by Felix Hamdaan Oltomo

There is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organisations across the world. This is clear from anecdotal evidence as well as research which suggests that one out of every five leaders is toxic. My own research shows that close to three out of every ten leaders are toxic.

This cancer of toxicity threatens the well being of both individuals and organisations. It also affects the performance of a society and country. That’s why there is a pressing need for leaders to understand the nature, dynamics and evolution of toxic leadership and organisations.

The word “toxic” comes from the Greek “toxikon” which means “arrow poison”. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (poison) in a targeted way (arrow). Toxic organisations and leaders, therefore, are those who deliberately destroy the fabric of the institution.

What makes a toxic leader? and Why?

Toxic leadership represents the “dark” side of leadership. It affects individuals as well as organisations.

In the case of individuals, toxic leadership refers to ongoing, deliberate, intentional actions - the “arrow” - by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual - the “poison”. This results in exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences as witnessed in the province! These destructive actions may be physical, psychosocial or even spiritual when they diminish a person’s meaning and purpose.

A toxic organisation is one that erodes, disables and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of the people who work in it in permanent and deliberate ways. In other words, an organisation becomes metaphorically a “poison pill” for employees.

Workplace bullying is similar to toxic leadership but is just one form of it. Bullying is more centred on the individual, one-on-one, physical or emotional abuse by any one individual, including a leader, on another person.

In contrast to toxic leadership, healthy, authentic leadership nurtures and affirms the dignity, worth and efficacy of an individual. It creates enabling, empowering and meaningful work experiences.

And a healthy, authentic organisation is one that nurtures and grows the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of its organisational members.

Can toxic leaders be competent?

Leadership toxicity and incompetence are not directly related. Both competent – getting the desired results - and incompetent leadership can be toxic.

If a narrower definition of competence is used - only focusing on technical and professional competencies - a toxic leader may still be seen as competent because they are “delivering the goods”. This is particularly true if a short-term view is taken. But over the longer term, their short-term success is unsustainable. This is because they are destroying their teams, departments or organisations in the process.

If a comprehensive, long-term view is taken toxic leaders are incompetent because they are not competent across all domains of a well-rounded leader. Taking a comprehensive view, leadership qualities include personal attributes, technical and professional competencies, values and attitudes, and conduct. Are these attributes found in our leaders now?

I believe that toxic leaders, regardless of their level of technical and professional competence, are incompetent. After all, competent leadership is all about getting things done with people and not by remote control.

Typical toxic leaders

Five typical toxic leaders exist:

The Cold Fish:
The ends justify the means. So any decision and action are justifiable in terms of the results desired.

The Snake:
The world serves me in the endeavour to satisfy my personal needs like greed, status and power. (If you challenge me I will get you Dow mentality, you nobody mentality)

Will continue in the next episode the next 3 types of toxic leadership!