Toxic Leaders at Work

Sushila Krishnaswamy-Chang - 4 April 2022

Anyone who has listened to The Rise and Fall Mars Hill podcast will know about the costs of toxic leadership. How do toxic leaders gain and abuse power, and what can be done to stop their destruction of the church and other organisations?

The driving force behind toxic leaders is their deep personal insecurity. Because they are easily threatened they surround themselves with people who support only their ideas and decisions, and ‘punish’ those who question their leadership. This develops organisational sycophants, the ‘yes, men/yes women’ who give the toxic leader affirmation, status and legitimacy. Other team members learn what is required if they are to stay. They must not outshine the ‘supreme leader’ who is easily threatened.

Another tactic, that became apparent at Mars Hill, is to pit staff against one another, thereby creating political division and strife. We are seeing this played out on the international stage currently. This normally ends with the leader getting involved to resolve the issues, exert control, and reaffirm their authoritarian style, while those who opposed the leader are ostracised and eventually leave the organisation.

Organisational development and strategic planning are normally not of interest to the toxic leader. They prefer to keep control, maintain secrecy, and use surprise and sudden changes in direction as weapons. Strangely these leaders also tend to procrastinate in making critical decisions. This is not for lack of ability, but is born of their insecurity: ‘What if the decision does not work?’ ‘What if it costs them their leadership and power?’ ‘What if they are unable to control the outcomes of the decision?’

Toxic leaders do not serve the needs of the organisation. Rather, the organisation exists to serve their needs. Toxic leaders will prioritise their personal needs by, for example, modifying policies in anticipation of potential personal gains. They make decisions regardless of obvious conflicts of interest, and engage in harassment and bullying to achieve the outcome that benefits them. At times this leads to corruption and may seriously damage the organisation’s reputation.

While we would hope to see toxic leaders called to account, repent, and change, it is largely through strong governance that toxic culture is expunged, and such leaders are identified and outed. If Mars Hill taught us anything, it is that toxic leaders can build complex systems that protect their power. They will resist strong accountability and governance. But stakeholders must insist on it, while boards must practice it.

In responsible organisations where governance is taken seriously, the boards exercise due diligence and are held accountable by stakeholders. There is strong engagement between governing bodies and staff, which tends to diffuse the power of the CEO. Open processes are implemented such as regular updates, ‘town halls,’ reviews, and audits which ensure that concerns and challenges can be nipped in the bud.

It is vital to have strong, clear policies on harassment, bullying, conflict of interest, and whistleblowing. Staff should be provided with training on staff supervision, how to be a team player, and building positive collaborations. Finally, there is great value in conducting 360° feedback surveys supported by coaching to improve staff interactions and identify major issues.

Sushila Krishnaswamy-Chang


About the author

Sushila Krishnaswamy-Chang has been in senior academic leadership roles in Singapore, Australia, UK, and Fiji.

She served as academic dean of Science with Griffith University and Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Queensland. Most recently Sushila was deputy vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University. She has run many courses in performance management, servant leadership, women in leadership and more during her time at various universities.