Mental Blindness: The Hidden Disease of Toxic Leadership

Unless you are one of the very few people who have been fortuitous enough to be self employed throughout the duration of your career, chances are you’ve had a boss; or several.  Even highly successful CEOs had to work their way up the ladder through the experiences they learned within a corporate atmosphere.  The leader of an organization ideally is one who shapes the individuals of their team in a nurturing climate that helps them to grow, excel and strive for excellence.  There are many different styles that a leader can adopt to ensure the success of their subordinates.

            Yet, there is also one leadership style that does just the opposite. A toxic leader, toxic boss or a toxic manager is a term used to describe the leader of an organization who does more harm than good to the wellbeing of a company.  Instead of using positive reinforcement, employee engagement and encouragement, the toxic leader will be more apt to use bullying, yelling, threatening, punishments, belittling or condescending behaviors to try to achieve results from the staff.  Maybe a simple and easy way to describe this type of leader is the “Boss from Hell”.

            The unfortunate aspect of a toxic leader is that very often the person is completely oblivious of the harm done, or that there is even a problem with this type of leadership style.  They think that in order to get people to do things they want, they must monitor and control the employees by using negative strategies.  Instead of listening to new ideas, they shut people down.  When an employee does something wrong – either because they were not trained properly or just accidently – the toxic leader screams and yells or writes up the employee instead of showing the person how it can be done differently, or better.  They may even carry on these antics in front of other staff to set an example, making the employee feel like crawling under a table with embarrassment and humiliation.

Characteristics of toxic leadership

According to a research paper written by the Colonel George Reed, Director of Command and Leadership Studies for the U.S. Army War College, the three key elements of a toxic leader are 1:

  1.  Appear motivated primarily by self-interest.
  2. See their subordinates as disposable instruments, rather than as people.
  3. Have a destructive personality or interpersonal skills that have deleterious effects on climate.

            Col. Reed describes toxic leaders as “…highly competent in a short-sighted sense, but contributors to an unhealthy command climate with ramifications extending far beyond their tenure.” 

            In a recent report that further evaluates the findings by Col. Reed, the Center for Army Leadership released a study on the consequences of toxic leadership; based upon a two year evaluation of its results.  J.M. Bird (2010) summed up the literature, aptly saying that the process for destructive leaders involves dominance, coercion, and manipulation, as opposed to constructive leaders who use influence, persuasion, and commitment. 2   Toxic leaders are associated with toxic leadership environmental characteristics including:

  • Penalizing honest mistakes;
  • Reduced individual and unit morale;
  • Solving problems at the surface level;
  • Poorer unit performance including time wasting;
  • Stifling frank communication, good ideas, and creativity.

            Becoming “drunk with power”, it could be said that toxic leaders operate on fear and egotism.  They are fearful of losing power, status or control and therefore do not want to pass the knowledge on to others because deep down they may be worried that the employee will become better, subsequently taking over their position.  By keeping the staff on a short leash, the toxic manager operates with the peace of mind that no one can ever take over the “top dog” spot that he currently holds.  Barking orders and demands is the only way he knows, which is a form of selfishness and mental blindness.

          The toxic leader will be more apt to blame others when things go wrong, even though at times it may be their own attitude or lack of training, guidance and support that is to blame.  However, these types of leaders will be the first to raise their hands and take credit when things go well.  They bring negativity to the workplace, rarely listen to ideas of the staff, think only about self-serving interests and fly off the handle when things don’t go exactly as planned.  They may also rationalize or defend their choices because of their position of authority.

            “Toxic leaders are usually not incompetent or ineffective leaders in terms of accomplishing explicit mission objectives. Many times they are strong leaders who have “the right stuff‟, but just in the wrong intensity, and with the wrong desired end-state, namely self-promotion above all else.” 2 (Williams, 2005)

            There are three hats the toxic manager may wear that define their leadership style:

  • “What I have defines who I am.”
  • “What I achieve reflects on who I am.”
  •  “What others think about me defines who I am.”

           What the toxic manager fails to realize is that these attitudes only sink productivity, rather than increasing it. Employees do not enjoy working for someone who is demeaning, demanding, mean and controlling.  It is very likely that the turnover rate will be very high at a company like this, simply because people do not like to be treated like convicts or slaves.  Therefore, the cost of running the organization will increase due to need for ongoing training of new staff to replace those who quit, often unexpectedly.  When employees quit without giving notice, it also costs the company in customers because it leaves the organization short staffed.  Those who remain left to do their work may be equally as frustrated.  Dissatisfaction in the workplace will never be at a desirable level as long as the toxic leader is allowed to continue leadership in this manner.  The result is often thousands to millions of dollars in lost salaries, training, customers and decreased productivity.

            As an example, many of the financial institutions and firms on Wall Street are no longer in business due to toxic leadership, greed and power.  The CEOs who mishandled customers and staff cost their companies millions of dollars and ultimately led to their demise.  Now some of these toxic leaders are sitting in jail, yet everyone paid dearly for their costly management errors.  Customers, taxpayers and even the government lost thousands and millions of dollars in bailout money.  These events shed light on just how damaging it can be when the wrong person gets power hungry.

Mental blindness is psychological 

            The toxic leader is much like anyone who uses tough measures to get the job done.  He is like the proverbial race horse jockey who whips his horse to the finish line, rather than nudging the horse with encouraging body language and kindness.  Eventually, the animal may retaliate.

            Mental blindness can be used to describe someone who “blindly” continues to display negative behaviors despite people on the outside not agreeing with it, condoning it or responding well to it.   You could say that toxic leaders are blind because they do not physically “see” the damage caused as a result of their actions, and mentally they are stuck in that mindset of having to be a bully in order to get the job done right. 

Sadly, many toxic leaders never change and remain stoic in their beliefs throughout the duration of their career.  This happens not just in the corporate world but also in smaller companies, as well. 

As an example, there was a restaurant owner who ran the only Italian restaurant in a small town.  He couldn’t keep any staff longer than a few months and had a reputation for being horrible to work for.  Only the most desperate people who needed a job went to work there.  The same ‘Help Wanted’ ad stayed in the newspaper, week after week.  Those who dared work there knew they were in for it.  He screamed at the chefs for simple things, like putting a piece of bread on the wrong side of the plate or the wait staff for giving the customers too much whipped cream on the Tiramisu.  The owner was like a big mean ogre and all of the staff hated him.

The customers had no idea, because superficially the owner was nice and polite. He visited the tables and personally thanked the customers for coming.  However, the fact that he could not keep loyal staff in such a small town eventually hurt the business, because many of the terminated employees began talking about how horrible he was to their friends and relatives.  Since the community was rather small, business suffered and ultimately the restaurant did not make it past the five year mark.

Overcoming toxic leadership with vital leadership

On the bright side, everyone has an ability to change negative behaviors.  If enough people bring the negativity to light, even toxic managers can feel compelled to change.  This is especially true if they have someone even higher within the company to answer to, such as the owner or the board of directors, etc.  Complaints about bad management on behalf of either the customers or the staff can lead to scrutiny and subsequent changes.

Today’s workplace demands a different type of leader than “the Ogre”. Vital leadership is now necessary to nurture company growth.  Using positive behaviors, actions and encouragements has shown to be a much more effective leadership style than shutting employees down or using degrading words.  What are some ways to become a vital leader and earn the respect of staff, supervisors and customers?

10 Ways to Become a Vital Leader:

  1. Be unselfish in your actions.
  2. Treat employees with respect.
  3. Remember to give praise for a job well done.
  4. Continue learning and sharpening your own skills.
  5. Maintain accountability for everyone on your team.
  6. Make work fun by setting goals, milestones and rewards.
  7. Use positive reinforcement and encouragement to make employees feel important.
  8. Never embarrass or reprimand openly. If someone needs to be spoken to, do so confidentially.
  9. Be willing to teach and train your staff the right way without holding back important tasks and necessary support.
  10.  Create the vision by outlining goals and objectives that you want yourself and everyone to achieve together.

           Being a leader is more than just overseeing an organization.  As a leader it is essential to take charge and manage the show without expecting a standing ovation or any credits, for that matter.  Respect is earned, as they say.  It is impossible to earn respect when negative tactics are used instead of positivity and encouragement.  Moving forward, a company can thrive by creating a happier work environment and a place that employees can feel enthusiastic about.  Therefore, vital leadership is one of the most fundamental elements of growth to an organization.

John Bentley, president and founder of Power 2 Transform has earned a reputation as a catalyst for excellence by helping healthcare organizations develop a culture where employees operate at their full creative powers ensuring the highest levels of patient safety and satisfaction. You can contact John at or


2 replies
  1. Patricia Kane
    Patricia Kane says:

    Why not turn the table and talk about toxic employees that bosses, mangers, supervisors “inherit”. That is a real problem. Between the threats, bullying, emotional outbursts, negativity, undermining and the constant “I will just g to the boss” coupled” with lack of respect—trust me, there are more of them out there than yo think and we dance around them every day-

    • John Bentley
      John Bentley says:


      Awesome idea, thank you! And you are right, employees to can be and are toxic. In both cases I believe it starts with how they see themselves vs. how they see others. For example, most people that are toxic, see themselves as ok and others as not ok. With the mindset that other people are no worthy, the toxic leader or employee that others a things, having no value unless needed to support their ideas. I will work on an article about toxic employees.


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