7 Signs of a Toxic Leader

One of the most fascinating topics studied by psychology is leadership. Be it in the workplace or in your social groups, effective leadership is the key to good inter-member relations, greater productivity, and better outcomes all around. This because leadership plays an integral role in a group’s trust, morale, motivation, efficiency, and cohesiveness (Klann, 2007).

On the other hand, if a leader is not only ineffective, but also downright toxic, then everyone in the group suffers. Toxic leadership creates a culture of distrust, conflict, anxiety, and fear. If you’ve ever encountered a toxic leader, then you’d understand why it’s so crucial that you protect yourself and your group from them.

The first step to preventing this from happening is by recognizing the signs, so here are 7 common characteristics of a toxic leader:

1. They Don’t Listen

Good communication and interpersonal skills are part of what makes a great leader (Pedler, Burgoyne, & Boydell, 2004; Firth-Cozens & Mowbray, 2001), so when your group is helmed by someone who doesn’t value your input, then that’s the first sign of trouble. Leaders like this often think that they are always right, so they are quick to dismiss the ideas of others and disagree before they’ve even heard of what you have to say. This kind of behavior prevents the group from sharing and collaborating, where members have no choice but to simply do as they’re told.

2. They Can’t Take Criticism

A leader who is unwilling to accept feedback from their members is usually close-minded and overconfident. People like this tend to come up with excuses for their mistakes or shift the blame to someone else. They don’t like to be challenge, so they prefer to surround themselves with ‘yes men’ who never question them.

3. They’re Too Self-Centered

Studies show that among the most crucial factors of unsuccessful leadership and group performance is having a narcissistic leader (Higgs, 2009). When a leader is too self-absorbed and doesn’t care about anyone but themselves, those around them may feel like they’re merely there to prop up their ego. They constantly brag about themselves, show limited concern for others, and see members as nothing but pawns to help them achieve their own goals.

4. They’re Too Controlling

Another type of toxic leader is the micro-manager; the person who has a neurotic need to always be in control (Gilbert, Carr-Ruffino, Ivanevich, & Konopaske, 2012). A leader like this is quick to interfere even when they shouldn’t and take over other people’s tasks and projects because they don’t trust them enough to do it themselves. They want to do everything on their own and leave others feeling exasperated by their lack of faith in those around them.

5. They’re Too Emotional

A leader’s role is to make rational decisions that can benefit the entire group. However, if you have someone in charge that is ruled by their heart and often allows their emotions to cloud their judgment, it can negatively impact everyone involved. Moody, inconsistent, and unpredictable, leaders like this tend to make rash decisions and behave in ways that aren’t always in line with their words. They put themselves and those around them at the mercy of their emotions.

6. They Abuse Their Power

One of the worst things that can happen to a group is when the wrong person is put in charge, especially when that certain someone can’t be trusted with the power they’re given. Leaders like this will often intimidate those below them and seek to exert their dominance on others. They feel threatened whenever you question or challenge them in even the slightest way, because they demand compliance from their members, not acceptance.

7. They Do Nothing

Lastly, the last characteristic of a toxic leader is when they remain passive and indifferent. These people are happy to delegate tasks and tell others what to do, but don’t actually contribute anything themselves. They let their members do all the work for them and take an approach to leadership that’s too relaxed – called “Laissez Faire Leadership” (Skogstad, Einarsen, Torsheim, Aasland, & Hetland, 2007). They don’t care much for the group’s goals or tasks at hand, and don’t support or mentor their members in any way.

Toxic leadership can be a serious cause of concern for any group, as it often fosters dissatisfaction and resentment among its ranks. Because leaders are responsible for not only themselves but those around them as well, they need to be held at a higher standard. Toxic leadership in any form should not be tolerated, as it will cost you and your group a great deal of stress, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion.


  • Klann, G. (2007). Building character: Strengthening the heart of good leadership. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Pedler, M., Burgoyne, J., & Boydell, T. (2004). A manager’s guide to leadership(p. 69). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.
  • Firth-Cozens, J., & Mowbray, D. (2001). Leadership and the quality of care. BMJ Quality & Safety10 (2), ii3-ii7.
  • Higgs, M. (2009). The good, the bad and the ugly: Leadership and narcissism. Journal of change management9(2), 165-178.
  • Gilbert, J. A., Carr-Ruffino, N., Ivancevich, J. M., & Konopaske, R. (2012). Toxic versus cooperative behaviors at work: the role of organizational culture and leadership in creating community-centered organizations. International Journal of Leadership Studies7(1), 29-47.
  • Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., & Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez-faire leadership behavior. Journal of occupational health psychology12(1), 80.

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