Toxic Leaders: A Primer

Toxic Bosses
Written by James C. Gammage

Toxic Leaders.

This is a term that has definitely come more en vogue in the past several years as employees have become less and less tolerant of the way their bosses treat them.  Now, while ‘Toxic Leader’ is something that we can bandy about just because we don’t like someone – kind of like Narcissist and Psychopath became all the rage in the lanes of popular psychology over the past twenty to thirty years; the real question that remains is “What exactly makes someone a toxic leader?”

Spotting and Assessing

Toxic Leaders

The image that normally comes to mind when someone mentions a toxic leader is that of an angry, controlling, insulting boss.  One who makes everyone’s life a veritable hell from the moment they come into work until the moment they leave.

However, this notion isn’t always the case.

After gathering data over the past decade, there are groups of indicators that are present when a team is faced with a toxic leader.

Perfectionist Attitudes

The toxic leader can’t accept that humans are humans and sets a bar so high that no one can achieve it, and if someone comes close that leader will work to either reset the bar or find flaws in the work product.


The leader has an unfounded belief and feeling that they are better than their subordinates due to their grade or position.  This displays through how they choose to interact with those people.  ‘Talking down,’ ‘snide remarks,’ ‘thinly veiled insults’ are all the bailiwick of these types of faulty leaders.


No depth of character.  This can be seen through their words and actions.  They may display superficial emotions to those around them.  Jokes are usually tasteless and unfunny, probably even offensive.

Lack of Self-Confidence

This usually leads to overcompensation, which presents through aggressive behavior and attitudes.

Physical or Psychological Bullying

Think that due to their size they can push people around.  Many will also try to find things they think the subordinate will respond to and use that against them.  (Some examples include: the fact that the subordinate is of a lower rank; moving the subordinate out of the organization; taking free time away from a subordinate; etc.)

Cause of Work Place Division

Due to the need to hold absolute power, will attempt to cause workplace division in an effort to prevent the subordinates in the organization from forming any kind of oppositional group against the leader.  The leader will also choose to ‘play favorites’ in an attempt to solidify division amongst the subordinates.


This feeds back into condescending attitudes.  Believes, for usually no good reason, that they are somehow better than those subordinate to them.  Egotistical.  The leader clings to superficial reasons, achievements, ranks, and other arbitrary symbols to feed the ego.  The toxic leader may take a step to remind the subordinate of their rank several times during normal conversation.  It will stand out as odd due to the fact the subordinate quite obviously knows what rank they are and it will begin to sound as if the toxic leader is trying to convince themself.

Irritable For No Apparent Reason

The leader is easily upset and or becomes upset at the slightest slip up on the part of a subordinate.  This creates an environment to where the subordinates do not feel comfortable approaching the leader for anything unless absolutely necessary.

Inability to Accept Responsibility for Own Failures (Narcissistic Tendencies)

Narcissism plays heavily into toxic leadership, especially throughout the rank of the US Army.  Narcissistic tendencies present in those with little to no remorse or guilt over their actions that denigrate the mission or those subordinate to them; the narcissistic individual truly believes that they are better than those around them due to some perceived preternatural advantage.  These types of people can be caught in their earliest stages in the lower ranks by how they behave after they’ve made a mistake.  Baby narcissists are easy to pick up due to their rebellious attitudes toward leadership; their quickness to blame others around them for their own faults; statements out loud about how good or better than others they are; and a general lack of remorse for hurting those around them.  Narcissism could be its own complete article, but to save from that, it will just be included here to show that it fuels a lot of toxic leaders and their behaviors.

These are but a few of the indicators out there, but based on research they appear to be the most prevalent across the board.  Many people reading this probably remember the one (hopefully only one) boss they had like this.  So what does this all amount to?

Well, the US Army has been making strides in the right direction to stop fostering these types of individuals.  Statistically speaking, they do more harm than good to the organizations they are part of.  In my previous article dealing with Leadership, I mentioned something I loosely termed the “Plateau Theory” which explained how subordinates, when dealing with a toxic leader, limited their production output only to reach a point necessary to quell the backlash from the toxic leader.

The norm is actually far worse.


Toxic Leaders

Let’s revisit the scenario outlined in the article mentioned above on Leadership and take a closer look at the indicators and issues presented.

Let’s say there exists a small off shoot of a company (say a franchise, a bank, or some small outpost of the larger corporation.)  Let’s say, for the purposes of this research article, that one person manages this small offshoot and there are ten people subordinate to this individual.  We’ll call the leader Pete.  (No one’s actual name involved in the events that inspired this scenario.)

Pete shows up at the branch location with a hard-charging mentality.  He arrives prepared to take on the role of the person in charge and due to the fact that he is part of a hand-over process with the sitting manager, he gets in well with the subordinates shortly after his arrival.  However, his charm has a certain shallow affect to it.  Something not quite right; a malevolence hidden just beneath the surface of the toothy grin he gives.

The moment the previous manager leaves, Pete’s attitude and workplace behavior changes drastically.  He goes through the organization ripping apart standing procedures and deficiencies in a most condescending manner, sometimes outright embarrassing his subordinates in front of their subordinates.   This initial push creates an immediate lack of respect and trust in the part of the managers sitting one level below him.

It is readily apparent to those skilled at the job they are all tasked to do that Pete is unsure of himself and possesses little operational knowledge of the job.  Early attempts to make suggestions, provide alternative solutions, advice, and feedback are met with harsh retorts, criticism, and (I’m not sure what to call this) initially ignoring of the idea presented, then waiting a few days upon which the idea is presented as Pete’s own.

Pete also is in the habit of threatening those below him.  He openly admits that he is withholding complete access to funds from his wife when she angers him; he constantly threatens his subordinates with what they “better do”  “or else.”  He is irritable to the point of being unapproachable and any attempts to connect on a personal level fail catastrophically.  He uses thinly veiled insults and in some cases outright insults to highlight different employees’ faults and makes no effort to mentor anyone below him.

Pete also attempts to create division amongst his employees, specifically the three mid-level managers below him in order to make the workplace more volatile.  Let’s say in this hypothetical case that those three individuals were smarter than Pete and banded together instead of turning on one another.  This created somewhat of a buffer between Pete and the lower-ranking subordinates in the organization.

Finally, let’s say that Pete claimed numerous times that he was discriminated against on his way to his level of management.  However, Pete engages daily in discriminatory behavior and is a classic example of reverse discrimination.


What can we glean from the example provided above?  I’m sure there are many out there who would say that this is a mild case of a toxic leader.  Others would point out that it sounds like someone could bring this up as mere complaints about their work environment.

Opinions aside, this individual expresses many of the traits we discussed at the beginning of this article.  But what does this cause?  What are the effects?

Effects and Recommendations

Toxic Leaders

The problem with a toxic leader is that the symptoms are sometimes invisible to those outside of the immediate sphere of influence.  Those leaders who are responsible for the toxic leader, who consistently make little to no effort to check up at random on the toxic leader and its behavior, can be duped into thinking that a situation has been rectified and/or improved by the toxic leader and their presence.

My mention of a ‘plateau’ in work performance earlier stems from a situation where the employees working for Pete decide to do the exact minimum required ensuring that Pete’s demands are met and the working environment is kept somewhat amiable.  However, research conducted shows that the effects are usually more severe.

In some cases, the toxic leader can cause people who might have gone on to promising careers to leave the organization entirely; fed up with the system that allowed incompetence and irrational behavior to rise to the top.  In some cases, the toxic leader causes outright rebellion and work output is brought to a drastic halt.  In some severe cases, the toxic leader can cause employees to commit suicide or snap and come into work with weapons.

So how do we fix this situation?

Well, the US Army, for one, is focused primarily on trying to “fix” the leaders.  They are, on a whole, taking a diagnostic approach and seeking ways to remedy the problem, as if it were a disease.  (Which it is.)  These methods have been tasked to research and clinical psychologists who are seeking ways to ‘rehabilitate’ the toxic leaders and bring some modicum of civility to the way they behave.

However, in today’s age of a floundering economy, massive budget cuts, and a sequestration causing qualitative management cuts across the board in the Army and other military branches; I say it’s time to start putting these people on the proverbial chopping block as well.  It’s all well and good to scratch through thousands of personnel files and remove people who’ve served with distinction over their careers who have had a few slip ups and who have not been part of the masses who kiss ass to get higher ratings on evaluations, but I cannot quite get behind the idea of these little tin-pot dictators hiding behind the facades they’ve created for themselves remaining in the organization while many of those they’ve stepped on during their rise to the top get kicked out.

You see; the issue with the culture of the armed forces is that the idea has been cultivated over numerous years that it is perfectly okay for people to behave in abusive, controlling, and narcissistic manners toward other people.  Ridiculous, but this is reality.  This idea has lent to the very false belief that these individuals are somehow effective and that they provide something ‘good’ to their organizations.

A good dissertation on the effects of toxic leadership can be found here.

This leads to the question of how the behavior is caught and if it is caught, what type of reporting processes should be put into place to ensure that this information makes it to the right ears and the right types of assessments are done to diagnose the situation.

How such a theoretical system would function is unknown.  Perhaps a reporting channel.  Perhaps have a board certified clinical psychologist assigned to each command and each corporation.  Perhaps establish a reporting chain that allows subordinates to identify key aspects of a toxic leader and report to a unit or company ‘toxic leader rep’ who would then report this to the toxic leader’s next highest leader and the board-certified psychologist.  From there, corrective action could be taken to either rehabilitate or remove the toxic leader from their position.  Perhaps establish education and awareness programs throughout the entire organization, corporation, and branch of the armed forces that trains people on exactly what the indicators are and how to deal with being in that type of environment.


The change can only start from the highest levels whether those levels are the top of the armed forces or the C-level of the corporation you work for.  This change must move downward in a snowball fashion.  The change must be that it is shown (through severe reprimand if necessary) that it is not okay for people to behave in these manners at any point in time.  It must be cultivated from the ground up as well.   The lowest levels of leaders must show their subordinates that the toxic leader is not the template from which to draw their own leadership style(s).  Leaders should also be constantly vigilant of these traits in their subordinates and work to rehabilitate or squash toxic leaders before they can get high enough to cause severe damage within their organizations.

These changes and efforts, along with a sufficient reporting system will help weed these toxic leaders out of our organizations and work to create a more harmonious and constructive working environment.

For more on narcissistic behavior.

For more on efforts to ‘fix’ toxic leaders.

Obligatory Google Scholar search returns on the psychology behind narcissism and toxic leadership.

Remember: Everyone has a boss.  Even the boss.  If you find yourself in a situation where someone is promoting discord, fear, and an abusive environment within the workplace, seek proper channels through which to make the higher echelons aware of what is going on.  In many cases, if enough personnel step forward with documented incidents, something will be done to address the situation.  Change starts in the smallest ways possible but is only effective if those first steps are taken.

About the author

James C. Gammage

James C. Gammage is an aspiring science fiction writer who also serves as part of the active duty US Army. He is currently working on a degree in clinical psychology and is an avid reader of all things science fiction.