On Leadership and Healing the Toxic Leader

Toxic Leader

Earlier this year, someone sent me a Washington Post article about the Pentagon’s investigative actions to remove abusive leaders.

  • One general was described as a profane screamer who was “cruel and oppressive.”
  • Another leader was singled out as a verbally abusive taskmaster and still another was “dictatorial,” “unglued,”a master of “profanity-fused outbursts.”
  • A power-hungry senior Department of Defense civilian was so bad her subordinates said that it was “like you were in a prisoner of war camp.”

Fortunately, I’ve never been assigned to an abusive, toxic leader except when I was in a Vietnam POW camp for more than five years. When I came home, I made a vow that I’d never serve under those conditions again.

“Freedom and dignity were much more important than any short-term security.”

The Toxic Leader

The problem exists in every field of work, and regularly I hear about someone leaving a good job they really liked because of a toxic leader. Unfortunately, there are ego-driven, angry, control freaks using their power to intimidate and destroy others.

So what can you do about this problem as an organizational leader or trainer?

It depends on your perspective and the resources that you have on hand to assess and analyze.

Are You a Toxic Leader?

If you even think you see yourself in the stories above, you may have a problem. Perhaps you have been rationalizing your behaviors and denying the damage that you’re doing.

If so, you may be operating out of a term I coined a few years ago called “Progression in D Major” explaining the toxic behavior of dysfunctional dominant personalities.

This term defines insecure people who have to be right at all cost. The progression goes like this –

  1. When they’re wrong, they Deny.
  2. Then when there is more evidence, they Defend by rationalizing.
  3. Then when the facts persist, they Demonize those who expose them.
  4. Finally, they seek to Destroy the career or reputation of their nemesis.

Curing a Toxic Leader

If you suspect that you’re a toxic leader, empower and ask someone who has the courage to give you honest feedback. Get a coach, use an assessment instrument like Leadership Behavior DNA™ to assess natural behaviors, and event take a 360 assessment to zero in on your issues and begin working to change.

“If you’re willing to do those things to develop new learned behaviors to balance your natural behaviors, there is definitely hope for you; if not, you’re a lost cause, and I pity those poor souls under you charge.”

Do You Have Toxic Leaders Working for You?

As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to know what’s happening in your domain. If you’re not sure, use organizational climate surveys and 360 assessments.

If there’s a problem, take action to get the toxic leader fixed and back on track or out of the organization.

Do You Work for a Toxic Leader?

This is a tough situation. Find good counsel and look for a safe way to let the good leaders who are higher up in your organization know what’s happening.

If they won’t take action, you have to decide about staying and endangering your health or making a move. Take your time to work through it with a good support team to help you deal with the emotions and plan your steps.

The Fix

The solution to toxic leaders is found in courageous actions by other leaders who won’t tolerate those behaviors.”

Where do you fit in this arena and what should you be doing right now? Regardless, the answer will require you responding to the courage challenge—that is, lean into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right—for the organization, the team, and for yourself. It’s worth the effort to live and lead the right way—you can do it.


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Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | Book | Facebook | Twitter

His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

Image Sources: careergirlnetwork.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Jim Trunick on December 29, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Lee, I have not had the pleasure to meet you, and greatly value your writings. Your humility to not know toxic leaders EXCEPT Vietnam POW takes my breath away! Proud of you and your service and your amazing perspective! Thank you !
    Your friend

    • Lee Ellis on December 29, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      Jim – thanks for the kind words, and it’s my pleasure to share my experiences. Unfortunately, toxic leadership is prevalent in every work industry, but I’m grateful that we also have stellar leaders that push to grow and mature as honorable leaders.

  2. Brent Hedden on December 29, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    The sad part is when the “toxicity” of an organization is known and nothing is ever done about it. You can have a few brave souls willing to step forward and try to brings the seriousness of the issue to light and they soon become the laughing stock. If the leaders of the organization are unwilling to hear the voices of their people, change will never come.

    • Lee Ellis on January 2, 2015 at 9:00 am

      Brent – great observation. As we know, self-awareness and “knowing yourself” and the organization is the foundational principle for great leadership. Without that attitude of authenticity, everything else is marginalized in some way.

  3. ramakrishnan6002 on December 30, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

    • Lee Ellis on January 2, 2015 at 9:04 am

      Ramakrishnan – thanks very much for your willingness to share the Leading with Honor. You’ve been very supportive through re-blogging and liking my posts, and I hope that it is an encouragement to your blog readers. Happy New Year to you!