How to Identify a Toxic Leader

toxic leadership
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The 7 Traits of Bad Leadership 

Are you working for a toxic leader? Do you have the kind of boss that makes you dread going to the office? What is it that makes them a bad manager?

Marcia Lynn Whicker popularised the term ‘toxic leader’ (1996) and the phrase is frequently used to describe bad leaders. But what does it actually mean? Sometimes we implicitly know that we are working for a terrible boss, but it can be hard to explain why.

The seven types of bad leadership

Fortunately, researchers have developed various models to identify the traits of bad leaders. For example, Barbara Kellerman conducted a study in 2004, motivated by the desire to define the characteristics of a toxic leader.

“In spite of all the work on leadership that assumes it by definition to be good, I describe how we exercise power, authority, and influence in ways that do harm.”  

Barbara Kellerman

Kellerman identified seven traits of bad leaders. These are:

  • Incompetent 
  • Rigid 
  • Intemperate
  • Callous 
  • Corrupt 
  • Insular 
  • Evil

The first three sorts of leaders in this list are ineffective, the last three are unethical. So, let’s look at each one in more detail.

Incompetent 

Does your boss not know what they are doing? Are they lacking the requisite skills or experience for the job? Are they constantly making the sort of mistakes you would not expect of someone in their position?

If the answer is yes then you may well be working for an incompetent manager.

Sometimes a person is simply not qualified to do a job. There is the danger for any leader (and here we need some self-awareness too) that someone can be promoted to the point of incompetence. In other words, just because a person is good in one role does not mean they will excel in a more senior position. 

This sort of promotion mistake happens frequently at lower levels of management. People are frequently appointed to management because of time served or technical ability. This can lead to frustration or failure within a team. That is why careful selection and appropriate training are vital for each leadership responsibility stratum. This is best demonstrated in the skill framework of Robert Katz which shows differing needs for technical, human and conceptual skills as we progress through our careers and take on more responsibility.

Rigid 

Is your boss closed to new ideas (or other people’s ideas)? Does your manager doggedly stick to a process, no matter the context? If they initiate a project are they unable to adapt it, or if necessary, kill it off?

In this case, we are most likely talking about a rigid leader, someone who may well have skills and experience but are unwilling to change.

By contrast, good leaders display flexibility. They are flexible of mind; open to new ideas and willing to change if the evidence shows that is the right thing to do. They are also able to apply Situational Leadership and adopt a style that suits the setting.

Intemperate

Does your line manager lose their temper easily? Is your boss hard to predict? Do your team leader’s emotions lurch from one extreme to another?

Here we are looking at an intemperate leader.

Bad leaders lack self-control. They struggle to manage their emotions or to see the impact of their emotions upon others. They display a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. 

Good leaders are not zombies. They do express themselves and demonstrate vulnerability, but they are also balanced. Effective managers are stable and conscious of how their emotional state affects the team. This balance is one of the key traits of being an Authentic Leader.

Callous 

Is your boss self-centred? Is their language full of ‘me’ rather than ‘we’? Are they uncaring or blind to the needs of others?

If this is the case, then you are probably experiencing a callous leader.

The callous leader is petty and unkind. They are also selfish as they interpret the world primarily through its impact upon them, rather than considering others. This trait is dangerous as it destroys trust. In the trust equation it is self-orientation that is the denominator; the thing that undermines trustworthiness in any relationship. For a leader in a team, this can have dire consequences.

Good managers are considerate of others. This is best exemplified by Servant Leadership, where the leader is measured by how they develop the people they lead (serve) and work with them to achieve the goal. 

Corrupt 

Is your boss economic with the truth? Are they happy to climb over others, and gain an advantage by any means, on their way up the slippery pole of promotion? Do they take liberties with their expenses or other company resources?

If so, then your manager may well be corrupt to one degree or another.

Corruption is a lack of normal morals. People who do not see themselves as tied to usual precepts are happy to lie, cheat or steal to get want they want. That could be in pursuit of a goal, promotion or more money, but it is driven by self-interest.

This corruption is at odds with values-based leadership, where good leaders have a strong moral compass. A good leader is not just charismatic and successful; they also make ethical choices.

Insular 

Does your leader hold onto power? Do they display a lack of equity in how they treat people? Does your boss have specific cronies and hangers-on?

This describes an insular leader.

An insular leader discriminates between people in a negative way. They have in-groups and out-groups; people whom they favour over others. These sorts of leaders do not share power with equality (if at all) and will strive to maintain their power dynamic by pushing others down.

Good leaders are not insular. A good manager is even-handed and will balance the needs of the task, the team and the individual (as in Action-Centred Leadership). They also encourage everyone in their team to flourish and grow. This is key to being a Transformational Leader.

Evil

Does your boss create an environment of fear? Are they destructive and immune to the damage they cause? Do they believe they are above concepts of right and wrong?

Here we are describing an evil leader.

I very much hope that your boss cannot be described as evil. Unfortunately, history shows us that such leaders do exist and can climb to the very top of any organisation. These leaders see themselves as ‘Great Men’ (and they are more frequently male) and seek power without moral responsibility.

Evil leaders accept no restraint. They will contemplate deliberate physical or psychological harm to others if it gets them what they want. And this behaviour reinforces itself if it works, in an ever-downward spiral. The evil leader will follow down that ever more destructive path if they are allowed to continue. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to look out for and challenge this sort of leadership.

A good leader does not achieve results by any means. A good leader, particularly one with large amounts of influence, surrounds themselves with people who can challenge them and stop absolute power from corrupting absolutely.

What to do if you have a toxic boss

So, if you think you are working for a toxic boss, consider these seven traits and identify what it is that makes them a bad leader. 

Are they incompetentrigidintemperate, or callous? If yes, then it is likely their leadership is ineffective. They will not be building high-performing teams that continue to excel and deliver. The behaviour displayed here is unprofessional and it means that as well as being ineffective, the leader is not going to be a good role model. 

Alternatively, they may be corruptinsular, or just plain evil. In this case, the leader is immoral. These leaders undermine the values of an organisation. At worst, the impact of these immoral leaders can spread beyond just the team they work with. They can damage communities and even society as a whole. If you are working for this sort of leader you may well need to take some personal responsibility and find an appropriate channel to report any unethical or unlawful behaviour.

The bottom line is, if you are working for any sort of bad leader then consider your options. Are things likely to change and if so, then how? Can you challenge their behaviour? Is there someone you can speak to? Can you move teams? 

It can be really tough in these situations (I know, I have been there too) but don’t just be a victim and just accept the unacceptable. Think about ways you can take some ownership of the situation.

Learning from bad leaders

There is one positive that comes from working for a toxic boss. There is no more powerful lesson in what it means to be a good leader than working for a bad one. 

So, if you are pointing the finger at someone else today, ensure that you also reflect on your leadership. What do you not want to become? We all have weaknesses that could lead us to excesses in one or more of these areas. So be self-aware and do whatever you need to do to avoid evolving into that toxic personality. 


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