I thought I understood toxic leadership until the day I realized that I didn’t. During my first decade in uniform, I’d seen many of the attributes we typically associate with toxic leaders, from uncontrolled emotional outbursts to the systematic abuse of subordinates. I’d seen the nauseating self-love, the caustic paranoia, and the mania for absolute control over every minute detail. But I’d never seen them all in one place, at one time, in one person.

That all changed—along with my concept of the true scope and scale of toxicity—while conducting an official investigation into disciplinary actions taken by a junior leader commanding at the company level. Although my initial charge focused on a single individual, the more I learned, the worse it got. The abuse of power was widespread, and the officer had established a Stalin-esque climate of paranoia and fear, where the most minute slight could result in career-ending punishment.

When I finally interviewed the leader at the center of the investigation, what I heard were the delusions of someone so drunk with power that they actually believed they were performing some kind of beneficial service to the organization. Their behavior should be emulated, not criticized. Their results should be respected, not censured. Those who questioned their leadership were weak and had no business leading troops.


We have a tendency to overuse the “toxic” label. Leaders who set and enforce tough standards are often labeled toxic. Leaders who seem overly stoic can be written off as toxic. Leaders who appear to exercise a lot of control over the organization may be called toxic. However, no single trait defines a toxic leader. Rather, it is a combination of traits that, together, demonstrate the sociopathy that commonly defines toxic leadership.

1. Narcissism.

The self-love is so thick you can taste it. Toxic leaders crave the spotlight and bathe in the adoration of those around them. Their opinion is the only one that matters, and they make that unequivocally clear.

2. Lack of empathy.

Toxic leadership is rooted in sociopathy. As such, toxic leaders have low emotional intelligence and struggle aligning with the feelings of others. Their decisions are purely pragmatic and don’t typically account for others’ wellbeing.

3. Deception.

Toxic leaders are deeply manipulative and will string together whatever series of lies are necessary to get what they want. This is also a weakness, since they often get lost in their own lies, forgetting who they’ve told what and exactly which lies they’ve spun. At which point…

4. Gaslighting becomes a problem.

The minute they realize they’re caught in a lie, they will deflect back onto others. They told you and you forgot. You misheard something. Clearly you misunderstood. But it’s never their fault. They don’t make mistakes. But you do.

5. Control.

In their minds, toxic leaders are so sure that they are right that they have little patience for, or tolerance of, those around them. They know what needs to be done and they want absolute control over every detail. And the minute they feel that control threatened, you can expect to find…

6. Micromanagement around the corner.

Micromanagement is an outgrown of the need for control and a lack of trust in others. In the eyes of a toxic leader, there’s no better person to complete an important—or unimportant—task than them. Micromanagement allows them to retain absolute control absolutely.

7. Closed to feedback.

Some people shy away from constructive criticism. That doesn’t make them toxic, it makes them human. On the other hand, a toxic leader has no need for feedback because they are always right. What possible use can feedback have for them? They have nothing to learn.

8. Bullying and intimidation.

Two of the most insidiously powerful tools in the toxic leader playbook are bullying and intimidation. They can be subtle or overt. They can come in a variety of forms. But they are fundamentally driven by their absolute belief in…

9. Fear as motivation.

Toxic leaders throughout history have used fear as a means of motivating their subordinates. Keeping people worried about their next promotion, their coming evaluation, or even their job ensures total control. And toxic leaders live for control.

10. Unquestioned loyalty.

Toxic leaders demand nothing less than unquestioned loyalty. And there’s no better sign of that than the sea of sycophants that typically orbit a toxic leader, nodding away in unison like a bunch of drinking bird toys.


Despite what we hear, it’s not always easy to identify a toxic leader. However, the data tells a story. When we take the time to listen to what the data tells us, that story may reveal more about leadership than any other source. But we have to take the time to really listen, to find the patterns in the data. Taken alone, a single data point won’t be definitive; tie those data points together and the pattern emerges.

High turnover is affected by any number of factors. But if you don’t work in the restaurant industry and your turnover rates are consistently high, then toxic leadership might be an underlying issue. Poor performance, especially when it seems abnormally widespread, is another indicator. Toxic leadership drives workplace phenomena like quiet quitting. Another often overlooked data point is increased absenteeism. Even a surface-level analysis of leave usage can reveal trend patterns. Everybody has a case of the Mondays when facing down a toxic leader to start the week. Low morale exists for a variety of reasons. But, when you consider it in the context of other factors, it can be a strong indicator of toxicity in the workplace. Finally, it’s impossible to ignore what is probably the most glaring indicator, a hostile climate. The climate of an organization is telling, and an astute toxic leader will go out of their way to block attempts—internal or external—to survey or assess the climate. Sometimes, you don’t have to pulse the climate, just the obstinance of the leadership to do so.

managing the megalomaniac

On some level, we all think we can manage the toxic leader. We can lead from behind. We can help them help themselves. Guess what? You can’t. So, what can you do?

First, you have to accept the fact that you can’t change them. Unless you’re a clinical psychiatrist with decades of experience, you won’t be able to so much as budge them an inch. Second, you can be the one who changes. That’s what they’re counting on, and that just cedes control. So, that’s rarely a good option. Third, you can speak up. Just know that speaking truth to power is a practiced art, and it doesn’t usually end well if you’re doing so with a toxic leader. Finally, you can let your feet do the talking. Quit. Leave the organization. Your mental health will be better for it.

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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 co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.