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A path to toxic leadership: destructive leadership, conducive environments and susceptible followers

11 July 2013

± minute read

    A path to toxic leadership: destructive leadership, conducive environments and susceptible followers
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 JvR was proud to host Dr Jarrett Shalhoop on the 18th of March 2013. Dr Shalhoop presented on Toxic Leadership and its impact on organisations. In his discussion Dr Shalhoop defined Toxic Leadership and the contextual factors required for it to occur. Toxic Leadership has five basic characteristics (Padilla, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2007).

5 Characteristics of Toxic Leadership

  • The Toxic Leadership is not always only negative; there are some positive and some negative outcomes of this form of leadership. The initial positive outcomes of this form of leadership justify the negative outcomes which usually occur later.
  • The type of leadership implemented in Toxic Leadership is coercion, dominance, and manipulation rather than the more positive persuasion, influence, and commitment. This is often referred to as destructive leadership.
  • The primary driving force behind Toxic Leadership is the selfish needs of the leader usually at the expense of the team, group, or organisation.
  • The outcomes of this form of leadership usually detract from organisational and team goals and may compromise the quality of life of followers.
  • Toxic Leadership is not solely the responsibility of the destructive leader, but also the product of a conducive environment that promotes this form of leadership and susceptible followers who are willing to empower the process.

The leader must implement Destructive Leadership which is characterised by:

  1. Charisma: The leader seems charming, emotive, and influential. Usually the leader appeals to the emotion of followers and not their reason.
  2. Personalised need for power: The leader’s main objective is to secure power and influence for their selfish needs.
  3. Narcissism: The leader usually has an overinflated belief in their self-worth. Often destructive leaders will believe they are imbued with a right to rule and are better than others.
  4. Negative life themes: Destructive leaders usually have a background of poverty, social discord, or suffering. The destructive leader often uses these themes when justifying immoral acts.
  5. Ideology of hate: A large proportion of the destructive leader’s views involve hate directed to a particular institute or social group.

Susceptible Followers: A leader requires followers to empower him, no matter the extent of the destructive leadership.

Followers who are willing to empower a destructive leader even when they are aware this leadership is negative have the following characteristics:

  1. Unmet basic needs: When followers have unmet basic needs they are more susceptible to follow a destructive leader.
  2. Negative core self-evaluations: When individuals have low self-esteem, an external locus of control, and low self-efficacy they are more susceptible to follow a destructive leader.
  3. Low maturity: If an individual’s ego development, moral reasoning, and self-concept are not well cultivated they are more likely to engage in negative acts driven by the destructive leader.
  4. Ambition: Some followers will prosper when they support the destructive leader. The promise of material wealth, status, and power is more enticing for highly ambitious individuals.
  5. Congruent values and beliefs: Individuals who have the same value system as the destructive leader are more susceptible to the influence of such leaders (birds of a feather flock together).
  6. Antisocial values: Individuals who endorse antisocial values are more likely to familiarise with the destructive leader who himself portrays these values and become followers.

Conducive Environments: Certain contextual environmental factors promote Toxic Leadership. These include:

  1. Instability: Unstable situations usually enhance a leader’s power. Instability may justify autocratic forms of leadership where the leader has absolute authority.
  2. Perceived threat: If there is a perceived threat in the environment the leader is able to use this threat to justify immoral acts.
  3. Cultural values: Cultures which are prone to avoid uncertainty, are collectivistic, and prefer high power distance are more susceptible to Toxic Leadership.
  4. Absence of checks and balances and institutionalisation: A general lack of accountability may allow the leader to operate unchecked. Usually this is followed by an institutionalisation of power in the individual leader which can result in despotism.

In order to combat Toxic Leadership individuals should be sensitive to these indicators. Dr Shalhoop argued that proper selection methods and an organisational structure that promotes accountability may prevent Toxic Leadership from taking hold in organisations. However, once a destructive leader is rooted in the organisation he/she may build such a power base of susceptible followers that it may become nearly impossible to uproot them.


Padilla, A. , Hogan, R. , & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The Toxic Triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 176-194.

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