The CEO as Barometer of Culture

Red flags of toxic leadership and the dynamics that keep it thriving

The success of a company often hinges not just on what it does, but on the culture that guides it. In turn, the culture is shaped in large part by those at the company’s helm. Research shows that the CEO is the most important indicator of the culture in an organization: just as inspiring, empowering leaders can help an organization scale new heights, toxic leaders who display destructive behaviors can destroy it from the inside-out.

Toxic leaders not only damage organizations by decreasing performance, productivity and suppressing innovation, however. They also inflict significant personal damage to employees, causing exhaustion, anxiety, diminishing selfworth and sometimes even a full-blown burnout.

What should a company do if there are suspicions of toxic leadership at the top? Unfortunately, there have been a few reports of those in the media lately, most recently the allegations against the Plopsaland CEO. Against this backdrop, an increasing number of companies are asking themselves: what are the signs that we’re dealing with a toxic leader? What keeps such a leader in place? And most importantly: what can we do about it?

While toxic leadership may seem easy to spot, allegations of toxic behavior by leaders may come as a surprise to some in the organization, as was the case in the recent Plopsaland media storm. It is not always easy to spot a toxic leader, because not all are raging tyrants (and equally not all great leaders are mild-mannered and soft spoken). The organizational psychologist Theo Veldsman categorizes 5 types of toxic leaders:

The Cold Fish
The ends justify the means. So, any decision and action is justifiable in terms of the results desired.

Puppet Master
Absolute, centralized control over everything and anyone, under all circumstances.

The Snake
The world serves me and endeavors to satisfy my personal needs like greed, status and power.

Ruling the organization as if it is my kingdom. All its assets are available for my personal use.

Glory Seeker
Personal glory and public visibility at any cost, regardless of whether I have made any real and meaningful contribution.

Red flags of toxic leadership

There is an age-old saying that “power corrupts”. There is a reason the saying is so well known: because toxic leadership has been around for centuries, and many have fallen prey to it.

As humans, we can all lose our way and make wrong decisions at some point – often influenced by our environment. Toxic leaders are no different. They are not necessarily bad or evil people. A leader’s toxic potential – their self-interest, inflated sense of superiority or loss of moral compass – may just be triggered by their environment – the power of their position and their ability to deploy organizational resources at will and whim.

So, what are the red flags in leadership to watch out for?

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2023 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

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