September 12

How to Fix Toxic Leadership

By Chuck Coker

How can toxicity be neutralized?

Toxic leadership destroys long term value.

Compassionate, truthful, kind, humble, selfless, and empathetic. Countless books, articles, and leadership consultants champion these virtues as being the characteristics of high-impact, effective leaders.

The reality is that we continue to appoint, promote and elect leaders who exhibit diametrically opposed characteristics. The self-interested narcissists and the control specialists who actively engage dysfunctional behaviors – deceit, coercion, punishment – to ensure that their agenda dominates. They wreak havoc on organizations, demotivating talented colleagues, quashing potential and curtailing initiative; behaviors that are excused or sometimes even actively encouraged.

Toxic Leaders

They are toxic leaders, a phrase coined by Dr. Marcia Whicker in her book When Organisations Go Bad (Praeger, 1996). She describes leadership styles that are either overtly oppressive or subversive and undermining – ultimately more toxic for the organization.

Why is this?

In the work that Leaders conduct, we have observed that an intense focus on the business bottom line is often used to excuse toxic behaviors. In the very short term, toxicity can generate financial results. Indeed, in some scenarios, we have seen some businesses deliberately seeking out these toxic traits in an attempt to generate fast returns, break the competition and win – at any cost. The problem is that the costs are enormous. It doesn’t;t take long for valuable stakeholders – talented employees, long-term clients, co-leaders, friends of the business and so on – to walk away.

Leadership Failure

The result is an increasing failure rate in leadership. According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, 38 to 50 percent of new chief executives fail in their first 18 months. Research conducted by Sydney Finkelstein – Why Smart Executives Fail – shows that the reasons for failure have little to do with technical competence and are far more down to ego, low empathy, pride, and greed.

The Impact of Toxic Leadership

Toxicity not only poisons an organization conceptually, but there can also be a physical impact too. A 2010 study by the US Army concluded that toxic leadership was a major contributing factor to an alarming rate of suicides amongst soldiers. Researcher, anthropologist, and author of the report Dr. David Matsuda concluded that suicidal behavior can be triggered by a toxic command climate.

Swedish researchers at the Stress Institute in Stockholm found that employees working for toxic managers were 60 percent more likely to suffer life-threatening cardiac conditions.

Our own work, using human data to measure productive and counterproductive skills, demonstrates that toxic habits contribute significantly to workplace accidents.

What Does Toxic Leadership Look Like?

Toxic workplaces can be characterized by a variety of traits.

  • Stick-and-carrot approach to motivation, with a lot of sticks and all the carrots given to a favored few;

  • Feedback being highly biased to correcting faults; very little positive encouragement or strengths appreciation;

  • A singular focus on profits, with human factors absent from key performance indicators;

  • High levels of employee turnover, absence and other signs of stress;

  • Systems that encourage internal competition rather than team performance;

  • A culture of blame; leaders blaming other people or external circumstances for their mistakes;

  • Excessive working hours (50+ per week);

  • Social/community activity is absent, or cynically used as a marketing tool.

Style Over Substance

Given the unhappiness and cost that a toxic environment engenders, it is perhaps puzzling that organizations – even countries – continue to appoint narcissistic leaders with remarkable frequency. This might be explained by the fact that intensely self-interested leaders tend to make a powerful impression, precisely because of their self-obsession and self-adulation. They take all credit and guiltlessly shift blame to others.

Our Western X-Factor world continues to champion extroverted characteristics as leadership, promoting charisma, aggression, and confidence at the expense of quieter characteristics. This is despite brilliant work highlighting the excellence that introverts can bring. Their depth, thoughtfulness, and persistence are arguably more valuable in an executive suite than over-energized superficiality. At Leaders, we are very clear that leadership has much less to do with style and everything to do with the character.

What is the Future for Phenomenal Leadership?

We affirm the research that demonstrates that human factors are more important than financial when measuring success. Results do matter but how the results are achieved matters even more. It’s about the way that people treat each other, ensuring that people are the priority, not just the profits.

Phenomenal leaders recognize that how we do things around here is crucial, asking questions like:

  • How are we challenging each other?

  • How do we support one another?

  • How are we connecting?

  • How are we respecting one another?

Leaders that neutralize toxicity will invest time and financial resources in:

  • Breaking down silos; creating the conditions that articulate that colleagues are not the enemy;

  • Confronting toxic attitudes; anger, rudeness, and disrespect regardless of the apparent success of the perpetrator;

  • Team morale, ensuring that everyone has a sense of purpose in their work;

  • Rewarding a good attitude as well as great results. Penalizing bad attitude regardless of results;

  • Compassion; taking care of people in need. Serving rather than dictating;

  • Happiness. Not working on happiness makes any organization unhappy.

Jim Collins, leadership expert and author of Good to Great (William Collins, 2001), argues that the best leaders will:

– allow other people to take the credit and channel their ego needs away from themselves into the larger goal of building a great company.

– reward great attitude, not just results.

– challenge bad attitudes and behaviors regardless of results.

– recognize that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset.

– look in the mirror, not out of the window, when performance is poor, taking personal responsibility and learning from the experience.

– look out of the window and not in the mirror to apportion credit for the success, putting the spotlight onto others for their excellence.

How can leaders develop these qualities and ensure that toxicity doesn’t take hold?

By focusing on emotionally intelligent leadership. Raising their self-awareness, regulating their responses to life’s changes and pressures; enhancing their understanding of others and being positively motivated to establish and focus on productive and purposeful goals


Identifying the critical strengths that propel our clients to excellence and spotting the blind spots and finding ways to overcome them is the basis for advancing the leadership of any organization and is at the core of the work that we do.

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About the author 

Chuck Coker

For more than 30 years, Chuck has focused his career on people's development. He has implemented proprietary Personal Formation, Human Capital, Talent Management, and incentive-based programs across a broad scope of Fortune Companies, regional organizations, and educational institutions.


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