Sign in
Choose languageLanguage

8 types of toxic leaders - Understanding the dark side of your boss

Toxic Leaders - What makes a bad leader.jpg
Tags: leadership
Categories: WorkForce Management
Tonja Blatnik
13 minute read

Many leaders have a dark side. They are toxic leaders. Surprisingly, the shadow side of leadership is rarely discussed - despite being very present in reality! 

Some research shows that close to three out of every ten leaders are toxic. 

Working with bad bosses is traumatic, and to make it worse the problem expands beyond individual experience. Toxicity overwhelms entire teams, organizations, and broader social circles, and it creates unhappy, unproductive, ineffective organizational cultures. 

Just as one rotten apple can spoil the whole basket; one toxic leader is enough for a corporate tragedy. So how can we deal with that? 

In this blog, we describe how to recognize a CEO’s pathology and how move toward healthier and more productive leadership. 

The Psychopath in the C-Suite is turning you into an incompetent fool

Toxic leaders often exhibit psychopathic traits. They abuse their positions of power. 

They disengage others from meaningful and rewarding work. They spot high-performing employees and make them feel like incompetent losers who are lucky to be employed. 

These are only a few in-your-face signs of psychopaths, often found wherever power, status, or money is at stake. Outwardly successful and charming, psychopaths’ inner lack of empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse can destroy the people around them, and the companies they run.  

And it’s is not only people who are toxic; they usually create a whole nasty system around themselves. 

One of their main tactic is trying to get people with the same opinions on board, as well as not looking for diversity, not organizing critical thinking, and fighting with all those who disagree.

Eight types of toxic leaders - get to know the inner demons 

In order to get to the bottom of the functioning of any organisation, we must first research the human being, his realities and demons. 

Manfred Kets de Vries, one of the leading thinkers on management, professor at INSEAD, and consultant, suggests that there are 8 dysfunctional prototypes found in organisations.  

Of course, in real life, there are often hybrids, as the repertoire of toxic leaders covers a broad spectrum. So, let’s examine these prototypes: 

1. The grandiose self-image: THE NARCISSISTIC LEADER  

There’s no place where narcissism is acted out more dramatically than on the organisational stage. The prevalence of narcissism in the overall population is only 1 percent, yet studies suggest that among CEOs, the figure is 5 per cent. 

Their never-ending hunger for power and recognition, prestige, and glamour drives many narcissists to obtain top positions. As such, narcissism is an attribute of many powerful leaders. 

They simply need a stage to shine on, as they dream of being at the center of the universe. But, when a leader’s overly narcissistic disposition is combined with a position of power, the consequences can be harmful. Why? Lots of egotism, little empathy.

Narcissistic behaviour is dangerous because the person becomes more important than the organization. It spurs egoism, a lack of empathy, and the failure to acknowledge boundaries.   

The internalized image of the narcissist is a real threat to sincere collaboration – a vital element of a high-performing organization. Instead of inspiring people to be their best, narcissists put all their energy into defending their own positions.

Narcissistic traits include:

  • a grandiose sense of self-importance, arrogance
  • preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance;
  • a belief they are special;
  • requiring excessive admiration;
  • a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectations of favourable treatment, or automatic compliance with their expectations;
  • someone who is interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to achieve their ends;
  • envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them.

2. Never satisfied: THE CONTROLLING LEADER

These are control freaks, masters of micromanagement. Their guiding principles are rules and regulations, order and planning. 

The controllers are obsessed with “musts”. They are committed at work, but their need for control makes them rigid and inflexible. They are constantly afraid of making mistakes.

The controlling leader is a threat to an agile organization and a threat to employees’ wellbeing, too. They are respectful to superiors, but uncompromising and demanding with subordinates. 

Working with controllers is a minefield.You never know when you are going to have to pay a heavy emotional price for infringing some unperceived, but inviolable standard,” warns prof. De Vries.

Some symptoms of controllers

  • rigid, inflexible and lacking in spontaneity;
  • stubborn;
  • workaholic;
  • excessively judgmental and moralistic;
  • self-punitive and self-denigrating;
  • grim, tense, joyless, angry, frustrated and irritable;
  • uncomfortable with emotions;
  • easily lost in detail;
  • tense, inhibited and reserved;
  • conventional, serious and formal. 

3. Always criticizing: THE DEPRESSIVE LEADER

Many top executives, being middle-aged, suffer from depression, reports Harvard Business Review

It’s true that some famous leaders like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., showed signs of mental instability, and may even have been suicidal. 

Sometimes they are up, sometimes they are down, but they are never quite well. Depressive leaders overestimate their difficulties and underestimate their capabilities. Their skepticism and cynicism discourages coworkers. 

Being judgmental, they put considerable pressure on others. Their colleagues may expect a heavy workload – but at the same time, be criticized and annoyed by frequent complaints about their behaviour.

Common patterns of depressives:

  • a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness;
  • physical symptoms such as a poor appetite, weight loss, lack of sexual interest and sleep problems;
  • loss of energy and chronic fatigue;
  • general apathy;
  • an inability to concentrate;
  • irritability;
  • joylessness;
  • guilt, remorse and wretchedness;
  • recurring thoughts of death and suicide.           


4.) For the love of power: THE ABRASIVE LEADER  

Because of their fearlessness, abrasive executives can be successful in the short term, but sooner or later they, or the company they are leading, will run into problems.  

Prepare for outbursts of rage - Abrasive leaders are inclined to act aggressively. They often draw parallels between the harsh Darwinian environment and business arena. 

For them it’s simple: the weak deserve no sympathy.

Consequently, they do not allow other people’s feelings to get in the way of results. Their personal success comes first, however they use “the good of the company” to mask it in a clever and skilful way.

Red flags of the abrasive leader:

  • strongly opinionated, narrow-minded, unbending and obstinate;
  • authoritarian, intolerant and prejudiced;
  • energetic, competitive and power-oriented;
  • rigidly self-disciplined;
  • setting extremely high standards for others;
  • fascinated by aggressive behaviour;
  • harsh, cruel and domineering;
  • given to humiliating or demeaning others;
  • fearful of the dominance of others;
  • quick to take offence. 

5. The disease of kings: THE PARANOID LEADER  

Is paranoia an essential part of a leader’s mindset? Andy Grove, the longtime chief executive and chairman of Intel, the world's largest chip maker, would say so. 

Of course, what he had in mind is not a paralyzing paranoia, or an irrational paranoia of everyone and everything.  

The paranoid urge may be hard to control once it has taken hold. “Its victims may succumb to pervasive and unwarranted suspicion of other people, misreading and misinterpreting their actions,” stresses Kets de Vries. 

Such leaders are often isolated and preoccupied with details, seeing hidden meanings and secret coalitions everywhere.

Some signs of paranoiacs are:

  • strongly opinionated, narrow-minded, unbending and obstinate;
  • hypersensitive;
  • quarrelsome and quick to anger;
  • self-righteous;
  • tense and unable to relax;
  • lacking a sense of humour;
  • unforgiving of insults, injuries and slights;
  • likely to make mountains out of molehills. 

6. Passive-aggressive jo-jo: THE NEGATIVISTIC LEADER

The negativistic leader is unable to say “no”. They agree to do an assignment, and then persistently fail to perform. They are prone to procrastination. 

Their unpredictable behavior makes them difficult colleagues and poor leaders. To their own inadequate performance, they add an inability to bring out the best in others or encourage them to higher levels of performance.

Recognize a negativist:

  • stubborn;
  • passive;
  • provocative;
  • inefficient;
  • covertly compliant and cordial;
  • covertly aggressive;
  • ambivalent about everything;
  • emotionally confused;
  • fearful of commitment;
  • unsure of their own desires;
  • indecisive;
  • contrary;
  • pessimistic. 


In leadership, charisma inspires and motivates. It is an impactful quality that can be dangerous, too. 

“When it is based on hypomanic behavior, it can create a type of leader-follower collusion known as folie à deux – a kind of shared madness,” says De Vries.

Hypomania, or elation, is what makes the leader special. Managers in this mood can energize, empower and move teams up. But the charismatic leader can easily slip into near-manic behavior. 

The highs are exciting, so people want to work with them. However, delusional leaders make destructive demands on their colleagues. 

If they want to keep the job, they have to stretch reality a little, or a lot, to stay close to the center of power. When it’s a dog-eat-dog situation, some people will do whatever it takes to stay in. Hypomanics can inspire people to do good, or evil.

What hypomaniacs have in common:

  • the ability to charm an audience, leaving it spellbound;
  • the ability to help people transcend their normal way of doing things;
  • can draw their followers into a collusive relationship;
  • may engage in self-destructive behaviour;
  • may show poor judgment while in an elevated mood;
  • prone to mildly manic states;
  • addicted to highs. 

8. Sadomasochistic workaholic: THE NEUROTIC IMPOSTOR

Neurotic impostors doubt their achievements, taking them as undeserved or accidental. They are constantly afraid of being seen as not good enough. 

They share a sado-masochistic pattern, also. The vicious cycles of these perfectionists look like a bit like this: “Set yourself extremely high goals that are impossible to achieve, and later, your self-criticism kicks in. Yes, you are incompetent! Work more.”

Signs of Neurotic impostors:

  • a constant dread of not living up to expectations;
  • workaholic;
  • poor at people development;
  • addicted to calling in the consultants;
  • perfectionist and set excessively high goals;
  • feel that every day at work is a test.

Toxic leadership as a silent killer 

So what can we do if we find that our leaders belong to one or more of these prototypes? It is not as rare as one might expect. 

Statistical figures hold toxic leadership responsible for a 48% decrease in work effort and a 38% decrease in work quality. Another survey by Life Meets Work consulting revealed some companies experienced as high as a 73% turnover due to a toxic leader.  

Toxic leadership takes a toll on the  mental and physical health of employees, it leads to coming to work late, resignation, stagnant innovation, low productivity, interdepartmental conflict, and a high turnover rate. 

In sum: it is an expensive anomaly! 

Useful Survival Tactics

Working with a toxic leader is never easy, and often we find ourselves in a miserable situation. Exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences are unpleasant and can have a profound effect on a person’s psyche. Here is the first-aid kit: 

1. Quit the job. Toxic people ruin peace, and a lack of peace means an increase in stress. The most important survival tactic is to get out as soon as you can. Cutting toxic people out of your life is a good thing. 

2. Stop blaming yourself (and your boss). It is difficult for others to change the “game”, because the selfish leader is very powerful and committed to keeping the system going.  

3. Deliver results. Toxic bosses don’t care about how you feel, they care about one thing — results, and especially those results that make them look good. By delivering results, you are reducing their negative focus on you.  

4. Never play the power game with a toxic leader. It is unlikely to beat them at their game. You are dealing with a professional. Instead use social control and spotlights, so more will become visible. Sometimes it is better to make problems bigger than to reduce or to avoid them.  

5. Fight power abuse on an organisational level. Structuring a safe work environment is an important part of prevention. Educate managers, create anonymous feedback channels, and strengthen ethical behaviour. 

6. Connect. Toxic bosses actively isolate us, making us feel stupid and incompetent and afraid to share our struggles with others, all so that they can maintain power. Find someone to talk to about it.

7. Create social control. Not from inside, because the organizational culture a toxic leader creates is based on fear and punishment. Do it from outside. Self-confidence, courage and creativity is needed for that.  

Food for thought: Is COVID19 giving toxic leadership wings? 

Crises bring out the best and worst of leaders. So, are tough, unpredictable times like the coronavirus pandemic calling our demons to come out? 

Some would say it is. Nassir Ghaemi, a Tufts University psychiatry professor stresses that the sanest of CEOs may be the perfect fit during prosperous times, allowing the past to predict the future.

But during a period of change, a different kind of leader—quirky, odd, even mentally ill—is more likely to see business opportunities that others cannot imagine.  

Others would disagree, believing that the toxic leader’s game is always the same, crisis or no crisis. 

Towards healthy leadership 

Sound, stable bosses are merchants of hope. Their mission is to help people become better than they think they are. 

Many would agree that the traditional power-grabbing, hierarchical, command and control, heartless style of leadership is dying out.  

We as individuals and as a society as such are more and more aware that time spent on self-reflection is precious. Healthy leaders are talented in self-observation and self-analysis. 

As De Vries puts it: “Those who accept the madness in themselves may be the healthiest leaders of all.”  

Hopefully, time is up for toxic leadership. 

New ideas & Best tips
How to create a productive and organized working place, where people love to perform