Identifying the Four Unhealthy D’s of Dysfunctional Leaders

dysfunctional leadership

By Lee Ellis

Earlier this year, someone sent me a Washington Post article about the Pentagon’s investigative actions to remove abusive leaders. One general was described as a profane screamer who was “cruel and oppressive”. Another leader was singled out as a verbally abusive taskmaster and still another was “dictatorial,” “unglued”, a master of “profanity-fused outbursts.” A power-hungry senior Department of Defense civilian was so bad her subordinates said that it was “like you were in a prisoner of war camp.”

Fortunately, I’ve never been assigned to an abusive, toxic leader except when I was in a Vietnam POW camp for more than five years. When I came home, I made a vow that I’d never serve under those conditions again.

“Freedom and dignity were much more important than any short term security.”

The problem exists in every field of work, and regularly I hear about someone leaving a good job they really liked because of a toxic leader. Unfortunately, there are ego-driven, angry, control freaks using their power to intimidate and destroy others. So what can you do about this problem as an organizational leader or trainer? It depends on your perspective and the resources that you have on hand to assess and analyze.

Are You a Toxic Leader?

If you even think you see yourself in the stories above, you may have a problem. Perhaps you have been rationalizing your behaviors and denying the damage that you’re doing. If so, you may be operating out of a term I coined a few years ago called “Progression in D Major” explaining the toxic behavior of dysfunctional dominant personalities. This term defines insecure people who have to be right at all cost. The progression goes like this –

  1. When they’re wrong, they Deny.
  2. Then when there is more evidence, they Defend by rationalizing.
  3. Then when the facts persist, they Demonize those who expose them.
  4. Finally, they seek to Destroy the career or reputation of their nemesis.

If you suspect that you’re a toxic leader, empower and ask someone who has the courage to give you honest feedback. Get a coach, use an assessment instrument like Leadership Behavior DNA™ to assess natural behaviors, and event take a 360 assessment to zero in on your issues and begin working to change.

“If you’re willing to do those things to develop new learned behaviors to balance your natural behaviors, there is definitely hope for you; if not, you’re a lost cause, and I pity those poor souls under you charge.”

Do You Have Toxic Leaders Working for You?

As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to know what’s happening in your domain. If you’re not sure, use organizational climate surveys and 360 assessments. If there’s a problem, take action to get the toxic leader fixed and back on track or out of the organization.

Do You Work for a Toxic Leader?

This is a tough situation. Find good counsel and look for a safe way to let the good leaders who are higher up in your organization know what’s happening. If they won’t take action, you have to decide about staying and endangering your health or making a move. Take your time to work through it with a good support team to help you deal with the emotions and plan your steps.

The Fix

“The solution to toxic leaders is found in courageous actions by other leaders who won’t tolerate those behaviors.”

Where do you fit in this arena and what should you be doing right now? Regardless, the answer will require you responding to the courage challenge—that is, lean into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right—for the organization, the team, and for yourself. It’s worth the effort to live and lead the right way—you can do it.


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Posted by on December 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


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“3 Characteristics of Successful Virtual Teams” – Leadership Insight

virtual team leadership

Many of you are working in virtual environments with remote access to other staff and team members. What’s the best way to lead and work in this environment?

Check out this helpful article from Blanchard LeaderChat on “3 Characteristics of Successful Virtual Teams” – click here

And, please also share your suggestions and experience!

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Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


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On This Day in Leadership History, December 14, 2014

South Pole Leadership

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole.

On this day in history in 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole. He reached the destination 35 days ahead of Captain Robert F. Scott.

Imagine the focused endurance and passionate commitment that it took to achieve this goal, and how does this equate to a leadership goal that you’re seeking right now? If you passionately believe in a goal that you want to achieve, stay focused, make steady progress, and don’t give up.

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Posted by on December 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Daily Reminders of How to Lead with Honor – See Inside

Lee Ellis Store

Check out the Leading with Honor Online Store for daily ways to stay focused on leading the right way.

Daily reminders of how to lead with honor can help during moments of decision-making. One of the easiest ways is using Leading with Honor items such as reminder cards, wristbands, and more to keep your focus on leading the right way!

Check out our stocking stuffers in our Online Store, and please share if you’re already using some of these items – thank you!


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Posted by on December 13, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Leading with Honor Wisdom for Today, December 12, 2014

Lee Ellis Leadership Wisdom

“Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” – C.S. Lewis


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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Giving Back Emphasis – The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation


Today, we want to give special emphasis to an organization that Lee supports – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF)

Based in Washington, D.C., the VVMF is the nonprofit organization authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1980 to build a national memorial dedicated to all who served with the U.S. armed forces in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, today known as The Wall, was dedicated in 1982. Two years later, the bronze Three Servicemen statue and a flagpole were added to the site on the National Mall. The dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, to remember and honor the women who served in Vietnam, took place on Veterans Day 1993.

Since the dedication of The Wall, VVMF has pursued a mission of preserving the legacy of The Wall, promoting healing and educating about the impact of the Vietnam War. For more information on this worthwhile organization, click here.

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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Uncategorized


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On This Day in Leadership History, December 7, 2014

Presidents Adams and Jefferson Leadership

Pictured left to right: President John Adams and President Thomas Jefferson

On this day in 1796, John Adams was elected to be the second president of the United States.

Ever wonder about Adams’ personality type? Read Lee’s fascinating article on his comparison between Presidents Adams and Jefferon—it may surprise you!

Click Here


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Posted by on December 7, 2014 in Uncategorized


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