Sarah Boyd


The 9 most powerful questions to get perspective in a difficult situation

7 Signs Of Toxic Leadership

We have all experienced different leadership – some positive, some negative; some helpful, some unhelpful; some encouraging, some hurtful… and all of the above can be from the same person!

Most of us are learning our leadership skills as we go and are doing the best we can. Stressful events can bring out the worst sides in us, but overall we’re working to bring the best out in individuals and the team.

(Image credit @jshnaaa)

(Image credit @jshnaaa)

But there is a small group of leaders that these normal rules don’t work for. Whether they have become toxic through unresolved life events or they may have a personality disorder (see my previous post), their influence upon other people leads to great personal harm.

And well-meaning followers give them the same grace they would give any other normal imperfect leader, until before they know it they’re trapped in a toxic web that they can’t escape.

It’s important we learn to spot toxic leadership so we can get out of the way before they can do severe damage to our lives.



1 You Feel Highly Anxious Around Them

You experience this anxiety around them and even just at the thought of being around them.

This feeling of anxiety applies only to them specifically & not any other leader or authority figure. The more time away from them you experience, you notice that you don’t feel as anxious.


2 You Feel Manipulated, But Only Notice It Afterwards

When you’re in their presence, you feel overwhelmed, and can’t quite find your voice.

You say ‘yes’ to things you wish you could have said ‘no’ too, and end up regretting things you said in the moment. In their presence, your only focus is pleasing them. 

But you only notice this after you come out of the haze of being around them.


3 You Loose Your Confidence

Prior to being influenced by their leadership, you felt pretty self confident about your skills and the future of your career. You were aware of your strengths and weaknesses, but worked positively in your strengths.

After time being under their leadership, you loose confidence even in areas that used to be your highest strength. You find yourself doubting yourself, & getting caught in anxious thought patterns.


4 They Convince You They Are The Gatekeeper Or Protector Of Your Destiny

Whether it is through overt statements or subtle inferences, they convince you that moving forward in your career (or any area they are influencing you) is completely dependent upon their approval of you.

They make you feel like it is a ‘big bad world’ out there and they are helping you navigate it. Without them, you couldn’t make it; and you definitely wouldn’t be successful. 


5 They Seem To Have Empathy For You, Thus Confusing You

They seem to ‘get’ you. You may randomly have brief moments with them where their apparent insight on who you are and what your perspective is, seems like a breath of fresh air.

Sometimes this is at a level you haven’t experienced with other leadership before. This insight into your personhood brings further confusion with the other experiences you are having with their leadership.


Researcher Simon Baron Cohen suggests that empathy has two parts:

1. The mental ability to see a situation from another’s perspective.

2. The emotional ability to have an appropriate feeling response to that perspective.

He suggests that dangerous people have the mental ability to see a situation from another’s perspective, but don’t experience an appropriate emotional response.

Therefore these individuals use this capacity of perspective to manipulate towards their own agenda.


6 The Tribe They Are Leading Seem To Be In Constant Competition To Please The Leader

There is a strong culture of competition among the group or team they are leading.

This is not natural competition for goals or bonuses, it is more focused on winning the approval of the leader.


7 If You Cross Them, They Will Personally Attack You

If you openly go against them or their plans; or even if it all happens by an innocent mistake, they will aggressively and personally attack you.

They may confront you with an intensity that scares you into silence, they may secretly spread lies about you, they may purposely attack your credibility. The end result is that you are scared of them, almost terrified of what is going to come next.

If you haven’t already got to this point in relationship with them, you may have witnessed them do it to other people. Thus leaving you in a state of fear.



So if you’ve read through these 7 signs and think your leader may be toxic…

Repeat after me – ITS NOT YOU, ITS THEM.

The problem is not you, or your leadership, or your abilities at work, or your decisions, or anything else you’ve done.

In a healthy leadership culture we are taught to take responsibility for our actions, and believe that the consequences we experience are due to our actions. For most normal situations with leadership tension, it’s true that taking responsibility for what you can control is the most positive step forward.

But this belief is counter-intuitive when dealing with toxic leaders. 

When you are dealing with a highly toxic leader, this belief actually empowers the cycle of manipulation and blame even further. 



The problem with highly toxic individuals, is that whether they ended up that way through life events or because they may have a personality disorder; the only way to see change, is for them to personally take responsibility and seek help to do so.

You cannot do anything to help or change them.

The only way to remove yourself from the toxicity, is to remove yourself from them. 


Depending on how caught up you are in the cycle of manipulation, this advice may be the scariest thing you’ve ever thought about doing. If this is the case I would strongly recommend seeking professional help from a clinical psychologist to help you with the process.

Remove yourself from the situation gently. Confronting them will often just make the situation worse.

As you remove yourself from the situation, prepare to feel like you are missing out (even though you are not), prepare to feel that you won’t make it without them (even though you will), and prepare to initially feel almost a skeleton of your old self until with time you can build up your confidence again.  


So many high functioning, gifted, positive individuals get hurt and even destroyed, when they are influenced by toxic leadership. Removing yourself from the situation will allow yourself time and perspective to heal and regain your confidence for the future.

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The 9 most powerful questions to get perspective in a difficult situation.