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The allure of toxic leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians and how we can survive them


by Jean Lipman-Blumen, Oxford University Press, 2005.


The author examines the seemingly inexplicable reasons why many employees are loyal to CEOs and politicians who abuse power, cook finances and otherwise virtually destroy their companies.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in September 2005)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

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This summary is offered to run side by side with the one on Bad Leadership by Barbara Kellerman. The Kellerman book emphasises the leaders themselves. In the book now being summarised, Jean Lipman-Blumen, a professor of public policy and organisational behaviour at Claremont Graduate University , concentrates on the followers, without whom of course, there would be no leaders, toxic or otherwise. What makes people follow toxic leaders? How far are the followers responsible for the toxicity?

Lipman-Blumen uses the word toxicity as a global label for leaders who engage in destructive behaviours and who exhibit certain dysfunctional personal characteristics. The label includes the consequences that these qualities inflict some serious and enduring harm on their followers and their organisations.

Among their destructive behaviours are leaving their followers worse off than they found them and violating basic human rights. They feed illusions to their followers to inhibit their ability to act independently. They play on fears; stifle criticism; mislead followers; create hate of those outside the group. They use scapegoating; they ignore or promote corruption and cronyism.

They lack integrity; they have insatiable ambition, which puts their own power and glory first; they are blind to their own shortcomings, too arrogant to recognise their mistakes and ever ready to blame others. Money and what it can buy is at the top of their priorities; recklessness is frequent and they avoid difficult choices. They may not exhibit all these qualities at once, but these are some of the most frequent.

It is against this background that Lipman-Blumen asks the central question: "What are the forces that propel followers, again and again, to accept, often favour and sometimes create toxic leaders?"

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What psychological needs make us search for leaders?

And why do we continue to do so, even though they often disappoint us? It is suggested that we need reassuring authority figures to fill our parents' shoes. We feel a need for security and certainty and are prepared to surrender freedom to get them. We like to feel special as members of a particular community; we fear isolation; we feel we lack power to challenge a bad leader.

We are in early life dependent on parents and other caretakers. We do not easily outgrow this. If the caregivers are not particularly good at it, this increases the craving, with little accompanying discrimination, so that we may feed our desire for security with the first leaders who make us feel protected.

In many cases leaders provide for their group a sense of belonging to a chosen few. This can be religious or secular. It is found certainly in minority cults of most religions who look down on the unsaved or see them as Satan's forces to be destroyed. The Jones and Koreish disasters in Guyana and Waco, respectively, where the followers perished with the leaders, are extreme examples. But it is there too in many companies – it could even be in most companies, where competitors are objects of hate and derision, and people feel privileged to belong to something so much better. Examples are seen in the slogans of two companies to "Kill Kodak" and "Beat Benz". The mood is convert or conquer.

But apart from that, all humans need community to gain meaning and worth, so when it is offered they may accept it uncritically. This makes it difficult then to become a whistle blower with the social ostracism it may entail. Fear of retaliation or exile may keep people at least conniving at what in their hearts they do not approve.

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Our existential needs

It is an uncertain world – indeed has always been so. And we would love certainty. We welcome someone who can confidently banish ambiguity. So we look for heroes and saviours. It is surprising how frequently the word "save" is used to describe the heroic deeds of top business leaders. A new CEO "rescues" a company, "saves" the jobs of employees. Politicians and business leaders are endowed in the minds of willing followers with godlike qualities and then destroyed when it is discovered that they are merely human.

A dynamic leader may also be able to meet the need the perceived need of people of having to be where the action is, to be at the centre of affairs. This promotes their sense of having meaning, of having access to knowledge, of being near the great man, of acquiring a little bit of immortality. Noble visions appeal, whether they really are noble or not. Martin Luther King's "dream" still stirs people; but Bin Laden also has a vision for which followers will commit suicide, and what was particularly noble about Kennedy's determination to get to the moon? Yet people bought it, and still buy, similar visions. Enron's 2000 Management Conference was, similarly, an occasion for proclaiming vision – and look what happened.

Part of the noble vision is often the need to hate and exterminate the enemy so as to be rid of his baleful influence. Holy wars are not the sole prerogative of the religious world. Both kinds stem from the existential anxiety that lies at the root of so much human feeling and action.

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External forces that create anxiety

External forces that impact upon followership are next discussed.The disasters and uncertainties of life, of which the media are full, generate fear and a wish for someone to take charge. The other side of the coin is the relative stability of our cultures, which generate our expectations that those offering themselves as leaders will keep things running smoothly.

The first picture, of the uncertain world, causes people to seek out leaders who will help them to negotiate a path through the changing territory. This makes us vulnerable to toxic leaders who promise us what they cannot really fulfil, to protect us in this chaotic world. Even though natural disasters are largely unpredictable and technological catastrophes arrive with little warning, we still somehow feel less stressed about them with a strong leader in charge. And when social and political forces erupt into calamities, like 9/11, then a man like Giuliani steps into the role. And the people accepted him for his strength in that situation, even if up to then his popularity had been low.

Many individuals will even surrender their freedom to a leader with a clear ideology, providing followers with unambiguous roles to fit into, a vision of positive change and the reassuring sense of a secure box to occupy.

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Crises and the scramble for leaders who will keep us safe

The author says: "Crises rub raw our own need for certitude. Consequently we don't simply condone the entry of powerful, often toxic, leaders. We actively seek them out and anoint them as God." "We want leaders who will forthwith slay the dragons that beset us so that we can once again sleep peacefully in our beds."

Exemplary leaders are often pushed over by the adulation of followers into toxicity. We lay extra burdens upon imperfect humans, who too often can't help but disappoint. "Authoritarianism is often invited, because of a crisis, as a temporary guest who, once ensconced in the back bedroom, may be nearly impossible to evict."

At times of crisis, charismatic leaders come forward, but their charm may outweigh their competence, and trust in them may inflate the leader's power and undermine faith in the people's own strength. Advice is offered to leaders facing such temptations to seek and use advice from those with greater relevant knowledge and experience than they have; to cut through information overload; avoid groupthink and think through the first, second and third order consequences of all the options available.

Examples are also given of how some leaders have been made or remade by a crisis to which they have risen. The author is aiming to avoid one sidedness in her appraisal. She even points out that strong leadership is not necessarily a recipe for authoritarianism. Tough measures are called for by many a crisis and this can easily corrupt leaders into claiming more personal power than is justified, with the approval of their followers, who welcome the sense of security that comes because something is being done. Without fully addressing the issue, the author is indirectly reflecting on the responses to terrorism which are often argued as eroding our civil liberties. In business crises the same danger arises when a strong leader centralises power into his or her own hands. And the followers feel they must go along with the leader who appears to be acting for the best. But Lipman-Blumen would have us be wary.

In such situations dissent is often sidelined, as in the case of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters. Experts had issued warnings which were disregarded. "Crisis clampdown had taken over."

During a crisis, leaders have to interpret the painful reality, facing up to it, not obscuring it. Mayor Giuliani did this in the period following 9/11. Without destroying hope, he did not minimise the situation. Some leaders can convey a sense of feeling the pain of those affected by a disaster and they will take steps to address the future possibilities of such events, making plain that complete immunisation is not possible. Yet, despite the leader's limitations as a human, followers still want leaders to protect them from forces beyond any one's control.

So crisis brings both threats and opportunities to the exercise of leadership, with followers often playing a large part, by their unreal expectations, in the creation of toxic leaders.

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Self esteem, achievement and the appeal of heroism

Jean Lipman-Blumen goes on to examine more psychological factors. We live in an unfinished and unfinishable world, with so much to do, that it will never all be done. So we look for heroes who will finish the unfinishable in the areas of our concern. We want to share their glory, and in so doing will disregard their limitations.

We live in an age where the achievement ethic has assumed a high priority; many people now feel impelled to "get" as far as they can go, in whatever field. It becomes the standard by which we measure ourselves and, indeed, others. Unfortunately it is often pushed obsessively by well meaning caretakers and others who urge us to perform far beyond that level. "Then our lives become driven and distorted into an endless pursuit of unattainable achievements".

One way of dealing with this is to align ourselves with leaders who seem to have been achievers and to feel we are achieving vicariously through their achievements. Another way is the accumulation of money as a symbol of success. Winners of Nobel Prizes and similar awards enable us to affirm our belief in the achievement path and they become our heroes.

Self esteem is another aspect of the human search for a self that can be believed in. "In part our self esteem grows or diminishes in response to how others evaluate us against Society's yardstick." Where we are disappointed in this regard, we may be spurred to enormous effort to prove ourselves, but quite likely we will seek "a strong leader, no matter how toxic, to provide substance and guidance in our lives". And when such leaders "engage in toxic behaviour, our uncritical awe, coupled with the awareness of our own inability to challenge them, leads us to accept, even to admire them".

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How do we rationalise our actions?

Why, when we do feel some dissatisfaction with our leaders, do we fail to do anything about it? Why do we not get rid of them, particularly if many of us are disenchanted? What are the rationalisations and "control myths" which hold us back?

To deal with this, the author wheels in Maslow, with the original presentation of his hierarchy of needs, from deficiency needs to growth needs:

  • Physiological needs – satisfying basic bodily survival needs.
  • Safety needs – to have something to cling on to like a safe job.
  • Affiliation needs – to belong to a group, to be accepted.
  • Esteem needs – to be approved and recognised.
  • Self-actualisation – full self acceptance and sense of meaning.

To these needs, she addsTranscendence from Maslow's 1971 book; The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Here he sees human development as being able to go beyond self actualisation and on to transcendence, to find fulfilment in helping others to reach their potentials, going beyond one's own self interests in doing so, even to the point of self forgetfulness.

Each rung on the fuller Maslow ladder is then used to classify replies from people who were asked why they put up with toxic leaders.

Physiological needs: "the job puts a roof over my kid's heads and pays the bills."

Security needs: "the last person to confront the leader got fired".

Need for self esteem and need to belong: "I can't do it all by myself" (Lack of support).

Need for self actualisation: "I have so much on my own plate. I don't have time to try to unseat the leader or take over his work". (Didn't want to be diverted from own aims in life.) [Summariser's personal comment, avoiding identifying elements: Long ago I had a major part in getting a toxic leader, for whom I worked, "kicked upstairs", where he could do no harm to people, whom he regularly humiliated. I felt it was part of my own self actualisation. Readers might like to reflect on their own careers and see how appropriate the hierarchy of needs can be to their experiences of confronting or not confronting toxicity.]

Need for transcendence: someone dominated by this need would perhaps be uninterested in battling with a toxic leader. He or she will have passed beyond that level of concern, unless he or she did it to help others.

The "control myths" by which people rationalise their putting up with toxic leaders include:

"The leader is stronger than we are and has more resources." (Fear of reprisals.)

"An unsuccessful challenge to the leader will result in punishment for the challengers, as well as those they represent."

"If bad things happen from following the leader, we can't be held responsible."

"The power relationship with the leader is an unchangeable part of the power structure that we take for granted. That's just the way it is and always has been."

"Being part of the leader's group fills me with a sense of doing something really important."

This chapter finishes with the observation that these excuses result in "toxic leaders being free to continue their own dance, their stunning leaps and twirls. In this heady atmosphere, even non toxic leaders may begin to tiptoe gingerly across the toxic line".

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How followers can push non toxic leaders into toxicity

The aim of this section is to make followers more acutely aware of how they may unintentionally drive an otherwise non toxic leader, even a "good guy", into toxicity. This possibility is addressed by dividing followers into three groups: benign followers, the leader's entourage and malevolent followers.

Benign followers are further subdivided into two sub categories: type A – anxious followers who are worried about psychological needs and situational fears; and type P who are driven by pragmatic concerns such as their personal and professional well being, for example, about their careers. The tendency of the benign followers is to be in love with the vision which the leader offers. The enthusiastic reception of it by the followers may drive the leader down a path of developing it beyond reality, when concentrating on something more mundane like cost cutting might be more appropriate.

These benign followers can be impatient for action to implement a grand vision and they may create a groundswell for action, when more thorough examination was needed. And this may lead to disaster. At least it can make acknowledgement of the danger of failure come too late. Sadly, followers' unrelenting thirst for a noble vision almost guarantees that it will turn sour. Leaders who start with a sense of realism as they set out their visions, can fall more and more in love with them, encouraged by their followers, until they become impervious to criticism and advice. The whole organisation can fall victim to a cult of success, and then all kinds of things can happen – witness Enron.

The members of the leader's entourage, as they work with him or her on a day to day basis, become the elite members of the royal court. They are dedicated to keeping their leader in power. They are also uncertain as to where they stand in the popularity stakes with the leader. So they go to great lengths to court his or her favour. And there lies danger. Also loyalty can become so intense that all sense of moral appropriateness is drained off. Great acts of daring may be undertaken and may lead to the undoing of the leader.

Malevolent followers are those who purport to be the most faithful of the leader's retinue, but actually seek the downfall of the leader. They spot the weaknesses of the leader and work on them if they can see advantage to themselves from the fall into which they, the followers, lead him. They will enter into conspiracies to ensure that their hopes for advancement will not be damaged by the leader's policies.

Followers of all categories can push a leader into speaking and acting with a sense of assurance beyond what is justified. Or inaction can be culpable. Followers may fail to take time out from their own concerns to stem the danger into which the leader is straying or else they may just not see it as their responsibility.

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The role of the media and the Board

The media are expected to be the chroniclers of leaders' deeds and the Board their overseers. Instead, the media often become the purveyors of uncritical praise and the Boards may simply act as rubber stamps. When the halo slips, the roles alter; the media becomes the digger up of dirt and Boards try to demonstrate new found rectitude.

Newspaper and television reporters lose their objectivity as they receive favours and reporting privileges from leaders. Board members often find it simplifies their lives to attend their eight meetings a year and perhaps look after one committee, getting with on with their real work elsewhere, while drawing on the status that membership of several boards will give them. So from being overseers, they become de facto followers, taking the easy line.

Skilful leaders are not unaware of the realities of the situation and know how to manipulate both press and boards or political kitchen cabinets. Reporters are searching for exciting copy, which may lie in uncritical adulation as well as in the exposing of dark secrets. Boards may find it difficult and time consuming to break through the wall of secrecy that management may erect to protect their less savoury activities; it is easier to settle for the quiet life of passivity and acquiescence.

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Are there ever benefits from tolerating toxic leaders?

While one would never recommend a toxic leader in order to receive a contribution to one's own management development, it can actually work out that way.

Toxic leaders as they slip into toxicity often feel a need to spend much effort in controlling their followers and they concentrate on this to the point where their real job suffers. So those suffering from such bad leadership can group together to provide the elements of leadership which are being neglected. The use of bad circumstances to exercise and grow in leadership roles to divert the evil consequences of poor leadership can provide an unexpected opportunity. It may also develop a real team spirit out of camaraderie of the oppressed, as they vent their complaints, develop strategies to defeat the evil and so bond with one another.

We can also learn from negative role models. The reason for books being written about bad leadership, such as those we have discussed, is that if one looks only at good leadership one may be missing some sharpness of definition of leadership. A theologian once said that you could only define God by affirming what he was not.

Then again, if leadership emerges to counter the toxic parody of it, self esteem may be built and an awareness of inner strength and moral fibre, which is not dominated by a need to get to the top by any route. A skill that is little taught is also developed by a whole team which is seeking to change a toxic situation – that of organising and implementing resistance, which can be a significant skill in suitable circumstances. Service under a toxic manager can be the making of a future leader if it does not destroy them.

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Pragmatic strategies for reforming or renewing toxic leaders

Tolerating toxic managers is not the only way to deal with them.

There can be leaders who are not "so far gone" as to be unable to listen to constructive criticism. A story is told of such a situation where a leader straying into the territory of toxicity was arrested in her course by a frank exposure of the situation by a follower. While reading this book to summarise it, I heard of such a case where a person had bought a business without having the management skills to run it. Things were going downhill and the staff were becoming demotivated. A staff member who didn't feel dependent on the job, risked taking it up with the boss and received an appreciative hearing. It can happen. It was a case of speaking up for the benefit of others, though often it can be that one is personally at the receiving end of toxicity and that spurs one on, for self and others.

Four courses of action are offered as possible in toxic situations:

  • Counsel the leader; help them to improve
  • Quietly work to undermine the leader
  • Join with others to confront the leader
  • Join with others to overthrow the leader.

In the last two coalitions are essential. In all cases courage is required. And of course the line of least resistance can sometimes be the only way. Leave!

Policy initiatives develop over time and take more than the initiative of one person. Some that have helped to ameliorate the problem of bad leadership include giving limits to the time over which an official can hold office. Long terms give longer opportunity for power to be developed. And, of course, there is always Peter's Principle that "people get promoted to the level of their own incompetence". There is also the holding up of introducing new blood into an organisation, through leaders staying on too long.

The whole structure of the process for selecting leaders needs careful attention in most organisations. It took six years to find a successor for Jack Welch and the process started while he was still fully in charge. Another circumstance in which leaders stay too long is where they are brilliant, but corrupt. The value adding qualities should not be allowed to obscure the dangers from the bad qualities.

There is discussion of whistle blowers and the need to protect them from reprisals to which, however, a number of well known whistle blowers have been subjected. Even those they were defending were uncomfortable at such behaviour, perhaps stemming from school days where you don't "tell" on your mates.

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The warning signs

There may be the seeds of toxicity in the leader's noble vision. Lipman-Blumen wrestles with the issue of how to accept the exhilaration that comes from a noble vision and enjoy the experience while being ready to detect signs of deterioration in it as it unfolds.

Toxic seeds within a vision can be detected, for example, by posing the following questions:

  • Is the vision positive for us, but detrimental to others?
  • Have the choices involved been vetted by others with varying interests to ensure that there is benefit to most and harm to few?
  • Does the vision involve the leader, with your help, as the destroyer of your enemies or competitors?
  • Must your opponents be crushed for you to survive?
  • Does the vision require the viewing of other groups with feelings akin to hate?
  • What sacrifices are being demanded of you – Integrity? Truth? Justice? Family? Friends? Freedom? Money? Time?

A "yes" answer to these questions is a warning sign not to get ourselves entangled. How deadly must the cost be, before we opt out of the vision?

We are offered a rough checklist by which to detect the first symptoms of toxicity in a non toxic leader:

  • Has he begun to inflict harm on competitors seen as the enemy?
  • Does he begin to display arrogance and to be disdainful of others?
  • Does he seek wise counsel widely or just from yes men?
  • Has he been known to get others to do his dirty work and then disown them?
  • Does he bully the lowest or weakest members of the group?
  • Does he begin to move from a balanced life style to being a person of extremes?
  • Is the leader evasive in explaining the policies being promoted?
  • Is blame used as a ready tool of control?
  • Are dubious actions disguised as altruistic?
  • Does self interest became a major factor?

One could say that if half of these are in full blossom the leader is already well down the path of toxicity. But they will probably emerge a little at a time and the purpose of the list is to enable them to be spotted early, so that something can be done about them before they become too deeply rooted.

In our own development of personal character a toxic leader may enable us to understand ourselves and others as we might never have done but for them. This in no way justifies them, but in later years one sees how pain and anxiety caused by toxic leaders may have been key factors in our personal growth.

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Diminishing our need for strong leaders

As the author draws the threads together, she comments that the major attraction of toxic leaders stems from their readiness to promise us simultaneously the possible and the impossible. They assure us that they can both calm our fears and keep us safe. They play on our need for dreams even if they are illusory. We are promised a small slice of the leader's heroism and our self esteem is fed.

This final chapter offers some strategies for freeing ourselves from toxic leaders' illusions and for becoming self reliant:

  • To matriculate in the school of anxiety, where we learn to discover the leader within ourselves and create our own noble visions
  • Reassess our attitude to all leaders. Move from dependency as followers to the independence of a proactive constituent
  • Embrace democracy as a responsibility and not just a privilege. It goes beyond participation. It is time consuming, messy and inefficient, but its long term effectiveness is well worth the price. In the short run it may be easy to place ourselves in the hands of efficient authority, but in the end that authoritarian efficiency will destroy all our dreams.
  • Seek out leaders who will tell us how it is – and will not withhold the less appealing elements from us.
  • "Kick the vision habit" and the dividing of our world into "us " and "them", following instead the perspective whereby one is only a person through other persons and their otherness.
  • Help to nurture the next generation of leaders – the reluctant leaders. Develop a positive approach for the selection of such leaders, who will act from a sense of authenticity and responsibility, helping to heal the social corrosion bred by cynicism.,

Democracy in a business could take the form of every manager being part of a board consisting of himself, his boss and several subordinates, as Russell Ackoff suggested. It has not caught on, but it would be worth thinking about, according to our author.

Her closing paragraph challenges every manager, both to face up to signs of toxicity in his or her own leadership and resolutely to ensure that their relationship to leaders is an honest one which will help both leader and led to avoid the tragedy of toxicity.

Developing a complex understanding of our self and our world moves us further along this essential path to constructive, Other-oriented leadership. Less driven by endless anxieties, overweening competitiveness, insatiable egos, endless needs for self esteem, a pernicious achievement ethic, and calls to false heroics, we finally can assert our autonomy and set ourselves free. Then, through autonomy and freedom, we can find the inner strength, not simply to escape, but to reject – resolutely and repeatedly – the allure of the toxic leader.

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