Identifying the four D’s of dysfunctional leaders

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Someone recently sent me a Washington Post article about the Pentagon’s investigative actions to remove abusive leaders. One general was described as a profane screamer who was “cruel and oppressive.”
Another leader was singled out as a verbally abusive taskmaster and still another was “dictatorial,” “unglued” and a master of “profanity-fused outbursts.” A power-hungry senior Department of Defense civilian was so bad her subordinates said that it was “like you were in a prisoner of war camp.”
Fortunately, I’ve never been assigned to an abusive, toxic leader except when I was in a Vietnam POW camp for more than five years. When I came home, I made a vow that I’d never serve under those conditions again. Freedom and dignity were much more important than any short term security.
The problem exists in every field of work, and regularly I hear about someone leaving a good job they really liked because of a toxic leader. Unfortunately, there are ego-driven, angry, control freaks using their power to intimidate and destroy others. So what can you do about this problem? It depends on your perspective.
Are you a toxic leader?
If you even think you see yourself in the stories above, you may have a problem. Perhaps you have been rationalizing your behaviors and denying the damage that you’re doing. If so, you may be operating out of a term I coined a few years ago called “Progression in D Major” explaining the toxic behavior of dysfunctional dominant personalities.
This term defines insecure people who have to be right at all cost. The progression goes like this:

  •  When they’re wrong, they Deny.
  • Then when there is more evidence, they Defend by rationalizing.
  • Then when the facts persist, they Demonize those who expose them.
  • Finally, they seek to Destroy the career or reputation of their nemesis.

If you suspect that you’re a toxic leader, empower and ask someone who has the courage to give you honest feedback. Get a coach and take a 360 assessment to zero in on your issues and begin working to change.
If you’re willing to do those things, there is definitely hope for you; if not, you’re a lost cause, and I pity those poor souls under you charge.
Do toxic leaders work for you?
As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to know what’s happening in your domain. If you’re not sure, use organizational climate surveys and 360 assessments.
If there’s a problem, take action to get the toxic leader fixed and back on track or out of the organization.
Do you work for a toxic leader?
This is a tough situation. Find good counsel and look for a safe way to let the good leaders who are higher up in your organization know what’s happening. If they won’t take action, you have to decide about staying and endangering your health or making a move.
Take your time to work through it with a good support team to help you deal with the emotions and plan your steps.
The solution takes courage
The solution to toxic leaders is found in courageous actions by other leaders who won’t tolerate those behaviors. Where do you fit in this arena and what should you be doing right now?

Regardless, the answer will require you responding to the courage challenge — that is, lean into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right — for the organization, the team and for yourself.

As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting company, Lee Ellis speaks and consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, leadership and human performance development, and succession planning. His latest book about his Vietnam POW experience is entitled Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. Learn more at