Toxic leadership can be predicated by followers who either collude or conform to their leader’s wishes, further harming an organisation.
According to Jean Lipman-Blumen, author and professor of organisational behaviour at the Drucker School of Management in the United States, toxic leaders generate a serious and enduring poisonous effect on those they interact with and lead.
“To complicate matters, leaders look different, depending upon one’s relationship to them,” she writes. “Thus, my toxic leader may be your hero and vice versa.”
What, then, are the characteristics of a follower who propels their toxic leader to hero status?
Follow the leader
A toxic leadership situation can involve two types of followers: those who seek to get ahead (colluders) and those who toe the line (conformers).
Followers who collude can be seen as one of two types: acolytes and opportunists.
Those who conform can be separated into three subtypes: authoritarians, lost souls and bystanders.
The true believers in the leader’s vision who don’t require persuasion to aid their agenda.
Sharing similar views and values with their leader, acolytes typically internalise these toxic visions and goals to such an extent that it results in their unwavering support.
Acolytes typically collude because of these congruent world ideologies and values – in essence, they agree with the leader.
In contrast to acolytes, opportunists seek to leverage their alliance with a toxic leader purely for personal gain. Typically, the opportunist carries out the leader’s agendas and displays compliance in the hope of gaining reward that is contingent on their compliance.
The Enron example
Enron is one of the most prominent examples of CEO and organisational corruption in US history. There is evidence that followers in the organisation were also culpable for its demise, rather than it solely being due to the actions of the CEO and board.
Enron’s former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, and chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow, willingly participated in Enron’s manipulations of income and unethical dealings.
Their actions represent an amalgamation of an acolyte and opportunist. For example, it appears they didn’t need persuading to participate in unethical business ventures (the acolyte). However, personal monetary gain was a focus of their actions (the opportunist).
The common theme among conforming followers is that they will generally stay quiet until the situation becomes personally untenable or the company finally collapses.
Authoritarians conform to a toxic leader largely because of their rigid respect for authority and the position of the leader. They have a deeply innate belief in the position of ‘leader’, which translates to an unwavering respect and trust towards a leader, toxic or otherwise.
These followers have a strong belief in a ‘just’ world, an attitude that implies that the suffering of victims must somehow have been deserved. This just-world mindset may work to offset, rationalise or justify any unethical or toxic leadership behaviour these followers may participate in or contribute to.
Based on this perception, authoritarian conformers may be on the precipice of becoming colluders.
Lost souls follow a toxic leader because of their own lack of self-worth and are susceptible to the leader’s charisma. Many toxic leaders provide lost souls with a sense of purpose and belonging that triggers feelings of compliance.
The lack of self-worth means that, while the lost soul may not agree with the leader’s behaviour, personal risk of lack of acceptance makes them conform to the leader’s agenda.
Passive by nature, they typically stay at a toxic organisation because they fear the personal expense of leaving. While they don’t generally actively participate in toxic agendas, bystanders aim to minimise the personal risk of failing to conform by allowing the situation to occur.
In comparison to the other types of conformers, bystanders are typically more independent and the furthest removed from the toxic leader.