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Leadership Coaching 101: Coaching The Toxic Leader

It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it...

- Douglas Adams (from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

Male boss screaming and firing his employees in an office.
Does your boss set the office on fire? Then you might have a toxic leader.

Who is the Toxic Leader?

We’ve all met someone with a toxic trait. It can be minor, or it can manifest in behavior that highly affects those around them. We might find our own toxic traits if we dig into self reflection. But when we take a step away from the individual and consider the leader instead, it’s not one person being affected: it’s a whole team, the performance of a company, or the community at large.

For their last week of conversations on leadership coaching, join CLCI Live as Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC) discuss the characteristics of toxic leaders and the benefits that a coach can have when brought in.

Impacts To Team Productivity And Health

So what sort of traits are we identifying with toxic leaders? 

Before listing any, there are important distinctions to make. No single trait is a rigid thing. Bad behaviors are seen on a scale. And the examples we’ll be getting into can be mixed and matched with each other. But with a toxic leader, one executive coach found that “You nearly always run across some of [these] characteristics.”

  • Narcissism

  • Transference

  • Competitiveness

  • Passive-Aggressiveness

  • and Constant Confrontation

Harvard Business Review explains that a toxic leader’s behavior towards their team “takes many forms” such as public insults, invaded privacy, or gossip. A team with a toxic leader falls behind. From an executive standpoint, this is a negative. However, the article also points out what should be obvious: these behaviors hurt the human beings they are affecting. HBR reports that a toxic leader’s behavior can contribute to employee dissatisfaction/stress, alcoholism, family conflict, and health complaints. 

It’s reasons like these which might be the catalyst for an executive/leadership coach being brought in.

Recognizing Toxic Traits

There are multiple characteristics that a toxic leader might display. Executive coach Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries offers examples such as narcissism, manic depressive behavior, passive aggression, and the unemotional. Let’s break some of these archetypes down even further into traits. 

Of course, as a coach, it is completely out of our sphere of practice to be diagnosing anyone. Manic depression is a psychological condition and narcissism could refer to a Dark Triad trait or a diagnosable personality disorder. It’s not up to a coach to hand labels out. And if a client’s mental health is affecting them, a coach should refer out to those licensed professionals equipped to help. However, in recognizing a toxic leader, we will often see patterns of characteristics or behaviors, or have a client with a pre-established diagnosis. 

Spotting a toxic leader is easier when you see the symptoms in their team. What do the other people on the team say about the leader when the coach talks with them? Is there a split between what the leader says about themselves and what the team does? Does the team feel their needs are chronically forgotten about? Is their perspective ignored by the leader? Is the leader inconsistent in what they say and then do? Is their behavior often lackluster (such as procrastinating, being late, missing deadlines) despite expecting high standards for their team?

Characteristics of the toxic leader often tie back to a mindset of extremes. Kets de Vries talks of the manic depressive leader, where mood swings impact the team. Black and white thinking can put undue strain on everyone. The toxic leader thinks and/or says that the work that has been done is never good enough. They might push their team far too hard. 

Other toxic leaders may be more used to manipulating, and their toxicity can affect their team through poor behavior and a recorded tendency towards manipulation. 

The toxic leader’s own personal life problems or their personality might be brought out too often, and impact the workplace negatively. This could be coupled with a characteristic of ignoring others' needs and personal problems. In contrast, some leaders are toxic without intention because they are not emotional. This can affect the team when these leaders also don’t know how to react when the people around them are emotional. 

Decreasing Toxicity: What Works?

There’s no easy one size fits all solution to removing toxicity. Methods range from regulating behavior through your organization’s policy, to demotions and dissolving employment, to trying to change the behavior of a leader with rewards. But researchers wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, ultimately, the only real hope for seeing changes in a toxic leader’s behavior genuine effort from that individual. 

Policy can only regulate behavior so far. As they point out, “whether a boss fails to exhibit common decency and civil behavior to his employees is ultimately up to them.” These researchers argue that “sincere apologies and reconciliations” from the toxic leader “are the only sustainable way of regaining credibility and moving forward.”

This brings up the topic of self awareness. HBR points out that the toxic leader has to be “cognizant” of their motives and behaviors when they are acting out of line, after an outburst, and, in general, must reflect on abusive actions towards their team.

“If bosses take time each day to honestly appraise their own behavior and motives, and to carefully reflect on the impact of their behavior on their subordinates, they may be able to really make nice instead of fake nice in the wake of a transgression,” the researchers write. 

And the coaching space is a great place to begin fostering self reflection.

Coaching The Toxic Leader

A toxic leader client is not hopeless.

Here are some ways we can incorporate the Core Competencies of coaching while withholding judgment.

  • Setting the Foundation: This involves establishing trust and rapport with the leader. Since a toxic leader might feel the need to defend their behavior, the coach should prioritize active listening and creating a safe space for honest reflection.

  • Co-creating the Agenda & Coaching Agreement:  Here, the coach and leader collaboratively define the goals for coaching. This might involve fostering self-awareness of toxic behaviors, improving communication with the team, or building emotional intelligence.

  • Communication:  Effective communication is crucial. The coach should use powerful questioning techniques to encourage self-discovery and avoid accusatory language. Mirroring and paraphrasing can help the leader gain clarity on their own behavior.

  • Facilitating Learning & Self-Discovery:  The coach guides the leader in exploring the impact of their behavior on others and the team's performance. This can involve using assessments or role-playing exercises.

  • Managing Progress & Accountability:  The coach and leader define milestones and track progress. This might involve the leader seeking feedback from their team or practicing new communication skills.

  • Ethical Conduct & Professional Standards:  The coach upholds ethical principles like confidentiality and maintains clear boundaries with the leader.

Ultimately, the exact approach from the coach will be different depending on the behavior and personality of the client they have. Something that will be shared between all different types of toxic leaders is that it’s important that you adapt in your own coaching language to better speak to them. Resonate with them. Don’t tell them where they are in the wrong straight away.

The coaching space is a safe one, even when the client is a toxic leader. Only after establishing trust can a coach challenge the client and encourage them to challenge themselves.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC)!

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