Toxic Leadership – 7 Signs You Are Suffocating Under Its Poisonous Cloud

Toxic leadership is the right way to describe the leaders who head a particular organization who stresses everyone that works under him/her. However, this should not be confused with tough leaders.

There are characteristics of a toxic leader which you must recognize before you decide to work under such poisonous cloud.

These leaders may or may not recognize that they are behaving "toxic" themselves. But people who work under them inevitably will begin to use words like “destroy – either someone’s career or the company, bully, threaten, yell, back stab, belittle, and working under him/her is hell.”

What are some of the most significant traits of toxic leaders?

1. Tear Others Down

In Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Level 2 is Safety and Level 3 is Sense of Love and Belonging Needs. In level 4 it is Esteem and Level 5 is Self-Actualization. In all likelihood, toxic leaders have not satisfied their safety, and sense of love and belonging needs, let alone esteem and self-actualization. It is this need for safety that they savor in bullying people, terrorize their subordinates and belittle them.

2. Impressive Asshole

You are probably wondering how come his boss does not notice that he is an asshole*? This is because he is often articulate and enthusiastic when he sees his boss to give reports. He is good at achieving short term goals at the expense of his subordinates like you. To his boss he is impressive. So his boss is blinded. Worse, there is a sense of toxic leadership in your company – even his boss is toxic himself!

Under a toxic leadership, leaders do not concern themselves with staff morale or even office culture. They are arrogant and self serving.

3. No Concern Well Being

Under your boss, well being of the staff is not a concern. They are only concerned with their own selfish goals. They do not care about how you feel, how you work, how much pressure they put on you so long as they get what they want. It’s not even what the company wants as they view this as a stepping stone to their own long term goals that may or may not even involve the company.

4. Calamitous Culture

Inevitably, bad bosses would create a calamitous culture within the organization. They will leave devastating effects on people’s career and even mental health. They have personalities that have a destructive effect on the company’s culture.

Collectively, you and your colleagues believe they are only driven by self-interests. The yelling, manipulation, belittling and back stabbing creates a culture where trust is near zero with such leaders.

5. Acts of Cowardice

A toxic leader does not have to be someone who yells and is aggressive. This leadership style does include those who are soft-spoken, and even gives you an impression that he is sincere and trustworthy! This is just a façade to mask their inadequacy as leader - competence or trust wise.

The act of cowardice can come in many forms but namely indecisiveness, the resolve to make important decisions and determination to see a tough decision through. But it can even be as small as making a presentation to a less than friendly crowd or facing tough clients.

6. Zero Confidence

As a unit, you and your colleagues have zero confidence this person can lead. This can be due to various reasons. Besides not caring about the esprit de corps, he is likely to be incompetent in the skills needed to execute the job.

Everyday, you and your colleagues go through unnecessary stress and as the days drag on, you get to feel more and more hopeless about the future.

7. Lack of Respect and Trust

Regardless of which organization you work for, these two values are the most important for an organization. When leaders and subordinates lose these values, then the system eventually collapses.

We have heard it too often, trust has to be gained, and respect has to be earned. This works both ways. When you work under toxic leadership, the leader, generally due to his inadequacies will not trust and respect you. In turn, due to his lack of competency and less than desirable personality you find it hard to trust and respect him.

If you work under toxic leadership and the signs are showing, make a decision. If there is no recourse, make plans to leave before it suffocates you.


I have chosen to use the word “asshole” because it best describes what a toxic leader is to his subordinates. No other words in English best describes this and I am sure those of you who have or is currently working under one would agree. I know this word best describes them.

I highly recommend the book by Robert I. Sutton - The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, a professor of Management Science at Stanford University for more insights.

Another book by the same author is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst. This book is likely to be one of the more talked about business book this year.

As Dr. Sutton digs into the nitty-gritty of what the best (and worst) bosses do, a theme runs throughout Good Boss, Bad Boss - which brings together the diverse lessons and is a hallmark of great bosses: They work doggedly to "stay in tune" with how their followers (and superiors, peers, and customers too) react to what they say and do. The best bosses are acutely aware that their success depends on having the self-awareness to control their moods and moves, to accurately interpret their impact on others, and to make adjustments on the fly that continuously spark effort, dignity, and pride among their people.

Long Yun Siang or Long, as he is popularly known runs with his wife Dorena as their way of paying it forward. Their website – based on their real life experiences - provides tips, tools and advise for newbies pursuing career success.