6 Ds of Toxic Leadership – A Call for Courageous and Compassionate Leadership

Leadership is a Work in Progress
Leadership is always a work in progress. As men and women respond to dynamic market pressures, seismic political interactions, multi-level relational needs, routine and extraordinary tasks new lessons on seeing oneself and one’s context emerge.   The challenge is not that weaknesses or faux pas occur–the challenge is when behavior intentionally resists complexity and change to prefer the route of least resistance in personal interactions.  In my observations of less than sterling behavior by managers and executives in a variety of industries common patterns emerged that have toxic consequences.

The tendency to resist complexity and change emanate from a variety of motives rooted in an individual’s personality traits, the context in which they serve, and as a reaction to the relational webs in which the person works and lives.    What I have noticed is that the six Ds of toxic leadership identified below are routine only in so much as I recognize these as one side of personal behaviors that also seem correlated to the level of stress the person faces.  That is to suggest that the six Ds of toxic leadership are maladaptive approaches to reasserting a sense of personal control over stressful or unexpected outcomes or behaviors by others with whom the leader relates.

These six deadly sins of leadership also seem to manifest along two different axes i.e., those that are more public than private and those that are more aggressive than passive – illustrated below. It appears important to know where each dysfunction falls on these axes to decide the best intervention strategy when they occur.  Each of these dysfunctions obscure reality–creating a mental fog that diminishes a sense of personal power/responsibility and personal competence/individuality.  Obscuring reality or redefining reality along a win/loose or right/wrong dichotomy characterizes each of these dysfunctions. How people respond to these dysfunctions depend on the ego strength of the followers.  In my experience where these dysfunctions routinely manifest in leader behavior followers generally show lower ego strength–a fact I attribute to: (1) A leader’s deliberate choice of those easily manipulated, (2) People tend to conform to the group as a form of security/acceptance and (3) People with higher ego strength avoid placing themselves in abusive situations.

The scale suggesting passive to aggressive behavior recognizes that these dysfunctions may react to stimuli in a self protecting fashion (passive) or may pro-act to remove perceived threats (aggressive).  Healthier organizations exhibit implicit (mentoring) and explicit (intentional coaching) interventions and pre-screening that are designed to avoid dysfunctional leader behaviors prior to hiring on the one hand and to expand a person’s capability for working in complexity on the other hand.

What are these rather common toxic behaviors and what is their impact on followers and on the leader’s future ability to get things done?


Defined; evasion as a means of escaping or avoiding something, especially one that involves cunning or deceit.  The behavior is passive in that it reacts to accountability by attempting to redirect responsibility to others.  The behavior also manifests as disengagement from the behavioral dimensions of effective leadership i.e., idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration.  Leaders exhibiting dodging behavior hide in their office or cubical actively avoiding (dodging) critical interactions with direct reports and up-line authority.

The act of dodging results in an organization that fails to achieve or execute or more often in organizations that show a significant disconnect between formal and informal leadership. Leaders who dodge their responsibilities are little more than figure heads who consume organizational resources while their underlings are left to fend for themselves and figure out how to get things done.

Oddly enough leaders who dodge responsibility indirectly contribute to the emergence of capable people who learn to manage the inertia of a disconnected leader.  The down side of dodging behavior is that it teaches emerging leaders what once they have power they can focus on the rewards of power without regard to the organization’s means of achieving outcomes. Additionally, blind pursuit of prestige contributes to ethical lapses and poor moral judgments by emerging leaders who: (1) Seek the recognition of the powerful for what they carry out at any price and (2) Want to achieve the perceived prestige and power of arriving at a high-ranking leadership position.

When dodging is an isolated behavior address it by coaching that sets clear goals for performance and personal development. However, when dodging is a long-term behavior interventions must address the entire organizational culture. Followers often resist interventions that attempt to alter organizational behavior. If employees view the organization as the golden goose that rewards loyalty then changing the goose removes the potential of future reward.   Ultimately organizations exhibiting such behaviors collapse on with Enron speed.


Defined; contempt for and mockery of others.  Derisiveness stems from a narcissistic overestimation of self-importance combined with a lack of creative thinking.   Hamel describes one aspect of derisive management as “denominator management”.[i] Denominator management is all about cutting the denominator (capital, headcount, and investment) when evaluating financial ratios.  Derisive managers act out a “corporate anorexia”.  Instead of focusing on growing the numerator off a more-or-less fixed base of investment and headcount to drive productivity higher derisive managers show their lack of creativity and lack of respect for the workforce by consistently cutting headcount, benefits and pay to keep up profitability. Derisive leaders fail to see that the issue is not numerator versus denominator rather the challenge is linear versus nonlinear innovation.  The challenge is to figure out how to break the conventions of an industry and address both.

Derisive managers de facto cut out leadership and talent development in their quest to maximize profitability without considering sustainability.  Leaders and organizations must question the absence of people skills and talent development in profit driven or survival driven decisions. When people are viewed a little more than corporate chattel their simply is no reason or opportunity to develop leaders.

Healthy organizations challenge derisive leaders on their attitude (or blindness) toward employees and their lack of truly innovative thinking. Usually coaching serves as an effective change intervention unless the manager in question suffers from more than a quick fix perspective toward business challenges. Where managers suffer from a disregard of people generally they present a significant human resource compliance risk.


Defined; the use of power in a cruel and unreasonable way.  Organizational despots use their power to obliterate perceived threats to their place, influence or favor with other power centers with which they feel an alignment. Despots often work aggressively behind the scenes deriding emerging talent and/or ideas that seem to threaten the status quo of power.

Despots demoralize change agents and emerging leaders by redirecting their sense of reality and situational clarity. For example one client described a despot that used every private meeting to remind the client she lacked the scope of ability needed to succeed at work (without ever specifying the allegedly deficient ability, skills or knowledge) and that senior management had written her off as a fit to the organizational culture.  The reverse was actually true.  The fact was that she was considered to be a high potential employee who would be promoted above the despot. Despots work in private and thus keep up plausible deniability of abuse.  If the target of the despot goes public to question the despot’s message the employee him or herself appear misinformed and paranoid lacking the kind of confidence needed for healthy self promotion.

The fact despot’s work primarily in private is important in designing an intervention.  Privately they are most sinister yet they do slip up publicly typically reacting to questions or alternative tactical suggestions with extreme emotion and anger. Astute followers use these outbursts to test the reactions of others and ask publicly about the source of the intensity. Practicing the art of powerful questions (e.g., you seem to feel quite strongly about this…why is this?) the despot is drawn out of his/her cloak of privacy.  Interrogating reality in public exposes the untruths and fabrications the despot uses to keep others in line.  There is a twofold danger in this strategy however.  First, if the organizational culture is dysfunctional questions seeking clarification in public may be interpreted as insubordinate and unreasonable (a Orwellian redefinition of the word “reasonable”).  Drawing the despot into the open in a dysfunctional organization results the follower being seen as disloyal, unpredictable or unreliable – all correct when the criteria is accepting the dysfunctional behavior as normal.  Second, the follower asking the questions can count on another round of private tongue lashing.

It is important to build strong internal alliances that allow you to test reality claims. And it is equally important to push back on the private destructive behavior of the despot.  For example: a despot tells a victim privately that their lack of skill is the sole reason a project crashes.  Followers possessing enough ego strength may push back on hay wire assumptions with data and alternative perspectives.  Followers with lower ego strength can test the claim by privately seeking out alternative evaluations and comparing insights.  A despot’s time in power is always limited and when they crash their survival in the organization depends on (1) the depth of their alliances and (2) the health of the organization.

Despots spoil emerging talent and development – check your organization’s employee engagement and turnover rates. Despots impede the growth of organizational capacity.


Defined; defensive reasoning avoids assessment and is characterized in:

  1. The quest for unilateral control.
  2. The maximization of winning and minimization of loosing.
  3. Suppression of negative feelings (non-emotional, invulnerable).
  4. Quest to be perceived as rational – or objective (detached, superior).

In a day when success in business increasingly depends on learning, defensive reasoning undermines the organization’s capability of continuous improvement and sustained performance. In organizations in which learning does not occur the emergence of what Heifetz calls a doom loop emerges in which the loss of resiliency and emergence of scapegoating characterized as:[ii]

  1. Misperception of the nature of the threat – don’t see reality clearly (compare Drucker’s discussion about “theory of business” – Drucker, HBR, Sep.-Oct. 1994, pp. 95-104).
  2. The threat may be perceived but exceed personal capacity to adapt.
  3. The threat evokes distress that leads to pain avoidance, blaming action, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jump to conclusions, or find a distracting issue to restore a sense of stability.[iii]

A leader given to defensiveness develops a brittle personality and often exhibits an “inappropriately high sense of despondency or even despair…” when demands overload the ability to control responses.[iv]  This leader ends up losing influence as others begin to push back on the warped reality of the defensive leader to reduce the mistrust and suspicion he or she generates. When the defensive leader also holds power followers typically ignore the defensiveness and create informal power lines to carry out necessary problem solving and creativity thus duplicating time spent on every problem or challenge.  This kind of duplication reduces the organization’s efficiency and is often one of the drags on profitability the financials record but fail to define.

Because defensive reasoning is a public dysfunction grounded in a private fear the best strategy is to keep up public dialogue presenting alternative data and assumptions while simultaneously seeking to engage a private relationship that gets at the adaptive incapacitation.  Coaching is particularly helpful in this regard and more sophisticated organizations regularly use coaching to help their management and executive team expand their adaptive capacities.

Defensive reasoning may derail important tactical decisions and thus expose the organization to unnecessary competitive pressure.


Defined; extreme indulgence in the gratification of the senses the indulgence of appetite. I once receive a call from a vendor with whom we did business. The voice on the other end introduced themselves as our new account manager. We talked for a moment about pricing structures, demand and the role their product played in our business plan.  He noted that he wanted to visit our operation and get to know us better. Then he dropped the bombshell, “When I come,” he said, “I expect you to hook me up with some California hotties.  If you want to maintain your favorable pricing with my organization you will have to make this happen.”

Like other dysfunctions debauchery views business as a means to leverage pursuit of their own appetite.  Not only did the suggestion that we visit several strip clubs and then end the night in a private party with some strippers offend my sense of morality it violated our company ethical code.  Does sound moral judgment and values have a role in business success?  Or, is this just business?

The research into what makes leaders effective concludes that highly effective (transformational) leaders not only ground themselves on fundamental moral foundations they inculcate the character strengths of moral courage and integrity in their followers.   The bottom line of morally grounded leadership is that the followers who grow up around these leaders gain the ability to make their own ethical and moral decisions not merely from the fear of recrimination or punishment but because of the self-awareness that unethical behaviors are inconsistent with highly effective leadership.[v]

Where debauchery is unrestrained managers explicitly and implicitly violate both employment law and sustainable business practice. In my experience debauchery leads to quid pro quo promotions of incompetent managers whose positions and benefits serve as hush-money in the face of sexual harassment and/or sexual favors. Profitability plummets from managerial incompetence, employee disengagement and employee legal action.

Debauchery requires a strong intervention for legal, moral and business sustainability reasons. Intervene by direct confrontation of inappropriate behavior and consistent enforcement of company policy.  Be sensitive to those who are victims of the debauchery.  As in other dysfunctions where followers have strong ego strength they either face the perpetrators of this power abuse or leave employment for a better opportunity. However, as in other dysfunctions perpetrators of debauchery also seem to master the art of grooming less secure employment candidates and employees for abuse. If left unaddressed debauchery destroys all aspects of a business.


Defined; emotional appeals to falsehoods to manipulate response of followers. Demagogues may represent delusional leaders or as is more common in my experience leaders who rise to a position and responsibility that exceeds their grasp of complexity or capacity to serve as an effective organizational catalyst.  These leaders are masters at grooming emerging leaders into servants of their misinformation and manipulation.

I sat in the green room waiting to give my department report to the international board of our organization.  I was new to the corporate office. I served at the invitation of my mentor who served as Vice President of the international division.  Roy had warned me that he recruited me to help effect a change in corporate culture and that his efforts had succeeded in creating a bifurcation of those who supported his efforts and those who plotted his demise. I respected Roy deeply. But I had to admit I wondered if he was being a little paranoid (which was way out of character for him).  Then I met Bill (another young leader recruited by one of Roy’s detractors).

“What will you say in your report,” Bill queried.

Having temporarily forgotten Roy’s advice to keep my plans and strategies for the board’s ears only I provided the bullet points of my presentation; (1) an evaluation of the current status of my department as compared to other similar departments, (2) an evaluation of potential contributions to the corporate strategy my department could make and (3) a strategic plan including pro forma financials that showed the projected impact of making the changes I suggested.

“You can’t tell them that,” Bill said with a look of concern that hinted of the condescension one expresses when they feel they have an inside track to power.

“Why not” I asked?

“They will eat you alive. Everyone knows you don’t give the board the real situation. Besides you will make us look bad,” he continued with a forced grin.

Since Roy and I had gone over my report I felt confident that I was on the right track and did not deviate from the plan.  The board gave me a round of applause when I finished and one of the other agents of change on the board praised my report as a model for everyone else.  I felt great about the presentation mainly because I was naive about the impact of demagoguery.

In the months that followed the closed-door political posturing became more clear to me.  I heard more back rumors about myself.  I didn’t take everything seriously – I was in the power seat. I met regularly with the president. My position was grooming me for greater responsibility. I had a mentor (Roy) who consistently reminded me that power would corrupt me if I did not commitment myself to servant leadership. Then an unexpected series of events unfolded.

Roy died in a private plane crash. All those back door meetings I had watched positioned a new Vice President in power who hated Roy.  The result, I was on the wrong side of the power equation over night and became the target of the demagogues’ full court press to have me removed.  I was shocked at the misinformation and misrepresentation I endured in the following months.

The outcome of demagoguery is not simple. It would be easy to say that demagogues simply place their mindless lackeys in key roles. I watched very capable people defend decisions they disagreed with strategically and ethically as necessary for the survival of the organization.  They reframe their situation in extremes seeing other divisions in the corporation as overt threats to the survival of the international division.  It is this kind of reframing or mental fog that demagogues create and that keeps them in power.

Confusion, self-doubt and disillusionment emerged in these mid-career leaders. All of them eventually left the organization. The demagogue was removed and replaced by another demagogue. The corporation entered a time of chaotic change and legal problems.

Resist and expose demagogues with alternative and verifiable data and truth-telling. In my view interventions with demagogues must be organizational wide – coaching or other individual interventions are not effective because demagogues are master manipulators of reality.


I contended in the beginning of this article that leadership dysfunctions are coping strategies for dealing with complexity and pressure. In my experience all the dysfunctional leaders I have met also exhibit decisions of incredible insight and sometimes strategic foresight.

Because I tend toward optimism in how people develop I am convinced that many of these leaders can transform from dysfunctional to healthy leaders if their followers, organizations and social/professional networks and colleagues act to contradict their dysfunctional behavior.

However, as Jean Lipman-Blumen points out followers “…accept, often favor; and sometimes create toxic leaders…”[vi] The reality of corporate and organizational experience often mirrors the dynamics uncovered in Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (1971) in which student volunteers began to act as though the situation was real leading to prisoner abuse, depression among prisoners and shocking instances of extreme behavior.  Only one prisoner objected to being mistreated yet, “…other prisoners viewed this individual as a troublemaker despite the fact that he was protesting on their behalf, as well as his own.  Even the ‘good’ guards felt helpless to intervene.”[vii]

Those who oppose dysfunctional leaders always face some form of retaliation from the leader and often from his or her followers or peers. However, if (1) currently dysfunctional leaders have a chance for transformation and (2) dysfunctional behavior is to stop someone must make the choice to act and intervene consistently.

My hope in categorizing toxic leadership as I have is that it would expose toxic leaders to those followers and organizational decision makers caught in the fog of confusion or uncertainty dysfunctional leaders generate. My hope is that courageous and compassionate leaders/followers step up to be the catalysts of truly healthy organizations. Most of all I want to challenge those who recognize dysfunction but either feel helpless or that it is not their responsibility to act.  Do we have a responsibility to act?  Yes! The Apostle James pointed out that;

Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.[viii]

Acting in the face of dysfunction, even in light of the potential social or professional consequences is a moral/ethical mandate. Are you willing to act?  Do you know the cost of acting?  Or perhaps a more poignant question is do you know the cost of not acting?

What if you have seen yourself in one of these dysfunctions?  Then it is time to act concretely. Find a coach or mentor who will tell you the truth and help you name the causes and develop new capacities for working with complex situations you face.

[i] Gary Hamel.  Leading the Revolution (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 13.

[ii] Chris Argyris. “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” In Harvard Business Review, May – June 1991, pp. 5-14.

[iii] Ronald Heifetz.  Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 37.

[iv] Argyris, 10.

[v] Weichun Zhu, Bruce J. Avolio, Ronald E. Riggio and John J. Sosik. “The Effect of Authentic Transformational Leadership on Follower and Group Ethics.” In The Leadership Quarterly, 22 (2011) 801-817. Zhu et al discuss the impact of authentic transformational leadership on a group’s sustainable survival, development and performance.

[vi] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24.

[vii] Lipman-Blumen, 33.

[viii] James 4:17 (NIV)

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