would people, when faced with a toxic leader and a benign leader choose the toxic one?  In times of crises, we want to see power and authority, to feel that we are in safe hands.  A benign leader will ask for opinions and solutions, serving their followers and being cautious instead of taking charge and blasting off into the unknown future as the toxic leader will do.  This is the allure, in times of chaos, deep down we would prefer to follow the loud, bragging, charismatic leader who give us hope, the promise of security and the assurance that we special in some way. 

Is there anything we can do? 

According to Jean Lipman-Blumen, “Autonomy and freedom liberate us from dependency on tyrants, as well as on authoritarian and incompetent leadersFreedom and autonomyfrequently braced by recognized anxietygive us the courage to acteven in the face of death.

·        Confront the fear and worry that the  toxic leader enhances

o   Acting courageously makes you stronger.

·        Strengthen your own leader within – become independent in thought and action,

o   Foster good leaders,

o   Vote bad leaders out.

·        Toxic leaders spread false comfort through their grand vision,  

o   embrace the reality and become authentic in yourself.

·        Get rid of the ‘we’ versus ‘they’ narrative,

o   be willing to strive without being reassured how great you are versus how terrible ‘they’ are.

·        Encourage the next generation of leaders to see leadership as a duty to serve people and not a privilege to exploit others.

It is important as human leaders to understand how and why we believe, act and react in certain ways.  We must have the frank conversations. We cannot turn away. 

Have you found yourself blindly following a toxic leader?

How did it turn out?

If you haven’t already, strengthen your inner leader and find your voice.


We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel (Holocaust Survivor)

How are you today ?

I greet you in this time of Pandemic and hope you and your family are okay.

It took time to write this down.  Each day has brought a new challenge, a new reality, something more I had to adjust to or learn from and I have felt overwhelmed and swamped.  At the same time the airwaves have been flooded by cheerleaders telling all of us that we are supposed to grab this opportunity, grow and thrive.

How are you doing?


What have you lost?


How does this make you feel?

It is okay to feel, that is our super-human strength. 

By embracing, naming and owning our feelings (not necessarily acting on them, just holding them) we are able to be grounded in the here and now, allowing us to live through this moment in time. To be able to empathize, connect with others through shared emotions and experiences and to work through our experiences.  Your memories are attached to your emotions, you remember something from how it made you feel and the more you felt in that moment, the greater your clarity of detail as you remember. 


Don’t be afraid to feel. 


Emotions do not speak or highlight truth, they just are, what you are feeling. 


For example, I could feel anger and get defensive, acting on my anger, but what I am actually feeling is shame or guilt caused by my inability to control what is happening or from my fear that I will not be able to pay you at the end of the month.


It is also okay to mourn.


The world has just shifted rapidly, moving at great speed to the ‘somewhere’ you haven’t been before. We are standing on fragile ground that cracks and moves, just like the staircases at Hogwarts in Harry Potter we are not sure where we will end up. 


In my March ‘The Human Leader Podcast’, Episode 13, I spoke to Ryan Falkenberg from CLEVVA on the future of leadership and the future of work.  He described a possible way the world of work would look in the future, I challenged him that some would call his vision Utopian and I wondered how the world would shift to this paradigm. 


Then the pandemic happened in a big way in the world and I realized that this is how we shift. 


What we are living in, is our present reality, making a gigantic shift towards a new reality that we have not experienced before.  As my latest podcast guest, Celeste Blackman from the Green Zone Culture expresses, we need to prepare for the future, we cannot plan for it, only prepare ourselves to be able to flow with the changes that come our way.  Listen to this in Episode 14, she is incredibly calming and talks about trust and collaboration. I enjoyed recording it and listening to her wisdom, I think you will too.


On Saturday night, my family re-watched ‘The Croods’.  For those of you who have never watched it, or have not seen it in a while, it is a great film that is creative and beautiful.  It tells the story of a cave-man family who has lived their lives protected in a cave.  They only go out for coordinated hunting/scavenging expeditions looking for food and go right back into the cave. Due to the continental drift, the breaking apart of the land to create the different continents, a factor they have no control over, their cave is destroyed.  Through its destruction, they have to make a choice of finding a new cave or moving through places they have never been before.  Each member of the family has to come to terms with this new reality and to learn to adapt as their environment shifts.  Each one has to come to terms with the loss of what they have always known and have to choose to adapt to the new experiences that come their way. 


Through this time, they learn new skills, new ways of hunting and a new way of existence that allow them to live into the future in a healthier, wiser way (and therefore survive for the next thousand years).  In the beginning they have no choice as they are thrust into a new, scary world but later they have to make the choice to return to living in a cave and be safe or to live outside in the unknown and explore a whole new world they hadn’t known existed. There is still risk, but they are willing to accept this risk, to hold onto uncertainty as they innovate and learn new things.  They also learn the importance and benefits of having pets, but that is a something to discuss on another day. 


You are a human being who has learnt and adapted through thousands of years. It is through your ability to collaborate and build relationships and care for one another that collectively you came through from cave men to modern day man with his 5G internet and on-line meetings. You have the ability inside of yourself to scan the horizon, to critically think about and to sift through all the information you have been given in order to adapt to this new way of being. 


On Wednesday evening, I spoke to a group of dentists via Zoom, giving them words of encouragement and motivation, I got some great feedback that what I had to say to them was helpful and beneficial.  Often, we just need someone to encourage us, then we know we are not alone and can keep going with determination and courage.


Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church in the US, has described 7 phases we go through in a crisis.  They are:

  1. Denial
  2. Dismissal
  3. Defiance
  4. Delayed Acceptance
  5. Disruption
  6. Distress
  7. Determination.

Which phase are you in right now?

It is okay to be at the beginning, very few people are at the end, we still have a long road ahead of us.

I want you to look at that list again.


Can you see that getting through this is a process? That just like the stages of grief we all go through in times of loss (this present day can be described as a time of loss), you have to walk through and work through each stage?

Perhaps your defiance was small, perhaps it was just going out for a run or maybe it was bigger like demonstrating in the street.  ‘


It is okay. 


Acknowledge it to yourself. 


Hold onto where you are and when you are ready, step forward one step.  Each step you take will get you further along this road.


Just like the Crood family, through loss there comes new opportunity and through letting go of what was, you can take hold of what is coming.


As an executive coach, I see my role as a support for you as you live through this uncertain time. 

You can find me on Vuselela Davis Coach and my podcast, ‘The Human Leader podcast’.

To Be Human

A tongue-in-cheek, serious look at what it means to be human…

If you consider yourself a leader but have not built relationships and bonds with your fellow human beings within the group to guide, motivate, encourage and protect them, then you are not a leader, just a manager of resources.

In the past 20 years a lot of research has been done to find out what makes a human, human and how to optimize their capacity to work, love and live.

Here are some of the findings thus far:

– Human beings are unique, messy, creative, intuitive beings who are influenced by biological, environmental and spiritual factors.

– Human Beings have chemical reactions that influence their responses, behavior and emotions.

– Human Beings make decisions based on emotions and use their logic /rational brain to convince themselves that they have made the right choice.

– Human Beings constantly experience emotions, they are unable to not have emotions and these affects their behavior and outlook in life.

– Human Beings experience Confirmation Bias, enabling  the scanning for and finding of external signals, confirming that their decision is correct, even if they are wrong.

– Human Beings are designed to live in, bond with, build and work together within communities of other Human Beings.

– Human Beings are not designed to live in a state of constant stress that upsets their biological and chemical equilibrium, but they do, resulting in mental and physical chronic illness.

– Human Beings flourish in spaces where they feel wanted, needed, liked and are safe.  In this environment they bond with other human beings, come up with awesome ideas, express loyalty to the group and can work efficiently.

– Human Beings die a little every day when they are verbally attacked, chastised unfairly, humiliated, criticized, abandoned and isolated.

– Human Beings are not and never will be Artificial Intelligence, it is currently only in the realm of Science Fiction that Artificial Intelligence can become Human Beings.

What environment are you creating for your Human Beings?

A psychologically safe place to thrive and flourish in? Or a stifling, sterile, standardized environment that is designed for Artificial Intelligence to thrive in, not biological intelligence?



Use Conflict For Good


When under attack, step outside of yourself and look at the core problem, not the person.


How often do you have misunderstandings at work that spin out of control, becoming more about personal attacks on anyone involved instead of an objective perspective to the cause of the conflict?

Conflict is going to happen anywhere where there are individuals in  different roles, with different personalities who compete for resources and have to reach outcomes that only they seem to understand.


Work is not personal yet the conflict very quickly slides into a personal mudslinging match.


As a leader what is your role?  When you are in conflict with a colleague be careful to keep it professional and not allow it to become a personal attack. 


Pause, step outside of yourself. 


Reflect on the following:

  • What are the core systems/competencies not in place?
  • Is this a communication issue?
  • Is this an accountability issue?

All events have context and a back story.  Understanding this allows you to see the bigger picture and address the key issues without being sucked into the murky waters of the “he said,”  “she said” scenario.

With respect, keep the conversations restricted to the questions that focus on the core problem.  Do not allow yourself to deflect and defend with “yes but they…”.  It allows you the opportunity to go deeper into the core issue and deal with the issue at hand in a way that it will not keep coming back in different forms, repeating the same core issue. 


The ability to step outside of yourself and not get personal, defensive or aggressive takes practice and a conscious effort.  Once mastered, this behavior has a powerful effect on the team as others start modeling your behavior.  Encouraging the team to not shift from one conflict to the other, instead it enabling the incidence to be viewed as a lesson, how can ‘we’ improve and move forward together. 


What a wonderful world it could be to work in a conflict free zone. Where individuals are psychologically safe to explore mistakes and different view points, as opportunities to learn from, instead of triggers that lead to conflict.

  • What is your role in your recent conflict?
  • What would have been different if you had stepped out of yourself and looked for and stuck with the core issue?
  • How can you implement this in your team?


Lashing out in Hurt and Frustration accelerates the Conflict Cycle…


What can you do to pause and acknowledge your hurt and frustration before you deflect, defend and attack?