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)