Alan Goldman


On his book Transforming Toxic Leaders

Cover Interview of January 14, 2010

The wide angle

I argue that a single-minded concentration on positive leadership alone is one-sided, skewed, and unable to address the psychology of high-level leaders and extremely complex organizational systems. A failure in leadership lies at the center of our current economic debacle. When consistently bad behavior and long term patterns of impoverished planning and strategy emanate from the top—metastasizing like an organizational cancer—dysfunction, pathology and collapse follow.

The inability to manage workplace relationships and the human side of enterprise strike at the very heart of business. While leaders may achieve a level of brilliance in their areas of expertise, it is not uncommon to witness the same renowned figures falter and stumble, exhibiting extreme arrogance and narcissism, and directing abuse toward important colleagues and customers.

The high cost of bad behavior in corporate circles surely brings to mind the most unethical and downright diabolical leaders and companies, whether they are Bernie Madoff or Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron. Cases such as these can serve as a wakeup call, reminding us of the potentially destructive reach of leadership. But one should not overlook the fact that Madoff, Lay, and Skilling were also exceptionally intelligent and privileged leaders who excelled in their areas of expertise, even while carrying out insidious and malicious strategies against employees, colleagues, and clients.

Decadent organizational policies surely create toxic leaders, much as an executive with a personality disorder or a CEO with a long-term history as a psychopath may infect his or her executive board and management team with a virulent psychological disease. But brilliance itself knows of the dark side of human behavior.

Toxic leaders and organizations can in effect be both “patients” and “clients” who undergo highly pointed forms of “detoxification” and guided, positive transformation. Both individuals within an organization and the organization as a whole become “sick” and “toxic” by virtue of their leader spreading his or her own affliction like a contagion.

Also consistent with the medical model is the assumption that the illness can be treated and the individual, divisional, or corporate patient can be nursed back to health. Even a previously toxic leader can be transformed, becoming more functional and effective, even ultimately emerging as a figure marked by enlightened, authentic, and even super-functional leadership skills.

An understanding of psychological dimensions allows for a more accurate assessment of leaders who fall within the “toxic category.” Since toxicity is a fact of company life, it is better to speak of it in terms of levels. Lower levels of toxicity must be distinguished from the higher.  For example, a leader diagnosed with only several symptoms from narcissistic personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, or antisocial disorder indicates a “normal pathology” and falls short of high toxicity. Curiously, leaders with lower levels of toxicity and a mild dose of hyperactivity, narcissism, or antisocial behavior may exhibit some extremely positive and super-functional behaviors, such as extraordinary levels of energy, elevated passion, and a tendency to be highly innovative. The very disorders that implode leaders and destroy organizations may also provide, in “lower doses,” a creative, innovative, and obsessive edge to those who fall on the milder side of the spectrum of toxicity.