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What is the toxic triangle of leadership?

Donald Trump and the toxic triangle


The case of Donald Trump is a curious one. The man who has held the highest public office in the United States for the last 1,000 days is one who has made a habit of repeatedly undermining, breaching and violating societal values, expectations of standards in public office and quite possibly the US Constitution. The current occupier of the White House has, on the record, admitted to predatory behaviour and sexual assault. Even before 2016, Trump was no stranger to controversy but, despite these facts, he became the 45th president and that’s when reality took a decidedly uncomfortable holiday.

Trump’s inaugural speech described a dystopian America, one in which Trump pledged to end what he described as the «American carnage». The language was emotive and pitted American against fellow American. What was being portrayed by Trump was a very dark America that bore little resemblance to what was evident to the rest of the world – America was, and still is a land of opportunity.

But after nearly three years in office, much of it mired in controversy, Trump is still the president. In the words of Michael Moore, how did this happen? Why is Trump still in the White House? The rules by which people are governed and the societal expectations under which people co-exist seem to be temporarily suspended. We are living in a post truth world so all bets are off. What we thought we knew? Turns out we didn’t. Or perhaps we did.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, Niall O’Dowd from on the controversy surrounding the size of the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration

A 2007 academic paper by Art Padilla, Robert Hogan and Robert B Kaiser entitled The Toxic Triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments posited an unholy trinity of sorts. This trinity creates a vicious cycle ensuring that when destructive leaders get into power, they are unlikely to be removed from power no matter what they do. The case of Trump fits with this model. Once the toxic triangle gains any momentum, it is practically impossible to dismantle the three dimensions that give the Toxic Triangle life.

Trump exhibits almost all of the characteristics of destructive leaders. He is charismatic. Like it or not, he knows how to win a crowd and his message appeals to his followers. He has, on occasion, engaged in personalised use of power. Leaders with a need for personalised use of power will use their authority to stifle dissent, and will describe rivals in such a manner as to demean, demoralise and dehumanise them whilst at the same time, promoting in-group solidarity and cohesion. His use of Twitter is a prime example of his personalised use of power in which he has referred to the media as the enemy of the people, a powerful way to delegitimise the media.

Trump is also a narcissist. Narcissism operates on a continuum, from healthy to unhealthy. In extreme cases, narcissism can be quite destructive and Trump provides credence to this proposition. Perhaps one of the most critical factors of destructive leaders is an ideology of hate. Trump’s specific brand of ideology of hate is no secret and he has leveraged his ideology of hate against Latinos, people of colour, the Muslim community, the media and the LGBTQ community including serving members of the Armed Forces that are transgender.

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The RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on why career advancement may owe much to narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathology

The second dimension of the toxic triangle requires susceptible followers to feed the destructive leaders’ ego. Susceptible followers fall into two groups: conformers and colluders. Conformers follow and support the destructive leader out of fear and acquiesce in an effort to protect themselves from their leader’s most destructive impulses. On the other hand, colluders share similar values and beliefs espoused by the destructive leader.

Two further sub groupings for colluders are acolytes and opportunists. Acolytes are «true believers» to the cause. They don’t see their leader as destructive or toxic, but as a someone delivering on a promise. The relationship between the destructive leader and acolytes works as long as they place a priority on serving their needs.

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The opportunists are a different animal. Opportunists give the impression that they share the same values and beliefs. Publicly, they will advocate for the destructive leader and will support and defends his/her position if called to do so. However, opportunists are politically savvy. They will play the game as long as there is a financial or promotional opportunity by doing so.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s This Week, political consultant John Weaver on the relationship between Donald Trump and the Republican Party

The reluctance of the Republican Party to intervene or rein in their incumbent may be reflective of more opportunistic strategies than any form of solidarity with Trump. As evidenced throughout his presidency, it is practically impossible to challenge Trump because of the power bestowed on him through the Office of the President and his narcissistic disposition. Personalised use of power is a tool the destructive leader will use to destroy anyone that does not agree with his vision and rhetoric. This is exacerbated by an environment that enables the destructive leader to thrive: a conducive environment.

The conducive environment has four distinct dimensions: instability, perceived threat, cultural values, and absence of check and balances and institutionalisation. Instability reflects an environment that is unstable or dynamic. Decisions are often made with little or no transparency or scrutiny because time is often of the essence. Over time, decisions are made with little or no consultation, oversight or scrutiny. Under Trump’s presidency, the personal wealth of Americans has grown, personal taxes for the most part have been reduced and he has delivered on what he said he would do when he got into office.

The perceived threat of something is also a catalyst for the destructive leader to both make decisions quickly without scrutiny or challenge but also to motivate followers. The more volatile the perceived threat, the less scrutiny from those in the upper echelons. Perceived threats to the US economy from China, Europe and Canada provide sufficient justification to engage in protectionist policies that have resulted in the potential for trade wars with these countries.

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From RTÉ One’s Nine News, a report on the escalating trade war between the US and China in May 2019

Destructive leaders can emerge quite easily in organisations where the cultural values have always supported unilateral decision-making and reduced scrutiny. Dark leaders are common in cultures that endorse the avoidance of uncertainty, collectivism and high power distance. Cultures that emphasis cooperation and loyalty, in-groups and out-groups can be referred to as collectivist. High power distance is recognised in cultures where there is a discernible gap between the rich and poor, the highly educated and the less well-educated. In these cultures, destructive leaders can amass significant power. This might explain why the rust belt in the US voted Republican rather than Democrat in the 2016 election. The feeling that they had been ignored and forgotten by the Washington elite only served as a catalyst for Trump to win over this disenfranchised corner of America.

The lack of checks and balances emboldens the destructive leader’s power and influence. In countries where there is no separation of powers, totalitarianism and dictatorship are common place. A culture of dependence and apathy will only strengthen the power concentration of a destructive leader and in this vicious cycle, it will lead to greater follower dependency, weakening opposition, dissent and institutionalisation.

What does this mean in the context of Trump? Nobody can deny that he has followers that will never abandon him no matter how extreme his rhetoric. There may be an impeachment hearing, though the US Senate are unlikely to support removing Trump from office as they would lose power and influence in doing so. The conducive environment is constantly being shaped by the actions of Trump and only serve to ensure he may actually be re-elected rather than removed from office.

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and then, there’s Donald J. Trump

Is there a slim possibility that he won’t be elected? Possibly, if the 25th Amendment to the Constitution is invoked or he resigns. Given the public derailment and Twitter meltdowns we are witnessing, all bets are off. The toxic triangle may help explain why the 45th president of the United States still occupies the White House despite many instances of conduct and behaviour that would have seen any other person held to account. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and then, there’s Donald J. Trump.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ

The 8 toxic leadership traits (and how to spot them)


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Working under destructive leadership is not just difficult for morale. It can also affect the performance of an entire team. Because toxic leaders tend to focus on their own interests, their behavior comes at the expense of their team’s wellness.

But it’s not always easy to spot toxic or destructive leaders, even if it seems obvious in hindsight.

Let’s take a look at what toxic leadership can look like and how you can deal with a toxic leader, and their toxic traits, to thrive in your place of work.

What is toxic leadership?

Toxic leadership is a type of leadership that is destructive to members of a team and the overall workplace. It’s a selfish abuse of power on the part of the leader.

Under toxic leadership, it’s difficult for you and your peers to thrive.

A toxic leader will usually have their own self-interest at heart. This affects a team’s performance, productivity, and morale to varying degrees.


What are the effects of toxic leadership?

Toxic leadership and bad leadership qualities have an impact on everyone who works with the leader who exhibits these toxic traits.

A study from the University of Manchester surveyed 1,200 people to discover the effects of toxic leadership, which included:

  • Workplace bullying
  • Counterproductive work behavior
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Psychological distress
  • Depression and burnout

In the case of workplace bullying, it is often developed as a mediating mechanism when toxic leaders are present. Employees are more likely to retaliate and redirect their frustrations at others around them.

Overall, a toxic boss is an obstacle to healthy workplace culture. Of course, not all toxic leaders will have the same degree of influence on work culture because not all will display the same toxic traits.


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How to spot a toxic leader?

It’s important to keep an eye out for possible toxic leaders around you so that you can adjust and thrive despite their impact. Here are eight toxic traits that make bad leadership qualities.

1. Frequent lying or inconsistent expectations

Dishonesty in the workplace is toxic because it’s difficult to understand your place of work when you don’t have access to the truth.

Toxic leaders also tend to be inconsistent and often backtrack on what they said.

This can cause gaslighting as well.

Let’s take a look at an example. Say your manager tells you on Thursday that your current assignment is due on Friday, then berates you when it isn’t complete by the end of the day. They now state that they previously said it was due today.

This is an example of gaslighting at work. Gaslighting is a type of psychological manipulation that involves one person making the other person question their own memory or judgment.


2. Doesn’t listen to feedback

Everyone has room to learn, but toxic leaders aren’t willing to hear constructive criticism.

Concerns from their team members go unheard, which prevents the team from improving. It also means that a toxic leader stays stuck in their ways.

Here’s an example. You think it would be more effective for the entire team to cut the daily afternoon meeting. You feel that most of what goes on could be discussed over email.

However, your manager refuses to budge on the issue. This meeting was their idea, and they’re taking this criticism personally.

3. Arrogance

Toxic leaders believe they are always right, which is one of the reasons they have difficulty listening to feedback.

They expect people on their team to accept what they say as the truth without question and don’t want to be corrected.

For example, let’s say that you’re in a meeting, and your manager states that the client said they prefer something in particular. You know this is wrong because the client told you so. If you try to correct them, they will either ignore you or berate you for attempting to correct them.

4. Places importance on hierarchy

Hierarchy (people’s ranks and roles within the business) is what gives toxic leaders control over their team.

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Since they want to keep this power, they value this hierarchy. They will make sure it stays in place.

For instance, they’ll shut down an initiative that would allow people on their team to be more independent and make their own decisions.

5. Discriminates against employees

Toxic leaders often have their own biases against people on their team, whether positive or negative. Often, they do not practice inclusive leadership.

This could show up in the form of giving preferential treatment to their friends, or as sexism, ageism, racism, homophobia, and more. Such discrimination can result in a highly toxic workplace.

Here’s an example: the manager praises their friend, even when this friend has done a mediocre job. On the other hand, the same manager is never happy with your work, even when you outperform expectations.

6. Lacks confidence

Toxic leaders don’t typically have a lot of self-confidence. This is often where toxic behavior stems from, as an attempt to overcompensate.

A lack of confidence also means they may find it difficult to trust their subordinates.

As an example, a manager who lacks confidence may micromanage because they don’t trust you to handle a task.

7. Incompetent at their job

Even if toxic leaders believe they are always right, this is hardly true. They tend to make bad decisions and will struggle to do their job effectively.

They will also put down others and criticize them to compensate for this behavior and elevate themselves.

For example, let’s say your manager struggles with time management. They may end up pressuring your team to commit actions that result in projects being late. Ultimately, this will impact the performance of the team.

8. Self-interested

Toxic managers often focus on their own careers and advancement over those of others.


Debunking myths about toxic leaders

Let’s explore four myths about toxic leaders.

1. Toxic behavior isn’t tolerated by your team

It’s easy to think that if a leader is toxic, it wouldn’t be a problem for long because you and your team wouldn’t let this go on.

But there is pressure to put up with this behavior since you want to keep your job and advance your career. It’s not easy to be the first person to stand up to a toxic leader.

As a result, toxic leaders often get tolerated for long periods of time.

2. Toxic leaders are easy to spot

A toxic person can still be a charismatic leader, which means they are able to hide their toxicity. This makes it so that they’re not always easy to spot.

Although they’ll exhibit some of the traits mentioned above, they won’t always do so explicitly or out in the open. Some toxic behaviors can be more subtle than others.

For someone who doesn’t work directly with a toxic leader, it may be difficult to see through their disguise.

3. One person cannot deal with a toxic leader on their own

This is not always true. If everyone believes they cannot deal with a toxic leader, no one will ever speak out, and the problem won’t be resolved.

Fear of standing alone is exactly why several people in a team often tolerate toxic behavior.

But often, all it takes is for one person to be willing to speak out. Once that happens, others will find the courage to speak up as well, and you can start dealing with the issue together.

4. Leaders need to be toxic to advance their career

Corporate positions are competitive, and many people believe they need to adopt toxic traits to ‘make it.’

But toxic leaders have destructive behaviors that aren’t good for the organization, especially in the long run.

5. Toxic leaders are inherently bad people

In some cases, toxic leaders may not realize what they are doing.

Their behavior can be a defense mechanism against their own self-doubts. This means that some toxic leaders have the ability to change over time.


How to deal with a toxic leader

If you do happen to work under a toxic leader, here are seven tips for dealing with them.

1. Attempt to help instead of judge

Help others around you achieve more and drive results.

You can focus on thriving together as a team instead of spending time on drama.

If you can’t avoid the toxic behavior, at least you don’t have to focus on it and give it all your attention.

2. Keep control of your reactions

You can’t control how your manager acts, but you are in control of your reactions to those actions.

Remember that this behavior isn’t about you. Stay in control of your emotions and don’t give them the attention they want.

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If you’re struggling to do this on your own, consider asking your HR department for help.

3. Document everything

Document when your toxic leader makes requests you don’t agree with. This way, if there is a fallout, you’ll have proof that you were asked to do certain things that led to this fallout.

Always ask for a written confirmation via email before you complete a task that you don’t agree with.

4. Set professional boundaries

Keep the relationship between you and your leader professional.

You have no obligation to befriend your leader or answer personal questions. By doing this, you’ll protect yourself and your personal life from toxic behavior.

You can try to deal with the behavior by grey rocking in certain situations, but this is not recommended long-term.

5. Approach your manager with a candid conversation

Although toxic leaders won’t always be open to this type of conversation, you can attempt to have one.

The goal of a candid conversation is not to accuse but rather to air out how you feel and how your performance is being affected.

Approach it with “I” statements and explain how this doesn’t just impact you, but the company as well. Remember, your happiness and performance affects the overall performance of the company.

6. Clarify instructions

Don’t make assumptions about what you believe your toxic leader wants. This may lead to misunderstandings.

Ask for clarifications (in written form) whenever you have even the smallest of doubts.

7. Focus on your job and forget the ego

Remember not to take things personally. A toxic leader’s behavior is not a reflection of you and your performance.

You won’t be able to prove that you’re right and your toxic leader is wrong, so don’t try to do so.


Is it possible to detoxify a leader?

You can help a toxic leader become less toxic, but that’s not always the case.

Your manager needs to be at least somewhat open-minded to hearing your opinions and receiving constructive criticism.

If your leader isn’t open to this, then they won’t change, no matter what you do.

Remember that it’s not your responsibility to help someone change.

Thrive in your career despite toxic leadership

Now you know what to look for when trying to spot a toxic leader, as well as how to best deal with them.

Remember not to take toxic behavior personally. Instead, focus on your work and help others on your team by becoming a positive leader yourself.

The Toxic Triangle — the Environment and Followers of Toxic Leaders

The toxic triangle

Toxic leaders cannot exist alone. They need an environment in which they can flourish and followers who don’t challenge them. If you see toxic leadership within your organisation, you’re going to see elements of the following.

The Conducive Environment

For toxic leaders to be successful, they need an environment where they can thrive. There are four elements that contribute towards a conducive environment: instability, perceived threat, questionable values and standards and an absence of governance.

Toxic leaders will take advantage of – and seek to create – these types of environments.


When there is instability, people accept that decisive action needs to be taken to restore order and stability. They become willing to sacrifice slower democratic decision-making in favour of rapid, unilateral decisions.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When the Roman Republic was under threat, the senate leaders (Consuls) elected military leaders (Dictators) to protect the Empire. Quick decision-making will often bring decisive action. This can return stability to an environment.

Perceived Threat

This relates to the former issue of instability. An external influence or actor creates a sense of ‘being under attack’. When people feel threatened, they become fearful. This leads to a willingness to accept toxic leadership.

Fear is the most powerful human emotion. Politicians have been taking advantage of this for years. Toxic leaders will seek to create an environment where there is a perceived threat – so that their behaviour and actions can become justified because of the external pressures.

When managing change, people often talk about creating a ‘burning platform’ in order for people to change their behaviour. This is usually effective and it might be necessary but it does contribute towards an environment where toxic leaders thrive.

History is littered with toxic leaders that have stoked fears to lead people in a direction that they want. Toxic leaders will blame broad groups of people such as migrants or religious groups for the challenges faced by society and seek to exploit the momentum that follows it.

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It is the perception of a threat that creates the environment for the toxic leader to thrive. The threat does not have to be real.

Consider the large number of people killed every year by drugs and organised crime – and the relatively small amount of money that the government spends combating that activity.

Contrast that with the relatively small number of people killed by terrorists every year in the UK – and the huge counter-terrorism budget.

Perception in this instance matters more than the reality.

Again, I am not trying to make a political point. I am seeking to highlight the environment that allows toxic leadership to thrive so that you can spot it and hopefully challenge it.

Questionable Values and Standards

Toxic leaders ignore values and standards. They see them as something for the boardroom wall rather than ways of thinking that drives their behaviour.

Enron is the perfect example of this. These were their values.

  • Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
  • Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.

But they were different from the actual values of the organisation. The core value that drove the organisation – the value that got people promoted and was rewarded – was greed.

When Colonel David Hackworth took command of a Battalion in the 9 th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War, it was in terrible condition.

Conscript soldiers on the front were neglected by their leadership and in turn had neglected their duties. Poor standards had led to soldiers not cleaning their weapons or looking after themselves.

This had affected their ability to fight the enemy – consequently, they were getting hammered. One of the first things Hackford did to change the environment was a relentless focus on was standards – getting the basics right.

Absence of Governance

One of the core tenants of Lean is ‘Genchi Genbutsu’. Literally translated as ‘Go, Look, See’. Toxic leaders will thrive in an environment where they are not properly governed – where the leaders above them don’t ‘go, look, see.’

Hackworth’s Battalion were in poor shape and combat ineffective because their leadership didn’t go and see what was going on – or they didn’t do anything about it.

They were either negligent or incompetent.

Good governance requires leaders to go and speak to the guys at the front or on the shop-floor. You can’t lead from behind a laptop and you can’t just take the words of your management for granted without ‘getting your own data’.

Susceptible Followers

Toxic leaders require people to follow them. There are two types of follower – conformers and colluders.


These people are passive in the face of toxic leadership. They usually lack confidence and need an authority figure to provide them with security and certainty. They are focussed on self-preservation and are unlikely to challenge toxic leaders, seeking the path of least resistance.


These followers are more proactive than the conformers and will comply with and accept toxic leadership. They are usually ambitious and will imitate a toxic leader’s behaviour – putting them on the fast track to becoming toxic leaders themselves.

The Toxic Triangle Summary

Conducive environments and susceptible followers complete the toxic triangle. These organisations will fail at some point or suffer from some form of scandal – it is just a matter of time.

Consider the damage done to VW’s brand because of the actions of a software engineer. Whilst the individual must hold a certain level of accountability for ‘fiddling the emissions software’, his leadership should have known what he was doing. They were either complacent or incompetent.

Toxic Leaders are much easier to spot when looking up the organisational pyramid – rather than looking down. This creates a challenge as it makes it difficult for the leaders of an organisation to identify and rectify the problem.

At the recent Army Leadership Conference, Colonel Chris Croft explained that the US Army is starting to use 360 degree evaluations to try and weed out toxic leaders. This process includes being evaluated by your peers, subordinates as well as your senior officers. It isn’t perfect but it’s a great start and will give the Army a better chance of creating ‘thinking, adaptable agile decision-makers’ which it will need to fight the wars of the future.

Next week, I will cover the 10 diseases of Leadership as identified by Professor Richard Holmes.

If you’ve enjoyed this article – please take a moment to share it, you’ll be doing me a huge favour and I will be sincerely grateful!

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