The Rise of Toxic Leaders in Organizations - International Coaching Federation
New Member-Exclusive Benefit: ICF Engage

The Rise of Toxic Leaders in Organizations

Posted by Ray Williams | February 25, 2016 | Comments (11)

We are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces. We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest.

Their long-term impact can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries). Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.

Toxic workplaces can be characterized as follows:

  • All sticks and no carrots.  Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems and rarely gives positive feedback for what is going right. The best performers receive some carrots and the rest get sticks.
  • Bullies rule the roost.  Management either directly bullies employees or tolerates it when it occurs among employees.
  • Losing the human touch. People are considered to be objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness and/or well-being. Leaders lack compassion and empathy for employees.

Toxic leadership is a growing and costly phenomenon. Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg recently published a study on the growth and impact of toxic leadership on organizations. He contends that “there is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.” Veldsman says that anecdotal and research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders is toxic, and he argues that his research shows it is closer to three out of every ten leaders.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying—or  “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance”—while an additional 15 percent said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72 percent of those bullies are bosses.

Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, says that a toxic leader can be characterized by the following behaviors:

  • Undermines the dignity, self-worth and efficacy of others
  • Is a narcissist, bully and/or psychopath
  • Leaves their followers and the organization worse off than when they found it
  • Consciously feeds their followers illusions and fantasy about a secret plan or mystical vision
  • Plays to the basest fears and needs of the followers
  • Threatens or punishes those who fail to comply with the leader or question the leader’s actions
  • Lies and is deceitful
  • Must win at all costs
  • Charms, cultivates and manipulates followers
  • Blames others for their mistakes or failures and frequently criticizes others
  • Constantly seeks and needs praise
  • Has a sense of entitlement and believes they are “special”
  • Is utilitarian in the extreme—“the ends justify any means”
  • Lacks empathy and compassion for others
  • Is super-sensitive to criticism and will seek vengeance against those who give it
  • Often exhibits mood swings and temper tantrums
  • Makes many promises that never happen
  • Takes credit for others’ work

Toxic leaders sap the strength of their organizations. Their demand for loyalty causes employees to fear whether they are doing something the leader will deem to be wrong. In this demoralizing and dehumanizing atmosphere, the toxic leader may drive the organization into paralysis or worse.

Toxic leaders are often extreme narcissists. Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic has pondered the question of “Why We Love Narcissists.”  He argues that narcissists, however productive some may be, “have parasitic effects on society.” He says, “When in charge of companies they commit fraud, demoralize employees and devalue stock. When in charge of countries they increase poverty, violence and death rates.”

Alan Goldman, author of the books Destructive Leaders and Dysfunctional Organizations and Transforming Toxic Leaders, contends that “very bad behavior at the top of the organizational hierarchy is typically guarded and reinforced like the gold reserves at Fort Knox.”

A Coach’s Challenge

In my last two decades as an executive coach, working mostly with senior executives and CEOs in both private and public organizations, I’ve seen a disproportionate share of toxic leaders who continue to do harm to their employees and their organizations, despite all our knowledge about what constitutes good leadership, particularly with reference to emotional intelligence, humility and compassion. Working with toxic leaders and those who work with them presents a real challenge to coaches—one that raises the bar for success.

Here are some things I’ve learned as a result of my experiences:

  • Boards/directors, recruiters and those responsible for hiring senior executives, and particularly CEOs, need to embrace the research on what constitutes good leadership.
  • Psychometric and clinical psychological assessments of leadership candidates should be part of the recruitment and interview process to flag the extreme narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personalities.
  • A longer probationary period (minimum of one year) needs to be in place for new hires. This will allow time for the honeymoon period to end and for charismatic and manipulative personalities to begin to show their true colors.
  • The personal review process for senior leaders needs to be implemented by outside third parties, rather than Boards of Directors or HR departments, some of whom might have a vested interest in a positive outcome because they were involved in the initial selection process.
  • A whistleblower protection system needs to be instituted so that employees who have become victims of toxic leaders, or who have witnessed their destructive behavior, can feel protected when coming forward with information.
  • Every new senior executive should be assigned, or required to have, an executive coach who has the capacity to report to the executive’s superior or the board.

The prevalence of toxic leaders in our political, business and social organizations has become a serious problem, one that has contributed to the low-confidence level people have in leadership. Action needs to be taken now before more people and organizations are damaged.

Ray Williams

Ray Williams is President of Ray Williams Associates, a firm based in Vancouver that provides leadership training, executive coaching and speaking services. Ray is also author of the books Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge, and contributing author to the best seller, Ready, Aim, Influence. He can be reached at and you can follow him at @raybwilliams on Twitter. Read more about coaching narcissistic leaders in Ray’s new book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Additionally, for the purpose of full disclosure and as a disclaimer of liability, this content was possibly generated using the assistance of an AI program. Its contents, either in whole or in part, have been reviewed and revised by a human. Nevertheless, the reader/user is responsible for verifying the information presented and should not rely upon this article or post as providing any specific professional advice or counsel. Its contents are provided “as is,” and ICF makes no representations or warranties as to its accuracy or completeness and to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law specifically disclaims any and all liability for any damages or injuries resulting from use of or reliance thereupon.

Comments (11)

  1. Floriana says:

    Sorry I cannot grasp your introductory lines to the topic. Who hires psycots, narcisists and bullies or selfinterest oriented?

  2. Ray Williams says:

    Floriana, Boards of Directors and HR professionals responsible for hiring.

  3. Michelle says:

    Was bullied by a narcissistic leader and survived. It was difficult, and yet I am grateful for the experience as that is how I found my voice again. I’m in the process of becoming a certified coach and your most recent book sounds interesting. I’m curious to know how you are able to break thru with someone who thinks they know everything.

    • Melissa says:

      Michelle, when you are talking about a narcissistic leader there are specific rules on how to deal with them vs. other types of leaders. I too survived a Narcissist Leader. I too am grateful and this is what drove me to coaching. BUT, when you want to know how to deal with a narcissist think this way, “Don’t wrestle with a pig because you get dirty and they like it”. Rule of thumb when dealing with a narcissist boss, since you are their “supply” they will likely never fire you, but when you are being bullied or deceived, 1) Change the Subject or 2) Just say, “OK” to everything that they say and then do as you wish. They likely won’t remember what they’ve said since their stories change all the time depending on who they are sacrificing on the alter of their ego. and lastly, 3) RUN when your self respect calls for you to. 🙂

  4. So, I read this interested in the tactics an experienced coach adopts when they see their executive behaving in that way.

    I didn’t find any answers Ray, so what are your thoughts on that?…


  5. Lindi Horton says:

    Isn’t the distinction here to call them managers? There’s some overlap between a manager and a leader. But I can see these behaviors more accurately attributed toward managers and title bearers, even CEO’s but I wouldn’t necessary designate them as a leader. Stepping into these roles is rewarded behaviors because they produce an outcome, report, manage, and create results that seem to be in line with the company’s desired result. So that brings into question if the company has the best desired outcomes, a being that unlocks the human potential of its greatest assets, or has other priorities. Usually it’s about that. At least in my experience. What there is to do is get responsible for those incentives and support the organization with shifting the being and culture to support what it says it stands for.

  6. Ed Modell says:

    Ray-As a coach, at what point do you determine that this type of leader is uncoachable and then what do you do?

  7. Ray Williams says:

    Some good questions here. Regarding dealing with dangerous narcissistic leaders, my best advice is to not work with them, or be patient and wait them out, as they invariably self destruct within a couple of years. If they are only mildly narcissistic or toxic, it’s important to not attack them on your own (think Donald Trump), but to have allies, and witnesses if you have to confront. And document everything in case you need it. Most important is self-care, and taking care of your well being.

  8. […] Williams, blogging for the International Coach Federation, writes about toxic, bullying leaders, their impact on organizations, and coaching as an […]

  9. j-l-ca says:

    Curious as to why there is a growing toxic or bullying leadership problem. Is it a lack of information at the board level or training for HR on what is bullying and why is it a problem. From my perspective, most HR departments do not want to deal with bullies as they found and recruited them in the first place.

  10. Sasidhar says:

    Pretty Good one !!! Like to read more from you …. and perfect image

Leave a Reply

Not a member?

Sign up now to become a member and receive all of our wonderful benefits.

Learn more