Toxic leaders are infamous, it’s easy to think of examples of people who have run countries, businesses or their own lives into the ground. There are dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito who have led their countries into ruin. In business CEOs get blamed for the success or failure of their company.
Bob Diamond resigned amid scandal at Barclays Bank, and became the face of scandal. Conversely, Steve Jobs received the lion’s share of credit for Apple’s resounding success. His telegraph obituary said, ” it was because of him that Apple products, even when they do largely what other products do, are perceived to be different and infinitely more cool.”
There are three fundamental aspects of leadership derailment. Adrian Furnham describes the toxic leadership triangle in his book The Elephant in the Boardroom. The toxic triangle is three pillars that prop up toxic leaders.
Toxic leaders are not incompetent, they deliberately misuse positions of power and influence for their own self-interest. They know what they are doing, they actively contribute to misusing power and position. Toxic leaders can be charming, energetic and will oversell their own achievements. They are excellent manipulators and convince others that they are strong leaders. They may spread their own confidence amongst others, but are only interested in bettering themselves.
Toxic leaders contribute to, and encourage, failure because they are only interested in their own agenda despite costs to the company or those in the company. For the toxic leader, other people are only a tool for getting what they want.
Toxic leaders will not get fair without strong and active supporters. A leader cannot do anything alone, they need supportive people who carry out orders without question.
There are many reasons followers support leaders who are either blatantly or subtly malicious. Ambitious people may support toxic leaders to secure their own positions, they may truly believe in the leaders, or they may have negative feelings about themselves which they believe the toxic leader will improve.
Followers collude with toxic leaders either because of blind loyalty or self-interest. Colluding followers usually have a clear reason for following the toxic leader. Some followers will actively work with leaders, knowing their behaviour is bad. Others, work hard because they are convinced or fooled by the clever, toxic leader.
Certain situations, organizations and times make it much easier for toxic leaders to thrive. It can be difficult, but not impossible, for toxic leaders to gain influence when circumstances are good. However, when times are bad the toxic leaders really have a chance to thrive.
Toxic leaders have will offer clear and simple solutions that sound appealing. A toxic leader has no compuctions about offering dishonest or misleading solutions. These toxic leaders prefer to be misleading, especially when the truth is unappealing. Toxic leaders will use any means necessary to gain power, and when large numbers of people are uncertain or feel threatened, unscrupulous leaders can swoop in.
Threatening or uncertain circumstances encourage followers to look for simple solutions. Toxic leaders will make threats seem much worse than they really are, and offer solutions that seem simple. They smooth over complexities, difficulties and offer their own ideology, their own power as a simple solution to all problems.
Toxic leaders have trouble succeeding when there is oversight, regulations and enforcement. Toxic leaders need to find conditions where the position of power is not monitored or controlled.