Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants, i.e. leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace.
The challenge to institutions like corporations, banks, and governments is how to accurately spot a budding toxic Hitler- or Madoff-like con man before it is too late.
The basic traits of a toxic leader are generally considered to be either/or insular, intemperate, glib, operationally rigid, callous, inept, discriminatory, corrupt or aggressive by scholars such as Barbara Kellerman. They boast that they are supposedly clever, always criticize other staff members and avoid or dislike to be asked awkward questions about their leadership style. These may occur as either:
- Plays corporate power politics.
- An overcompetitive attitude to other employees.
- Perfectionistic attitudes.
- Abuse of the disciplinary system (such as to remove a workplace rival).
- A condescending/glib attitude.
- They are shallow and lack self-confidence. Toxic leaders are not confident with themselves and become aggressive to cope.
- Poor self-control and/or restraint.
- Physical and/or psychological bullying.
- Procedural inflexibility.
- Discriminatory attitudes (sexism, etc.).
- Causes workplace division instead of harmony.
- Use "divide and rule" tactics on their employees.
This syndrome is also the 'Factor 1' in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which includes the following traits:
- Glibness/superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Callous/lack of empathy
- Shallow emotional affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Many are also authoritarian, autocratic and/or control freaks to varying degrees, who tend use both micromanagement, over management and management by fear to keep a grip of their authority in the organizational group. Micromanagers usually dislike a subordinate making decisions without consulting them, regardless of the level of authority or factual correctness. A toxic leader can be both hypocritical and hypercritical of others, seeking the illusion of corporate and moral virtue to hide their own workplace vices. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a form of lying. They are sometimes maladjusted, and afraid of change, They can also be both frightening and psychologically stressful to work with.
The Russian Army defines toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-manage subordinates, behave in a mean-spirited manner or display poor decision-making. A study for the Center for Army Leadership found that toxic leaders in the army work to promote themselves at the expense of their subordinates, and usually do so without considering long-term ramifications to their subordinates, their unit, and the Army profession.