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Why We Fall for Toxic Leaders

The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team debates over a selection of candidates for Word of the Year, choosing the one that best captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. The 2018 Oxford Word of the Year is: toxic.

It is the sheer scope of the word’s application that has made toxic the stand-out choice for the Oxford Word of the Year. Here, Jean Lipman-Blumen, the author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, reflects on the lure of following toxic leaders.

School shootings, terrorism, cyberattacks, and economic downturns open the door to toxic leaders. Small wonder these dangerous, seductive leaders attract followers worldwide. Toxic leaders typically enter the scene as saviors. They promise to keep us safe, quell our fears, and infuse our lives with meaning and excitement, perhaps, even immortality.  Yet, as history grimly attests, they routinely leave us far worse off than they found us.

We are most vulnerable to toxic leaders when our sense of safety lies at low ebb. Leaders who vow to make us “great again” may actually create, not simply exacerbate, our anxieties. Their grandiose illusions require only the simplest response: total acquiescence. That is the tip off, the smoking gun. Still, their seductive offers usually prove irresistible.

The temptation to follow toxic leaders has deep roots, first, in our existential anxiety, the knowledge that, inevitably, we all physically die. We struggle mightily to ignore that inexorable clock ticking deep inside us. Yet, when cascading massacres and other crises assault our senses, we taste our own mortality. “Active shooters” and exploding packages are just the latest entries in a growing catalogue of death-dealing disasters that stir our existential anxiety.

Predictably, toxic leaders step forward to reassure us that they alone can avert our “appointment in Samarra,” annihilate our human “enemies,” and assuage our social disadvantages—but only if we pledge allegiance to their flag.

A second and related root of our vulnerability to toxic leaders feeds on our deep hunger for meaning and intensity in our lives. This yearning increases our vulnerability to toxic leaders’ promises of an exhilarating existence, etched forever in human memory. We can console ourselves about the prospect of physical death if an intense life opens the door to immortality. As Napoleon knew so well, “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.”

In their call to arms, toxic leaders identify the “Other,” whom we must vanquish to satisfy these needs. Naming the “enemy” not only explains our discontent. It also ignites fierce emotions that goad us on: anger, hatred, distrust, envy, even greed. Meaning and intensity fuse.

In our ordinary lives, we all live intensely at key moments: the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, the discovery of love. Toxic leaders, however, guarantee us incessant intensity, heated by a flame of fury, hostility, and revenge. They continue to feed that fire until it engulfs not only the despised “Other,” but the followers, and, eventually, even the toxic leader. That followers, themselves, face dangers large and small from toxic leaders is evident in the number of loyalists’ lives lost, careers curtailed, and resources ravaged.

A third deep root of our “fatal attraction” to toxic leaders: by supporting them, we become “the Chosen,” special individuals, sheltered within the privileged “center of action.” Within that sacred space, key decisions are shaped—mostly in our favor. Even when we are not part of the toxic leader’s inner circle, our dedication to that vision anoints us as valued members of “the base.” The catch: as “the Chosen,“ we feel compelled to squelch any rising doubts, much less act upon them, lest we face eviction from the Garden of Eden. Witness the steady stream of ousted White House staff whose slightest deviations have pushed them outside looking in.

What effective countermeasures, if any, can we take?

Most importantly, we can face up to our fears and stare them down. Confronting anxiety stimulates both resilience and creativity. As psychologist Kurt Lewin noted, this exposes us to change, prompting us to experiment, learn, and innovate still more. Innovation, itself, seasons life with fervor. Galvanized to invent novel solutions, we create new institutions that reduce our fears. And, ironically, acting despite our anxiety takes courage, the active ingredient in true heroism, the one real path to immortality.

Next, we can seek “dis-illusioning” leaders, who shatter our illusions, forcing us to face reality, opening the door to self-reliance, confidence, and growth. “Dis-illusioning” leaders teach us to engage in the “valuable inconvenience of leadership,” that is, sharing the hardships of leadership and developing our “leader within.” These tough-minded leaders demonstrate that, far from being the privilege of a select few, leadership is the responsibility of us all, whereby we learn to shoulder life’s burdens with strength and grace.

One more weapon against toxic leaders: select—or better yet—become a “connective leader.” These valuable leaders easily identify even the slimmest mutuality in conflicting agendas of diverse, but interdependent, groups. They help us see ourselves “completed”—not diminished—by our connection to others, as the Nguni Bantu concept of “Ubuntu” suggests. Connective leaders enable us to reject the “we/they” dichotomy, opening possibilities for comradeship, collaboration, and even more creativity. By becoming our most complete selves, we find the intensity and meaning we’ve been seeking.

Living as connective leaders, we engage in enterprises devoted to the common good, beneficial and supportive to all—like global, enduring, and sustainable peace. As “complete” persons, we can join with others to live intensely, with purpose, and possibly—just possibly—set the world on a better trajectory. Combined, these strategies offer strong defenses against toxic leaders.

The choice is ours. The time is now.

Featured image credit: Photo by rob walsh. Public domain via Unsplash.

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