As my wife and I began to experience a particularly toxic boss, we had little understanding of how someone could be incredibly malicious in one moment and act like our best friend soon after. One moment Betty was yelling at my wife and that evening she was all charm and sweetness. The interplay of kindness and cruelty is a common experience of those who face off with toxic leaders.
These confusing behaviors make it difficult at times to identify abusive individuals. Are they toxic or my best friend? The American Psychiatric Association publication, DSM-IV-TR describes various personality disorders, one of the possible problems a toxic boss may have. The Association maintains that a personality disorder is “an enduring pattern of inner experience that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.” The literature I have read agrees that a personality disorder is a consistent attitude, not simply a one-time failure to act nicely.
Most writers would not use the term, “evil” to describe these people, but Christian psychologist, Dan Allender does. He says, “All of us are capable of doing evil things, but evil people are driven by a self-interest that is so heartless, conscious, and cruel that it delights in stealing from others the lifeblood of their soul.” He goes on to say,
“One awful, abusive event does not make a person evil, but when it represents a repetitive pattern of excessive disregard for others (mockery) and wanton, vicious refusal to look at the damage done (arrogance), then one can ascertain a significant inclination to evil.”
Guy Greenfield and Brooks Faulkner further define evil people, saying, “The central defect of evil persons is not their sin but their refusal to acknowledge it.” The research is clear that these dysfunctional people are deeply unbalanced. As Christians we know the world is fallen. Every person is sinful and will say or do mean things at times. But, Allender and others make it clear those who truly have personality disorders are consistently “driven” by their self-interest.
Whether the toxic leader has a personality disorder, or is better diagnosed as an “abuser,” which is not the same thing according to some psychologists, they are exceptional manipulators and refuse to humbly admit their failures [see this blog].
Though the bosses of each of my study participants had their own characteristic weaknesses and most did not all readily describe their supervisor as “evil,” none of the leaders acknowledged their sins that were destroying relationships with their subordinates. None were described as “self-evaluating” or “humble.” It was a rarity that the leader changed his behavior for any extended length of time after being confronted.
A Layman’s Diagnosis
Psychologists assure us that diagnosing psychological dysfunction is not for the layperson. Alan Goldman warned, true diagnosis usually can only be made by a sufficiently trained individual. However, multiple texts provide useful descriptions of the characteristics found in various toxic personalities. This makes it evident that the layman can at least try to understand the toxic personality of his boss and then be better prepared to interact or disengage with the boss.
Alpha males, queen bees, abusers, bullies, autocrats, narcissists, psychopaths, and Machiavellians are among the many descriptives of toxic leaders found in leadership positions. Some of these are considered “disorders” by the AMA and some are not. However, each creates havoc in the Christian organization. Each is incredibly destructive.
For a more extensive discussion on personality disorders and other such rot, click on this link.
Much of the research agrees; these leaders can be very charming and gregarious. They can be friendly and driven. Machiavellian individuals can sell their vision and convince others quite readily. It is no wonder that they are often leaders of organizations. They can be very impressive individuals.
When I began to interview Eugene, a manager in an international mission organization, I was surprised to hear him describe the CEO as friendly, easy to get along with, visionary, and gregarious. I asked him how a toxic leader could be described this way.
Over the course of the interview, it became apparent Eugene received affable treatment for most of his ten years in relationship with the leader much as we had in our organization. However, other employees did not. In the end, Eugene had the unfortunate experience of tasting of the bitterness others had experienced all along.
It is common that toxic leaders are very specific in their abusive strategies, just as psychologists describe abusers. Were they continually rude, abusive, manipulative, divisive, deceptive, and isolating, it would be rare that they would retain their positions of power.
However, the leaders of my interviewees wielded extraordinary emotional control over their subjects by showing charm and concern for their subordinates, continually creating a fog of confusion, called by some psychologists “gaslighting.” And usually, boards were dazzled by their skills and unwilling to bring help to those under their destructive leadership.
Some interpret the diagnosis of personality disorder as meaning the individual has no responsibility for his actions. He is just wired that way. He can’t help it. However, biblically these badly broken people have just as much responsibility for how they interact with others as anyone else. Though they may be broken by the sin at the fall of man in the garden, or by parental abuse been turned into monsters, they are still broken by the sin for which all men are responsible. They are in need of faith and repentance just as all of us are in need. And, organizations have a responsibility before God to stop them in their destruction.
 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR, 689.
 Ibid., 686.
 Allender, Dan B., and Tremper Longman III. Bold Love. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014. 233.
 Ibid., 238.
 Greenfield, Guy, and Brooks Faulkner. The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks. Baker Books, 2001. 51, Kindle.
 Goldman, Alan. Transforming Toxic Leaders. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 2009. 11, Kindle.
 Siegel, Jacob P. “Machiavellianism, MBA’s and Managers: Leadership Correlates and Socialization Effect.” Academy of Management Journal 16, no. 3 (1973): 405.
 Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkley Books, 2002. 68–69.
 Stern, Robin. “Are You Being Gaslighted?” Psychology Today (blog), May 19, 2009. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/power-in-relationships/200905/are-you-being-gaslighted.