Stories & Thoughts 

The toxic tongue of leadership

Written for my work with t-three, this article takes a look at the darker side of success, when successful business does NOT mean a successful leader. Pulling out a few incidences of when the end does not justify the means.

Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Winston Churchill. What do they all have in common? They are all incredibly successful in business. They are held up as people we should emulate and aspire to be like. Yet, all three of them also show some serious signs of toxic leadership.

  • Elon Musk has been described as “a megalomaniac genius who struggles to regulate his emotions”. He publicly berates employees and demands people work at an exhausting pace.

  • Steve Jobs has been tarnished for breaking nearly every leadership rule. A dictator, a micromanager, and completely unapproachable.

  • Then there’s Winston Churchill. Though marked as an extraordinary leader for helping steer Britain through World War II, there was a dark side to his legacy. He’s been labelled a bigot, a racist, and he too was no stranger to chastising his colleagues.

Toxic leadership is bad for business:

  • Increasing anxiety

  • Lowering productivity

  • Making it difficult to concentrate

  • Heightening risk

  • Missing opportunities

  • Curbing innovation, and

  • Keeping people quiet.

What is your business missing out on when people keep their heads down and their mouths shut?



Toxic leadership is bad for you:

  • Creating a constant state of fear and unease

  • Raising your cortisol levels

  • Reducing your ability to connect or trust others

  • Making us paranoid

  • Limiting collaboration

  • Disturbing your sleep

  • Encouraging bad physical habits of not eating well and stopping exercise.


There are many common signs that toxic leadership is present in your workplace, including:

  • Leaders say they have an open door policy, but you can’t ever get through the threshold.

  • Leaders are consistently withholding information, constantly changing the direction, and not being transparent about why.

  • New ideas are regularly shot down or ignored, or you don’t feel like they are welcome in the first place.

  • Leaders never talk about culture, trust, and teamwork. They talk only about targets and goals.


If you find yourself working with a toxic leadership, you have three options.

  • Do nothing. It might be a phase, it might pass, it could be a period of extreme stress that won’t last forever. Give yourself a milestone to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling, maybe you give it 6 months, until your next review, or when your current project ends.

  • Do something for you and the business. Call out the behaviour and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Speak to the person you think will make the biggest difference in the situation.

  • Do something for you. Perhaps it’s time for a change - to change manager, change role, or to move on entirely.

The long-term impacts of toxic leadership can be huge. It can damage the health of our business and ourselves. Tesla, Apple, and running the British Government in times of war are nuanced and complex feats of leadership. Profitable organisations today demand strong and powerful leaders, but do they really need to be toxic?


How can you be successful in both your business AND your leadership? What do you want to be known for and what impact do you want to have on those around you?


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Samantha x

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