Toxic Leaders and Bosses - Lipman-Blumen

Charismatic Leadership
Knowledge Center


Saskia Constantinou
Journalist, Cyprus

Toxic Leaders and Bosses - Lipman-Blumen

Have you had to deal with a toxic boss? Someone who makes your life a misery? Someone who hounds you and who seems determined to make it miserable enough for you to say –“Ok you win, I’m leaving!” The truth is that you are not leaving your job, you are actually leaving the boss.

Leadership expert and author Jean Lipman-Blumen defines a "toxic leader" as: "an individual who, by virtue of his/her destructive [toxic] behaviors and dysfunctional [toxic] personal qualities, inflicts serious and enduring harm on individuals, groups, organizations, communities and nations that they lead".
She states in her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders” that “we commonly accept toxic leaders because we fear that we are incapable of overthrowing such strong figures all by ourselves.” Interestingly, she doesn’t place all the blame on the leadership, but rather on the followers who enable these misguided leaders to rise in power.

Lipman-Blumen highlights political leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao as well as some toxic corporate leaders including Dennis Kozlowski, Bernard Ebbers and Sam Waksal who went from heroes to criminals. She questions why though, employees defend their bosses despite it costing them their jobs?

Lipman-Blumen believes that the toxic leader exploits their followers’ deep-seated psychological motivations which include the needs for authority, security, the need to feel special as well as the fear of ostracism. Toxic leaders typically offer an inspiring vision which followers are eager to go along with.

What makes toxic bosses toxic?

1. They micromanage and don’t give you the freedom or trust to actually do what you are trained and employed to do. You feel constantly spied on, and have to account for every second of everyday.
2. They have the uncanny ability to turn colleagues against one another. This makes for tension within the department causing stress and discomfort. It can be as obvious as loud shouting to the even more disconcerting type of constant berating through written emails.
3. They are only interested in themselves and making themselves look good to senior management. So, they might take credit for work you have done, or constantly report you to the Directors to make themselves look loyal. They might take credit for work you have done, or constantly report you to the Directors to make themselves look loyal. They are never prepared to listen and seem impervious to your existence.
4. Probably one of the worst characteristics is that they do not listen and it is almost impossible to communicate with them. They are not interested in collaboration or alleviating any issues, it’s all totally irrelevant to them. By retaining power, they undermine potential successors.

Chronic exposure to a toxic boss can actually make you physically as well as mentally ill.

Are there solutions?

1. It might seem easier to write and say than to do – but it is essential to remain calm in order to overcome the mental fatigue which is imposed on you for so many hours during the day.
2. To counteract the loss of creativity in a toxic zone, change your focus and use it to either study, write or spark other new ideas through reading.
3. Another side effect is taking your work toxicity home – ensure that you mentally deactivate yourself the minute you leave the building. Use the car or bus/train ride home to decompress so that your family doesn’t live the stress with you.
4. Have you scheduled a meeting with the HR department? Is it possible to speak to anyone above the toxic boss?
5. In the worst case, you can leave. Do your planning carefully, if possible find something else prior, but I’ve found the saying ‘As one door closes, another opens’ to be very true. It might also be the time for your entrepreneurial skills to shine.

Although it might be a frightening prospect, it is important to take some action. We spend far too much time at work, to be unhappy. Remember that the most important factor is to regain lost control.

In Lipman-Blumen’s words “the best way to repel toxic leaders is to recruit nontoxic leaders as they achieve and bestow freedom instead of spreading poison.”

Lipman-Blumen, J. (2004), The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians--and How We Can Survive Them, Oxford University Press.


Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

Dealing with a Toxic Boss

Thanks for this excellent topic. An obvious route to deal with a severely toxic boss is indeed to se...


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