Toxic Leaders and Leadership Toxicity

Michael Walton

Concerns about the misbehaviour of executives and the misuse of their position and power have intensified in recent years to become matters of profound public concern because they affect the wellbeing of so many and can undermine the standing and reputation of the organisations concerned.

I was, therefore, delighted to be given the opportunity of generating this collection of articles which are centred on difficult and complex fields of study that I believe should be at the forefront of every executive’s mind as they go about their work. The articles in this O & P special issue offer insights about some of the underlying dynamics which can facilitate or impede—and in some instances destroy—an executive’s capacity to lead and an organisation’s ability to function.

The articles include contributions about destructive patterns of leadership; on the dynamics of leader dysfunction; the destructive effect of envy at work and on how followers may unwittingly keep toxic leaders in power. How Followers ‘lead’ their bosses and how organisation’s can render their leaders impotent are matters also covered. The issue introduces interesting, potent, challenging and controversial material intended to stimulate thoughtful debate and practical action.

After an introduction, three articles are presented each of which offer a different perspective on leadership toxicity (Benson & Hogan; Aasland, Skogstad & Einarsen; and Padilla & Mulvey). They are written from academic and practitioner perspectives and based on extensive field work and research. These three articles set the scene for the case material which follows. Each case starkly illustrates the profound impact which the underlying emotional dynamics at work can exert and which, therefore, merit thoughtful study and understanding by consultants, business leaders, trainers and academics. All in all a mix of material which I hope you will find enlightening, useful and enjoyable to consider.

In conclusion, this collection of articles suggests to me that we could—and indeed should—prepare our leaders rather better than we do to understand, intervene and manage the complex dynamic web of interactions involved in leading and managing departments and organisations which have been so well illuminated by these articles. We owe this to our leaders, to their followers and to all those affected by dysfunctional leadership practices.

I am delighted by this Issue which I hope will be well read, stimulate more research, generate debate and discussion and help spur interest in the fields of study described by these authors.

Dr Michael Walton, Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter, 25th May 2008

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