What’s Their Problem: Diagnosing Toxic Leaders

ToxicThe following is an academic study of personality disorders and other behavioral problems toxic leaders commonly have. A full diagnosis of an individual should be made by a trained professional, but these descriptions can help those unfortunate enough to be a subordinate to a toxic leader.

Alpha Males & Queen Bees

Alpha males are described as leaders “who aren’t happy unless they’re the top dogs.” Ludeman and Erlandson, who study and consult with “alpha males” in business management, argue that “70 percent of all top executives” can be classified as alpha.[1] Chamorro-Premuzic suggests one reason for both the large numbers of leaders with these personality traits and the frequent support they receive is the traits may appear positive such as “extraversion, openness to new experience, curiosity, and self-esteem.” Ludeman says, these leaders are “highly intelligent, confident, and successful.” But, the authors say they are “typically stubborn and resistant to feedback.”

According to Peggy Drexler, the term “queen bee” was coined forty years ago in a University of Michigan study of promotion rates among women in the workplace. These women leaders were “obsessed with maintaining their authority.”[2] Drexler’s article, discussing the queen bee, argues they create unique dysfunctions in the workplace, “What makes these queen bees so effective and aggravating is that they are able to exploit female vulnerabilities that men may not see, using tactics that their male counterparts might never even notice.”[3] She says queen bees do not seek the development of their subordinates’ talents, but rather undermine “their professional standing.”[4]


Bonam, author of Leading from the Second Chair, says, “If you have the misfortune of working for a first chair who is a true autocrat, then you may find that any disagreement is seen as insubordination.”[3] Jean Lipman-Blumen says authoritarianism is “a hallmark of toxic leaders.”[4] The prevalence of authoritarian leaders within the Christian ministry is extensive according to Ronald Enroth.[5]

The literature suggests authoritarian leaders are unwilling to receive criticism from their followers. Allender notes that the arrogance of the autocrat “creates a mood of ‘follow me or get lost.’”[6] De Vries and Miller, describing the paranoid organization, explain the leader has a “tendency to centralize power,” and leaders “who feel threatened generally like to have a good deal of control over their subordinates.”[7] Greenfield and Faulkner agree, saying, “An authoritarian pastor perceives himself as boss of the staff and gives orders that are never to be questioned.” Where there are disagreements, “there is no room for any input from staff members.”[8] Herrington, et. al., say authoritarian leaders are emotionally dependent on others. As a result, “Others are there to serve the leader’s purpose.”[9]

Why do authoritarian leaders lack willingness to hear other ideas? Lipman-Blumen argues, “Some leaders fall into the trap of believing in their own wisdom” as their followers become more and more dependent on them.[4] Within the Christian church setting, some suggest followers “can’t criticize leaders without being critical of God.”[10] Therefore, Enroth adds, an authoritarian “leader is beyond confrontation.”[5] A leader may have “exclusionary proclivities,” according to Lipman-Blumen and “they are unlikely to take counsel or correction from those outside the charmed circle,” the secondary leadership of the organization.[4]

Autocrats have an unwillingness to hear counsel from subordinates and they seek to control followers. Edmondson argues authoritarian leaders use fear to control. And she says, “Control reinforces certainty and predictability.”[11] This form of management style was common in the past according to Frank Barrett who explains, “We have grown up with a variety of models of organizations, most of which have relied to some degree on a mechanistic view of top-down approaches to change.” This “top-down” approach emphasizes “routines and rules” for organizational control.[12]

However, Rob Hay suggests that the “authoritarian command and control approach of the old style business has given way to self-managing teams…and general autonomy.”[13] The authors of “Resilient Ministry” suggest authority, developed through relationships, is more important than the formal authority practiced by autocrats. “While we don’t disregard the importance of formal authority and the role it plays in accomplishing God’s purposes, we suggest that relational authority trumps formal authority much of the time,” according to Burns, et. al.[14]


“The authoritarian religious leader is predominantly narcissistic,” according to Oates.[15] Langberg explains the name, “Narcissist” comes from the Greek mythological story of a young, handsome youth who had a “heart that was inaccessible to love.”[16]

One of Narcissist’s “rejected lovers” prayed that he be punished for his “lack of empathy.” Nemesis, the god of retribution to whom she prayed, “caused Narcissist to see his reflection in the water and fall completely in love with himself.”  As he was unable to access his reflection, he “died of unrequited love.”

It is common for narcissists to occupy leadership positions. According to Chamorro-Premuzic, “An impressive 15-year longitudinal study found that individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics gravitated towards the top of the organizational hierarchy.”[17] Chandler and Fields explain, “Narcissistic leaders may pass selection screening because they possess strengths such as the ability to present a vision in a charismatic fashion, inspire others with rhetoric, and thereby persuade others to follow.”[18]

There have been many studies on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder according to George Simon, author of the article, “Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love,” despite the American Psychiatric Association removing the disorder from the DSM-5.[19] He says, “Too many folks who know all too well how painful it is to live or deal with a narcissist” are seeking information on narcissism. He goes on to say, “Because ours is the age of permissiveness and especially ‘entitlement,’ narcissism has flourished, and just about everyone has a story to tell about dealing with a narcissist.”

Narcissistic individuals are described as “conceited, boastful or pretentious,” according to the Mayo Clinic.[20] Chamorro-Premuzic says narcissists have “unrealistic feelings of grandiosity, an inflated – though often unstable and insecure – sense of self-worth, and a selfish sense of entitlement coupled with little consideration for others.[17] Oates defines empathy as “putting oneself in another person’s place and experiencing that person’s needs as primary,” and lacking this other-centeredness is a common characteristic of narcissism.[15] Narcissists often “belittle or look down on people” they “perceive as inferior.”[20] “As a result…they naturally conclude they should come first: their needs (often lavish), their image, their success,” argue Chapman, White, and Myra.[21]

According to Chandler and Fields, “Narcissistic leaders…blame others for their failures.”[18] They “usually have no interest in self-insight or change.”[22] Oates agrees, saying, “The capacity for self-evaluation and self-criticism is absent.”[15] Subordinates are simply “expected to provide blind support.”[18] If employees do not act in support of the narcissist, they become “increasingly expendable,” according to Oates.

Abuse and Bullying

Literature covering a broad range of relational abuse or bullying from domestic to workplace is extensive. However, most work done in this area of study is secular according to Jeff Crippen. He argues, “The secular world has more wisdom by far about abuse than does the Christian church.”[23] He explains, in A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church! that his own journey of understanding abuse was through books by secular social scientists.

According to a study of workplace bullying by the Ventura County California Grand Jury, bullying is defined as “an abuse or misuse of power that manifests itself in ‘behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends, or humiliates a worker.’”[24]

The authors of “An Individual Psychology Approach to Underlying Factors of Workplace Bullying” define bullying as “having unequal power and about being exposed to negative acts over and over again without being able to defend oneself in the actual situation.”[25] A Workplace Bullying Institute publication describes a variety of behaviors that are classified as bullying such as “being shouted at or sworn at, being excessively monitored, being isolated or excluded from activities, being threatened, [or] being physically intimidated.”

WBI says a large percentage (38%) of co-workers do nothing to help the target of bullying in the workplace, effectively isolating the victim.[26] Other bullying behaviors noted in “Exploring Victims’ Experiences of Workplace Bullying: A Grounded Theory Approach” were “forcing to work overtime,” “overruling decisions, removing responsibility,” attacking their “professional status,” giving “persistent criticism,” using “manipulation,” and “undermining, and false accusations.”[27]

Lundy Bancroft, a former codirector of the United State’s first program for abusive men, contrasts abuse with love saying,

“Genuine love means respecting the humanity of the other person, wanting what is best for him or her…this kind of love is incompatible with abuse and coercion.”[28]

Bancroft lists a variety of characteristic behaviors and thinking patterns of the abuser, saying they are “controlling,” “entitled,” “possessive,” and “manipulative;”  abusers twist the truth, think of themselves as “superior,” confuse “love and abuse,” seek to present a “good public image,” feel “justified” in their thoughts and action, and commonly “deny and minimize” their behavior. He suggests, much the same as Namie, that abusers isolate their victim to retain control. According to Einarsen, et. al., abuse is identified as “behaviors such as intimidating followers, belittling, or humiliating them in public.”[18] Robert Sutton agrees, noting the victims of abusers in the workplace “feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled.”[29] He also suggests the abuser normally aims “his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful.”

Many of these characteristics are found in descriptions of personality disorders. According to Clive Boddy, author of the article, “Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace,” there is significant “cross-over” between psychopaths and bullies in the workplace. He says, “The traits of narcissism, lack of self-regulation, lack of remorse, and lack of conscience have been identified as those displayed by bullies. These traits are shared with psychopathy.”[30]

Robert Hare, author of This Charming Psychopath, says psychopaths have a “remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior.”[31] He also notes they are “deceitful and manipulative.” In addition, Narcissists are described as having a sense of “entitlement” and “superiority,” characteristics of an abuser or bully.[32]

However, Bancroft argues, though abusive individuals may have personality disorders, an abuser’s “value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.”[28] He notes recent research shows mental illness occurrence even in “violent abusers is not high.” Bancroft concludes, “Mental illness doesn’t cause abusiveness any more than alcohol does.” Though he provides a chapter in Why Does He Do That called the “Process of Change,” discussing counseling techniques and encouragement for treating abusers, he also notes, “It is more common for abusers to stay the same or get worse.”

Psychopathic Personality Disorder

A recent study in Australia “found that about one in five corporate executives are psychopaths – roughly the same rate as among prisoners.”[33] Some estimate there are “three times” the number of corporate board members in these categories than among the general population. Unfortunately, it is estimated the cost of psychopathy to American taxpayers is approximately “$460 billion a year.”[34]

Psychopathy is “characterized by high levels of aggression in response to frustration,” according to Zeigler-Hill and Vonk in their article, “Dark Personality Features and Emotion Dysregulation.”[35] Ross, Benning, and Adams described those with the disorder as “callous, calculating, manipulative, and deceitful.”[36] Robert Hare suggests, “Psychopaths seem proud of their ability to lie.”[31] Hare also says,

Their lack of remorse or guilt is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior, to shrug off personal responsibility for actions that cause family, friends, and others to reel with shock and disappointment. They usually have handy excuses for their behavior, and in some cases, deny that it happened at all.

In addition, Psychopaths have a lack of compassion for others and are unable to show concerns for the needs of others, according to Jonason, Kaufman, Webster, and Geher.[37] Boddy agrees, saying they “have no conscience, few emotions, and an inability to have any feelings or empathy for other people.”[38] Simon adds, “Most researchers and theorists…view psychopaths as individuals devoid of conscience.”[19]


According to Chamorro-Premuzic, “Machiavellian individuals are politically savvy and good at networking and managing upwards,” making them, like those with narcissistic and psychopathic traits, often part of upper management of organizations. He suggests they have “superficial charm.” [17]

However, “Individuals who scored high on the Machiavellian scale were found to manipulate more, win more, were persuaded less, and persuaded others more in face-to-face interactions,” according to Jacob Siegel, author of “Machiavellianism, MBA’s and Managers: Leadership Correlates and Socialization Effects.”[39]

Chamorro-Premuzic agrees, stating they are deceitful and “ruthless.”[17] Siegler and Vonk argue Machiavellianistic individuals have little consideration for the emotional impact of their decisions, saying they “do whatever is necessary to achieve one’s goals without a great deal of concern for the emotional consequences of their behaviors.”[39] According to these researchers, this does not mean they are unable to identify the emotional states of others, but “they do not experience emotional discomfort when exposed to the suffering of others,” making them lacking in empathy.

[1] Ludeman, Kate, and Eddie Erlandson. Alpha Male Syndrome. 1st ed. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2006. 58.

[2] Drexler, Peggy. “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.” The Wall Street Journal. March 2, 2013, United States edition, sec. C1.

[3] Bonem, Mike, and Roger Patterson. Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

[4] Lipman-Blumen, Jean. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians–and How We Can Survive Them. Oxford University Press, 2004.

[5] Enroth, Ronald M. Churches That Abuse. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993.

[6] Allender, Dan B., and Tremper Longman III. Bold Love. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.

[7] Kets de Vries, Manfred, and Danny Miller. The Neurotic Organization: Diagnosing and Changing Counterproductive Styles of Management. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1984.

[8] Greenfield, Guy, and Brooks Faulkner. The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks. Baker Books, 2001.

[9] Herrington, Jim. The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

[10] Chrnalogar, Mary Alice. Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches That Abuse. Revised. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.

[11] Edmondson, Amy C. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

[12] Barrett, Frank J. Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

[13] Hay, Rob. “The Toxic Mission Organisation: Fiction or Fact?” Encounters Mission Ezine, no. 2 (October 2004): 8.

[14] Burns, Bob, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. IVP Books, 2013.

[15] Oates, Wayne E. Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1987.

[16] Langberg, Diane. Narcissism And The System It Breeds — Diane Langberg. Accessed March 7, 2016. https://soundcloud.com/kendall-beachey/narcissism-and-the-system-it.

[17] Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. “Why Bad Guys Win at Work.” Harvard Business Review, November 2, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/11/why-bad-guys-win-at-work.

[18] Schyns, Birgit, and Tiffany Hansbrough, eds. When Leadership Goes Wrong: Destructive Leadership, Mistakes, and Ethical Failures. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010.

[19]  George K. Simon, Ph.D., “Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love,” CounsellingResource.com: Psychology, Therapy & Mental Health Resources, accessed March 29, 2016, http://counsellingresource.com/features/2014/10/06/pathological-self-love.

[20] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” Mayo Clinic, November 18, 2014, accessed February 10, 2015, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/definition/con-20025568.

[21] Gary Chapman, Paul E. White, and Harold Myra, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2014).

[22] Arabi, Shahida. “20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You.” Thought Catalog (blog), June 30, 2016. http://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2016/06/20-diversion-tactics-highly-manipulative-narcissists-sociopaths-and-psychopaths-use-to-silence-you/.

[23] Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2012).

[24] Ventura County (CA) Grand Jury. “Bullying In the Workplace.” County of Ventura, California, May 24, 2011. http://workplacebullying.org/multi/pdf/ventura_gj_report.pdf.

[25] Astrauskaite, Milda, Roy M. Kern, and Guy Notelaers. “An Individual Psychology Approach to Underlying Factors of Workplace Bullying.” The Journal of Individual Psychology 70, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 220–44.

[26] Namie, Gary. “2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.” Workplace Bullying Institute. Accessed November 1, 2016. http://www.workplacebullying.org.

[27] Ciby, Mariam, and R.P. Raya. “Exploring Victims’ Experiences of Workplace Bullying: A Grounded Theory Approach.” Vikalpa: The Journal of Decision Makers 39, no. 2 (June 2014): 69–81.

[28] Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkley Books, 2002.

[29] Sutton, Robert I. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. 1st ed. New York: Business Plus, 2007.

[30] Clive R. Boddy, “Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace,” Journal of Business Ethics 100, no. 3 (May 2011): 368, doi:http://dx.doi.org.search.covenantseminary.edu/10.1007/s10551-010-0689-5.

[31] “This Charming Psychopath.” Psychology Today. Accessed March 18, 2016. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199401/charming-psychopath.

[32] Lipinski, John, and Laura M. Crothers, eds. Bullying in the Workplace: Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies. 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

[33] Pearlman, Jonathan. “1 in 5 CEOs Are Psychopaths, Study Finds.” The Telegraph, 11:38, sec. 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/13/1-in-5-ceos-are-psychopaths-australian-study-finds/.

[34] Jennifer Kahn, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?,” The New York Times, May 11, 2012, Accessed November 22, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/magazine/can-you-call-a-9-year-old-a-psychopath.html.

[35] Zeigler-Hill, Virgil, and Jennifer Vonk. “Dark Personality Features and Emotion Dysregulation.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 34, no. 8 (October 2015): 692–704. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org.search.covenantseminary.edu/101521jscp2015348692.

[36] Scott R. Ross, Stephen D. Benning, and Zachary Adams, “Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction Are Endemic to Secondary Psychopathy: An Examination in Criminal Offenders and Noninstitutionalized Young Adults,” Journal of Personality Disorders 21, no. 4 (August 2007).

[37] Peter K. Jonason, Scott Barry Kaufman, Gergory D. Webster, and Glenn Geher. “What Lies Beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied Relations with the Big Five.” Individual Differences Research 11, no. 2 (June 1, 2013): 81–90.

[38] Boddy, Clive R. “Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace.” Journal of Business Ethics 100, no. 3 (May 2011): 367–79. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org.search.covenantseminary.edu/10.1007/s10551-010-0689-5.

[39] Siegel, Jacob P. “Machiavellianism, MBA’s and Managers: Leadership Correlates and Socialization Effect.” Academy of Management Journal 16, no. 3 (1973): 404–11.

4 thoughts on “What’s Their Problem: Diagnosing Toxic Leaders

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