Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Allure of Toxic Leaders

Thank you Steve for recommending Jean Lipman-Blumen's The Allure of Toxic Leaders. Why do so many destructive leaders acquire and hold on to power? Why do people follow them?

Lipman-Blumen identifies the following characteristic destructive behaviors of toxic leaders (pp. 19-20):

  • Leaving their followers (and sometimes non-followers) worse off than they found them by deliberately undermining, demeaning, seducing, marginalizing, intimidating, demoralizing, disenfranchising, incapacitating, imprisoning, torturing, terrorizing, or killing them;
  • Violating the basic human rights of their own supporters and others;
  • Engaging in corrupt, criminal, and/or other unethical activities; 
  • Deliberately feeding their followers illusions that enhance the leader’s power and impair the followers’ capacity to act independently, including depicting themselves as the only one who can “save” the followers; 
  • Playing to the basest fears and needs of their followers; 
  • Stifling constructive criticism and teaching supporters (sometimes by threats and authoritarianism) to comply with, rather than to question, the leader’s judgment and actions; 
  • Misleading followers through deliberate untruths and misdiagnoses of issues and problems; 
  • Subverting those structures and processes of the system intended to generate truth, justice, and excellence and engaging in criminal acts; 
  • Building totalitarian or narrowly dynastic regimes, including undermining the legal processes for selecting and supporting new leaders;
  • Failing to nurture other leaders, including their own successors (with the occasional exception of blood kin) or otherwise improperly clinging to power;
  • Maliciously setting constituents against one another; 
  • Treating their own followers well, but persuading them to hate and/or destroy others;
  • Identifying scapegoats and inciting others to castigate them; 
  • Structuring the costs of overthrowing them as a trigger for the downfall of the system they lead, thus further endangering followers and non-followers, alike; 
  • Failing to recognize or ignoring and/or promoting incompetence, cronyism, and corruption; and 
  • Behaving incompetently by misdiagnosing problems and failing to implement solutions to recognized problems.
This list moves from intentional destructive behaviors where leaders deliberately set out to dominate and even eliminate their own followers, to behaviors that are not necessarily deliberate but where "incompetence becomes salient."

Other toxic behaviors of leaders (Lipman-Blumen's list is not exhaustive) are:

  • Toxic leaders use scarce resources to build monuments to themselves, rather than meet their followers' basic needs. For example, "some use corporate jets, decorate opulent executive suites, and draw multimillion-dollar salaries as their firms undergo serious downsizing. Saddan Hussein maintained a multibillion-dollar palace construction program while his people went hungry and sick." (21)
  • Toxic leaders treat their low-status followers shabbily, while "the elite receive white-glove treatment." (Ib.)
Enduring dysfunctional personal characteristics of toxic leaders include:

  • Lack of integrity that reveals leaders as cynical, corrupt, or untrustworthy;
  • Insatiable ambition that prompts leaders to put their own sustained power, glory, and fortunes above their followers’ well-being;
  • Enormous egos that blind leaders to the shortcomings of their own character and thus limit their capacity for self-renewal;
  • Arrogance that prevents toxic leaders from acknowledging their mistakes and, instead, leads to blaming others;
  • Amorality that makes it nigh impossible for toxic leaders to discern right from wrong;
  • Avarice that drives leaders to put money and what money can buy at the top of their list;
  • Reckless disregard for the costs of their actions to others, as well as to themselves;
  • Cowardice that leads them to shrink from the difficult choices; and 
  • Failure both to understand the nature of relevant problems and to act competently and effectively in situations requiring leadership. (21-22)
Conversely, we could say that the characteristic behaviors of good leaders include:
  • Leaving their followers better off than when they found them;
  • Treating their followers with honor and dignity;
  • Creating a team of leaders where all are valued and important to the outcome;
  • Upbuilding and strengthening their followers;
  • Encouraging and allowing for contrary opinions, to include questioning the leader;
  • Being truthful;
  • Creating a system whereby truth, justice, and excellence predominates;
  • Being egalitarian when it comes to calling forth new leaders;
  • Nurturing of leaders so they succeed, and even surpass, the leader;
  • Resolving conflict in healthy ways;
  • Being loving towards others;
  • Taking and sharing responsibility for failures;
  • Squarely facing incompetence and corruption, whether personal or corporate.
Conversely, here are the personal characteristics of good leaders:
  • Having integrity;
  • Can be trusted;
  • Lack of ambition re. personal fame and glory;
  • Placing their followers' well-being above their own;
  • Humility;
  • Acknowledging personal failures and mistakes;
  • High moral character;
  • Places their followers at the top of the list, and not personal economic gain;
  • Considers the effects of their decisions upon others;
  • Courageous and able to make difficult choices;
  • Displaying competence, effectiveness, and understanding in leadership situations.
For a shorter essay by Lipman-Blumen see "Toxic Leadership: A Conceptual Framework."