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The 6 Characteristics Of A Toxic Leader

In 2012, Cherie was working for an organization that handled traffic cameras although the work was somewhat fulfilling, she describes her former boss as a “horrible, abusive, and narcissistic” individual who thrived on belittling his employees in public. “On numerous occasions, he set me and my colleagues up to look inept to our CIO,” she says. But the last straw, according to Cherie was when he mocked her for reporting a bed bug bite to HR. Cherie indicated that their building was infested with them and although she eventually reported him to HR, they did nothing, Cherie eventually quit the company.

An often-cited Gallup study of more than 27 million employees revealed that more than half of American employees have left their jobs because of a bad manager. That means that there is no shortage of toxic companies and toxic leaders. According to RODERIC YAPP, toxic leaders are self-serving, do not care about the organization or the people within it and they treat people as a vehicle to help them get where they want.

They run ‘informal power networks’ as a means of finding out what is going on in the organization so that they can take advantage of it. Often this is disguised as ‘mentoring’ people outside of their teams. It can be quite successful in the short-term but over the long-term, they fail their organizations because they don’t develop strong leaders and high performing teams.

According to Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser, there are six characteristics of a toxic leader I will share with you as outlines by RODERIC YAPP. Study these characteristics carefully because they will help you identify toxic leadership and by extension toxic cultures.


The leader makes the most out of their position and authority to make things happen. They impose their will without stopping to consider the ideas and opinions that come from their team. They are focused on maintaining tight control and are intolerant of mistakes falsely assuming that the same mistake would not happen to them. This, coupled with a lack of trust in their subordinates, means that they don’t delegate. Communication tends to be directive and top-down rather than ‘two-way’.


Narcissistic leaders have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They believe that they are special in some way. They have an excessive need for admiration from other people and lack empathy when dealing with others. These leaders are arrogant and self-serving. They are more interested in personal success and gain than in the long-term growth of the organization and the development of its people. They lack emotional intelligence and are disinterested in what their subordinates need. They will seek opportunities to build ‘empires’, taking on more responsibility if they feel it can make them look good. In the long-term though, these people do not succeed because they care about themselves more than their people.


The manipulative leader is similar to the narcissist as their focus is still on themselves. These individuals will abuse their position, relationships and organizational systems for their gain. They’re harder to spot than the narcissistic leaders as they are often sneaky and hide their activities. They know deep down that what they are doing is wrong but they will justify their behavior saying things like ‘it’s not personal, it’s business!’


The intimidating leader will bully their subordinates and those around them to achieve their aim. They are manipulative and have a tendency towards ‘ruling with an iron fist’. Their team hates them and will actively avoid talking to them unless they are forced to spend time with them. Their subordinates will not offer ideas or challenge them for fear of disapproval or ridicule.

Overly Competitive

The overly competitive leader has a ‘win at all costs’ attitude often leaving a trail of damaged and broken individuals who have failed to keep up with their pace. They have a win at all costs attitude which means that they are quick to make decisions and rarely have time for subordinate input. They think that they have high standards and are inspiring. In reality, they create more losers than winners and will often resort to unethical behavior to win.


The last toxic characteristic is that of the discriminatory leader. They do not value diversity and surround themselves with people of a similar ilk. These leaders do not want to be challenged by people with different points of view so they surround themselves with ’yes’ men who will tell them what they want to hear.

These characteristics are tolerated in environments that are conducive to these behaviors, because these organizations recruit susceptible followers who either collude (pro-active) or conform (reactive) to this environment, this is otherwise known as the Toxic Triangle”. These organizations tend to have high employee turnover. They’ll dismiss this saying ‘those people couldn’t handle our high performing culture.’ You can spot these companies by researching them on Glassdoor and finding out what people are saying about the organization. If the majority of reviews are negative, you might want to think twice about joining them.

What should I do if I see these at work?

These six characteristics rarely live in isolation. Toxic leaders tend to lean towards being a combination of a few of these behaviors. There might be one primary one with a couple of secondary characteristics. I have no doubt that you will have met some of these people before. Good. This is because you can learn as much from bad leaders as you can from good ones. People remember not what you say, but how you made them feel and bad leaders give lessons that people rarely forget.

If you find yourself in an organization that permits toxic leadership, start planning your exit strategy.

The reason for this is that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with – and you cannot afford to spend time with toxic people.

At some point, you will be forced down one of two paths. You will have to conform with this behavior and accept it or you will have to collude with it and adopt these behaviors to get promoted.

Toxic leaders breed toxic cultures. Toxic cultures develop more toxic leaders – and you don’t want to be one of them.

Source: The Six Characteristics of Toxic Leadership by RODERIC YAPP, Leadership Forces


About Gifford Thomas

I am the founder of Leadership First and the author of The Inspirational Leader, Inspire Your Team To Believe In The Impossible. At Leadership First, we are committed to publishing the very best inspirational leadership quotes and articles to inspire our 290,000+ community of leaders to believe in the impossible, while creating an environment free from toxic, fearful and intimidating leadership. We believe everyone can and should enjoy their work, but it must start with the leadership leading by example. Follow our community of leaders HERE, and let's change the leadership status quo to help inspire and motivate our leaders to make a difference and create an organization their people will love.

You can download a copy of my book The Inspirational Leader, Inspire Your Team To Believe In The Impossible by clicking the link below

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