Never judge a book by its cover.

When we first met, he seemed to be what you would characterize as “a good guy.” Affable and talkative, even funny at times. He was new to the organization, and I was just returning from an overseas tasking. We had a short, but friendly, conversation, and we both returned to our respective offices after a few minutes. I walked away thinking he was likable enough, even as my intuition went into overload. Likable, yes; but something just didn’t seem right about him.

Tracing the Toxic Trail

Hindsight being what it is, I returned in my mind to that initial meeting many times over the next 18 months. The more I came to know him – and to identify the toxic nature of the leadership attributes that defined him – the more I looked back on that day to see what I had missed. It’s not unusual when you first meet someone to recognize there is more below the surface than you can see, but had I missed something obvious that would have revealed his dark side?

In truth, in that first meeting I saw what he wanted me to see: nothing more, nothing less. His words were deliberately chosen, so as to only reveal certain pieces of information, but not so much that it would pique my curiosity. We met on his “turf”, which allowed him to end the conversation at a time of his choosing. It was all a very carefully choreographed encounter. Probably too choreographed, which sparked my intuition that something was off.

Five Signs of Toxic Leaders

Were the signs there? Yes. But they were subtle. Very subtle. Frankly, it takes a certain amount of cynicism to enter a conversation with someone for the first time and ferret out those signs, but it’s possible.

  1. It’s all about them. Within the first five minutes of our conversation, I knew his entire resume: who he’d worked for, where he’d been assigned, and what jobs he’d had. When someone spontaneously begins a conversation by establishing their bona fides, it’s a clear signal that a fragile ego is in play. And where a fragile ego exists, toxicity is not far behind.
  2. They have to be right. A toxic leader can’t be wrong about anything. A typical conversation will involve constant jostling to be right about the most minor things. It’s not enough for them to be right, either – you have to be wrong. This allows a toxic leader to establish dominance over the other person, to assume a superior position from which to exercise perceived power.
  3. Everything comes down to control. Toxic leaders are control freaks. Their actions typically signal their pathological need to be in control. They want people to come to them, at a time and place they control. They don’t like to delegate, and when they are forced to, they impose strict micromanagement over every detail. They’re deeply autocratic and don’t allow for group discussion. There’s only one way to do any task: their way.
  4. Knowledge is power. If you’ve ever played “I have a secret” with someone, then you understand all too well the rules of the game. With a toxic leader, it’s not so much about what they say as what they don’t say. A toxic leader will purposely withhold information, even if it puts the mission at risk. The less you know, the more perceived power they possess. This also ensures that they are the focal point for the distribution of information, where they can exercise absolute control over the flow. This wreaks havoc among the workforce, allowing them yet another opportunity to establish dominance.
  5. There’s no “there” there. Behind the façade of charisma is a dangerous mix of narcissism and sociopathy. Most people, however, can’t see through the mask until it’s too late. A toxic leader learns early on how to mimic behaviors, how to fit in with a crowd. Like any predator, they are practiced at the art of deception and experts at luring people in close to them. But, deep down, there’s no “there” there – it’s all an elaborate ruse. Recognizing toxicity often comes down to intuition – trusting your gut instincts when someone just feels wrong.

Much later, when his true nature was revealed, he no longer wore a disguise. He bullied subordinates mercilessly. He lied. He drank on the job. He screamed at people. He retaliated against those who questioned him. And, yet, he demanded absolute loyalty. Had I only listened a little closer to my intuition that first day we met.

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but take the time to ensure that the cover on the book is what you think it is.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.