The incidence of toxic leadership and organisations appears to be on the increase, as deduced from mostly anecdotal but also some empirical evidence. If this cancer of toxicity is growing unabated, it would endanger in no uncertain terms people and organisational well being, as well as sustainable organisational performance and success, in the present and going into the future. A pressing need hence exits to understand the nature, dynamics and evolution of toxic leadership and organisations, in a holistic and systemic way.
by Theo H. Veldsman
The purpose of this article is to make a contribution towards an integrated understanding of toxic leadership and organisations. The article draws on insights offered by authors such as Steven Appelbaum, Kets De Vries, Dianne Dyck, Peter Frost, Barbara Kellerman, Jean Lipman-Blumen, Kathie Pelletier, Jeffrey Pfeffer, David Roy-Girad, Michael Walton, Birgit Schyns, Jan Schilling and Jarret Shalhoop.
The following themes are addressed in the article:
Theme 1: Defining “toxic leadership and organisations”
Theme 2: The make-up of toxic leadership and organisations
Theme 3: The dynamics of toxic leadership and organisations
Theme 4: A proposed integrated, systemic and dynamic map of the Toxic Leadership and Organisational Landscape
Theme 5: A suggested research agenda
Theme 1: Defining toxic leadership and organisations
The word “toxic” comes from the German “toxikon” which means “arrow poison”. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (=poison) in a targeted way (=arrow). Toxic leadership refers to ongoing, deliberate, intentional actions (the “arrow”) by a leader(ship) to undermine the sense of dignity, self worth and efficacy of an individual(s) (the “poison”), resulting in destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences. Such destructive actions may be physical, psychosocial and/or spiritual (i.e., meaning/ purpose) related. Toxic leadership thus represents the “dark” side of leadership. A Toxic Organisation is an organisation which by its very nature and dynamics erodes, disables and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of its organisational members in permanent and deliberate ways. In other words, an organisation being metaphorically a “poison pill” to organisational members.
In contrast to toxic leadership, healthy, authentic leadership isleader(ship) that nurtures and affirms the dignity, worth and efficacy of an individual(s), concurrently creating enabling, empowering and meaningful work experiences. Correspondingly, a healthy, authentic organisation is an organisation that nurtures and grows the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of its organisational members, making and leaving its members better persons than when they entered the organisation.
Work place bullying– a popular research area in recent times - is a similarconcept to toxic leadership, but more centred on individual, one-on-one, physical and/or emotional abuse by any one individual (including a leader) on another person(s). Hence work place bullying is but one form of toxic leadership when the bullying is done by leadership.
But then, what is the relationship between leadership toxicity and leadership competence/ incompetence? Leadership toxicity and competence/ incompetence are not directly related. Competent – getting results - and incompetent leadership alike may manifest toxic leadership. If a narrower demarcation of leadership competence is used, i.e. only focusing on technical/ professional competencies, then a toxic leader in this narrower sense may still be seen as competent because they are still “delivering the goods”, especially if a short term view is taken. Over the longer term, however, their short term success is unsustainable.
It may, however, be argued that if a comprehensive, long term, view is taken of leadership competence - which would include personal attributes, technical/ professional competencies, values and attitudes, and conduct - toxic leaders are incompetent because they are not competent across all domains of a well rounded leader. The premise of this article is that the more comprehensive view of leadership competence should be taken. Thus toxic leadership, regardless of their level of technical/ professional competence, implies incompetence. »