Book in Focus
An Epidemiological Study of Leadership "/>

28th January 2022

Book in Focus
An Epidemiological Study of Leadership

By Garry Wade McGiboney

In her book Bad Leadership, Barbara Kellerman identified several types of leadership that are destructive: incompetent, rigid, intemperate (lack of control), callous, corrupt, insular, indifferent, and evil (vindictive). Rising to a level of incompetence is not readily apparent to some leaders because many of them are oblivious to their own shortcomings, or because they have ascended to leadership positions. In addition, they are often in a state of denial about their own level of ability and are perhaps blinded by their ambition or by a mistaken belief that dictatorial, cruel, or laissez faire leadership is the key to success. As “proof,” they see examples of such leaders blinded by their own rise to positions of power. Also, this type of leader is often unaware of their own circumstances because of the grip of their ego on their perception of leadership. Ryan Holiday wrote,

Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It is a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis. 

Many leaders view rigidity and stubbornness as an asset and as a leadership function. Sometimes, this type of leadership comes with the encouragement (intentionally or unintentionally) of the organization in which the leader works. It is an extension of the military model of leadership typically at the beginning of a leader’s time at the helm of an organization as a clear message to everyone that “a new sheriff is in town.” This type of leader is determined to be the all-powerful boss, and everyone must follow blindly or leave immediately. Any employee that disagrees with the rigid leader may be branded as a troublemaker and is considered disloyal to the organization. However, there are leaders whose personality is not linked to the military style, even though they think highly of that approach. In those situations, the leader will employ a chief of staff or someone of a similar title to “do the dirty work” and run roughshod over the organization. That situation often creates a powerful position where the chief of staff is more influential than the leader with little accountability, but the most salient point is that the leader allows it to happen.

Research indicates that “bad” leadership has many elements to it. In the field of epidemiology, the word “determinants” is used to describe those elements that are causal factors in determining an outcome or circumstances, such as the determinants of a disease. It is important to note that determinants are not random—they occur in patterns and there is always a determinant (cause), as there is with leadership.

The negative determinants that come from a leader who has a callous disregard for employees or who is ego-based and detached from employees or who defers all decisions to an upper-level staff member or who makes reckless decisions are often the same as those that come from leaders that lack self-control. The lack of self-control is not necessarily manifest in verbal outbursts or overtly aggressive behavior, although that does happen. Instead, many destructive and ineffective leaders contrive to embarrass, control, demean, discourage, and/or ignore employees in a variety of ways: through other employees, through sarcasm in front of others, by marginalizing the duties of employees, by demoting employees or reassigning employees, by delegating all decisions to one person, or by deliberately avoiding employees. There are many examples of how these destructive traits take leaders to a point where self-importance causes the demise of an organization or weakens the organization and the effectiveness of its employees. The destruction of the leader’s influence, if not their career, spirals downward into a pattern of leadership corruption that leads to insularity and isolation, and even to what Kellerman calls “evil” leadership.

An article in Psychology Today titled “A Toxic Leader Manifesto” by Alan Goldman describes the role and outcome of destructive leadership and how that type of leadership style creates a negative workplace climate. Goldman challenges toxic leaders in a sarcastic tone. If a leader has adopted and clings to elements that are contrary to a positive workplace climate, and they have determined that is the only way to lead an organization, Goldman wants, with tongue-in-cheek, to make sure that type of leader does it “correctly.” Although Goldman is approaching the topic in a sarcastic manner, there are many essential and meaningful points to gain from his “manifesto” because it adroitly characterizes all that is wrong with a toxic leader.

It is essential to bypass dialogue and question and answers; the leader must attack, deflate or discard employees who are identified as lacking in any way or who dare challenge the leader; bullying must be cultivated and perfected; the leader must yell at and demean or completely ignore employees who fall short, error or are deemed annoying; the leader must stifle any workplace conversation that questions the leader; all attacks against employees must be brought forth into public forums for all to witness; it is mandatory to yell at employees (or assign someone to yell at employees) in an effort to promote fear, humiliation and sufficient loss of face; when criticizing employees the leader must carry this forth harshly and publicly without any opportunity for the offending employee to respond, and the destructive leader must remember that civilized and substantive feedback is his mortal enemy.

Goldman’s powerful message is a clarion call to cease this type of leadership for practical and humane reasons.

Additional research on destructive leadership can be found in Lipman-Blumen’s book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders, which addresses why employees follow the toxic or destructive leader, which is typically from a basic need to survive. Employee compliance gives the leader the false impression that they are a good leader and virtually everything they do is appropriate; therefore, the leader believes that their leadership style is effective in the organization. They see employees being compliant, they see employees implementing policies without question, and they hear no criticism of their leadership style or any feedback from their staff that suggests the conditions in the workplace are negative due to policies, procedures, or a designated staff member who eliminates feedback. Any success achieved by the organization’s staff despite the leader, is “owned” by the leader, while any discord or failure it is the fault of staff members, the governing board, and/or outside influences. The toxic leader who assigns a staff member to handle operations of an organization does not know how the employees are performing nor are they aware of the workplace climate because the designated staff member has taken over and filters all feedback and information to the toxic leader.

Many times, the internal negative determinants of an organization are hidden by a temporary boost in productivity or the illusion of productivity. In this scenario, the board assumes that the leader is really “shaking things up” and, consequently, improvement, success, and prestige cannot be far away.

Lipman-Blumen found that some employees think a strong, dominating, overbearing, cruel leader is necessary. There are employees with so little self-respect and self-confidence that they think they deserve someone that is cruel and insensitive. Of course, there are employees who think being an insensitive and bullying leader fits their preferred style of management, so they view the totalitarian leader as a role model. In addition, there are many employees that do not have a choice because they must work, and their primary motive is to survive; they tolerate destructive leadership because they must.

As a practical matter, it seems that a destructive leader would be easy to identify and remove; therefore, it is puzzling why so many destructive leaders exist, and it is equally interesting why so many continue in leadership roles for years in organizations before their brand of caustic and negative leadership negatively impacts the organization. However, it makes sense when looking at the profile of many such leaders.

Destructive leaders can be smart, strategic, manipulative, skilled, observant, instinctive, perceptive, articulate, and very persuasive, or hide behind a designated staff member. These are skills that many successful leaders possess, so it is not surprising that some destructive leaders continue to find work at significant levels of influence and control in organizations, and even in political leadership positions. The boards that select this type of leader and who tolerate the leader’s selection of an “enforcer” are naturally very defensive about their selection and are quick to point out the qualities that first made the person attractive for the position. This is cognitive dissonancea decision is considered correct even in the face of opposing facts because it must be justified. This is a vague and weak excuse, for seldom does a destructive leader first show signs of venomous behavior when they become the leader of an organization. Some of the most destructive leaders are charming. There is usually a telling work history of the leader where, for example, there may have been widespread employee dissatisfaction or resignations. The destructive leader will dismiss those concerns with comments about the challenge of change. While that may be a legitimate explanation, it should be explored by board members. Too often boards ignore the background of leaders.

The powerfully negative impact of destructive leadership and the determinants that shape the leadership style can eventually reduce profits, weaken effectiveness, dampen the competitive edge, stifle innovation and improvements, disrupt the strategic plan, negatively impact the workforce, and drive organizational purpose into the ground. Studies by the Harvard School of Business estimate the cost of a failed executive leader at anywhere between $1 million and $2.7 million, depending on the size of the organization. Regardless of the size or type of organization, it cannot afford for its leadership to fail or underperform, because this can drive an organization to insolvency, or it may take several years to recover from such setbacks.

Destructive leadership takes a significant toll on morale and productivity. Studies show that over 40 percent of American employees classify their jobs as stressful and 75 percent of employees said the most stressful part of their job is the behavior and attitude of their immediate supervisor. Furthermore, mid-level supervisors often model their leadership style after that of the organization’s leader. Studies also indicate that many employees would prefer a more conducive, healthy, and positive working environment over a higher salary. These same studies point to workplace climate as a reflection of leadership. Leaders control the elements that define the workplace climate of an organization, and the workplace climate determines the effectiveness of an organization.

Destructive leadership behavior in non-profit organizations negatively impacts donations, reduces the volunteer workforce, and causes a reduction in services to the community. Negative and ineffectual leadership in businesses, educational organizations, such as private and public schools and colleges, and other organizations is equally devastating. Careers are destroyed and the collective negative impact on the community of stakeholders is negative and far-reaching.

A conundrum is that the elements of good leadership and destructive leadership are so closely aligned that it is not simple to distinguish between the two. This, coupled with the dearth of people qualified to be effective leaders, creates a near crisis in some organizations. However, such negative impact can be controlled and managed when components of destructive leadership are revealed in organizations by descriptions of behavior and the consequences of such behavior, as well as by clearly delineated examples of non-productive leadership versus productive leadership. That is the purpose of this book.

Descriptions of leaders and their behaviors are central to better understanding why boards cannot misstep when choosing a leader and why leaders must understand their role in organizational leadership and leadership accountability. Furthermore, following epidemiological concepts, this book includes research and case studies that offer valuable tools and lessons for leaders.

Many people and students of leadership look at examples in the business world and in business-related articles and books to glean information about good leadership and to recognize flawed leadership more easily, but seldom will business leaders and non-education entities look at examples of successful and flawed leadership in education and non-profit settings as a learning tool. This book, unlike most books on leadership, offers lessons for anyone interested in leadership by exploring the impact of leadership and the role of boards in a wide variety of organizations.

However, there is something else to offer, too. Any discussion about the determinants of leadership would not be complete without also including what works. Destructive leaders, boards, and organizations are not necessarily lost causes. There are “antidotes” to the poison of ineffective leadership. Sometimes, the antidote is disproportionate to the number of determinants necessary to counteract the effects, but it is possible to address each determinant. For example, it takes a steady and long-term “dose” of servant leadership to counteract the destructive effects and aftereffects of dictatorial leadership and disinterested leadership.

The message should become clear that boards and leaders can be held accountable for allowing a destructive workplace climate to contaminate what otherwise could or should be a healthy organization. Of course, there are well-functioning organizations with effective leadership and governance; however, research shows that half of the people currently in leadership positions, at least in the western culture, will fail. They fail primarily due their inability or unwillingness to build and maintain a productive team, a positive work climate, and a leadership style that encourages and motivates employees. However, it does not have to be that way. There are lessons for leaders and boards in this book that can change the trajectory of organizations, so that they are productive and successful.


Garry W. McGiboney, PhD, is an internationally recognized leadership and psychology expert. He is the author of eight books and over 40 professional journal publications. Dr McGiboney has appeared as an expert on CNN, The Discovery Channel, National Public Radio, Nickelodeon Network, and many other media channels. He has been quoted in Time Magazine, USA Today, and other major news outlets, including the international press. He is also a frequent speaker at state, national, and international conferences, and has received numerous awards and commendations for his work and research.


An Epidemiological Study of Leadership is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. 

Read Extract