Two things converged to motivate this blog post. First, the previous post on toxic leadership was well received by my readers. Folks are obviously ready to consider this topic. In the second place, I listened to a 7-minute video this morning by Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky. He was defending his position on gun control, and during his monologue, he said some things that made me think about toxic people, which naturally includes toxic leaders. Throughout the day, therefore, I've been reflecting about the matter of toxic leaders and asking myself, "What are the ingredients of a toxic leader? If I were going to make a toxic leader, what would I need?" I believe three ingredients are essential.
1. I will need to deconstruct moral authority - If I'm going to create toxicity in a person, then it is imperative that I remove or marginalize his/her sense of obligation to moral authority. Whether this moral authority is God or some philosophical standard of right and wrong, if I deconstruct it, then I remove any restrictions or limitations on behavior. Once restrictions and limitations are gone, then there is nothing to stop the toxins. Adolf Hitler was forced to play by the rules of democracy and submit to the moral and legal authorities of Germany . . . that is until he came to absolute power. Once the restrictions and authorities were removed, he became a toxic monster.
2. I will need to diminish respect for human dignity - As long as a leader considers his employees as human beings possessing innate dignity, then he/she cannot treat them with contempt, disdain, or worse. However, as soon as I can succeed in caricaturing employees as something less than human or as mere pawns or playthings to be manipulated at will, then, again, restrictions and limitations to behavior are removed. Once more, Hitler is a great example. As soon as he dehumanized the Jewish people, he felt justified in murdering them by the millions.
3. I will need to encourage narcissism - It is difficult to treat others poorly when one is concerned about their needs and well-being. If, however, I can create a preoccupation with self, then I will be well on the way to generating toxicity. Narcissism and empathy are mutually exclusive. Once I create a narcissist, the toxic leader is sure to follow. Hitler needs no explanation on this point.
Of course, it is easy to point the finger when it comes to identifying toxic leaders. The real challenge is avoiding toxicity in our own leadership. As I said in my previous blog, there is no easy way to do this--one has to be patient, diligent, and intentional. But for those who put in the hard work of becoming better leaders--for those who remain true to their moral authority, who maintain respect for human dignity, and who identify and correct any narcissistic tendencies--there is hope, not only for the leader, but also for those who follow.