July 21, 2016

14 Qualities of Toxic Leadership

Written By Cary Schmidt

Leadership is hard, and biblical leadership calls for gospel maturity more than many leadership roles. I’ve been exposed to many Christ-like and some toxic leaders.

The road of toxic leadership is a bad one. The stories don’t end well for either the leader or those he leads. Eventually, the leader implodes; and those he led end up hurt, dismayed, and often wounded enough lose their faith.

The only perfect leader is Jesus, and every one else is capable of leading poorly. Yet, the call to biblical leadership is a call away from fleshly leadership tactics or traits—what, for this post, I will call “toxic leadership qualities.”

In the next two posts, we will examine 14 toxic leadership qualities. They exist, in some form, across every kind of leadership context and different kinds of churches. They exist wherever there are carnal or immature leaders.

We will see the first seven toxic traits in this post, and then the next seven in part two.

If you are a leader, in any context, these qualities will diminish your ability to lead and influence well. If you are a “follower”—it is vital for your own health and growth that you find a leader who is seeking growth and accountability to avoid these traits.

Here are the first seven warning signs of toxic leadership:

1. Places Personal Success Over Gospel Service—A secular leader essentially says, “You’re here to help me succeed.” A servant-leader essentially says, “I’m here to help you succeed.” Toxic leadership places the “prestige” of the leader over the care of others. In an over-emphasis of the leader’s personal accomplishments and significance, he might view it all as “my ministry, my people, my…”

Conversely, servant leadership, while it may be respected, isn’t demanding or driven by that respect. Servant-leaders are driven to help others grow, help others experience joy. They desire to see others thrive in the gospel. To a servant-leader, the ministry is a call, not merely a career; and the church family is the Lord’s heritage. A servant-leader’s greatest joy is not his personal success, but the joy and flourishing of God’s people.

“For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?” (1 Thessalonians 2:19)

2. Demands Blind Loyalty Rather than Biblical Unity—Toxic leaders demandloyalty rather than develop it. What team doesn’t need loyalty towards one another? But there are two problems with demanding loyalty.

First, often it is “blind loyalty” that is emphasized. This, in itself, is a bright red warning light on the dashboard of leadership. The emphasis of something the Bible forbids should give serious concern.

Second, even reasonable loyalty can’t be demanded as much as it can be developed. If a strong team loyalty isn’t growing organically, can it really be coerced into place? Reasonable loyalty grows from the context of integrity and humility. When the team is healthy in biblical direction and relationships, loyalty grows organically from the garden of close-knit hearts. Therefore, it generally doesn’t need to be emphasized, as much as appreciated. A leader should be humbled that co-laborers would develop an appropriate sense of support and commitment, not only to the leader, but to the whole team and to the cause of the gospel.

Where loyalty is absent in a God-given relationship, there is a character problem either in the leader or follower. Over-emphasis of loyalty is evidence of a deeperproblem—either an insecure leader or a fracturing team.

Put another way, if I were a leader in your life, and didn’t have your loyalty, then I probably wouldn’t get it by demanding it. Maybe it would be appropriate to have a conversation about why I don’t have it, how I could develop it, or what is fundamentally flawed or broken about the relationship.

1 Peter 5:3 “3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”

3. Expresses Hostility Towards Questions (Rather Than Transparency)—Biblical leaders should be approachable and able to field a question. A toxic leader is continually spooked or made hostile by questions—sometimes because of insecurities, and other times because he has something to hide. This hostility is an indicator of a problem.

People have questions, and most questions are honest and sincere. Most questions come from people who are spiritually engaged and supportive of ministry.

There’s a funny irony on this point. Leaders who most fear questions always generate more questions, and not easy ones. This leader creates a culture of suspicion, which generates many more questions.

Toxic leaders are afraid of questions and therefore tend to be less communicative. They often have something to hide, and therefore avoid accountability. They surround themselves with compliant hearts who would rather not ask a question. Their general lack of communication leaves people wondering and needing more information. This is counter to the biblical pattern of leadership.

2 Timothy 3:10 “10 But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience,”

4. Over-Reaches for Final Authority in Counseling and Decisions—The Bible knows nothing of a single-counselor with ultimate final authority (or veto-power)—except Jesus. To the contrary, the Bible emphasizes a multiplicity of counselors in decision-making.

If God has given you a “multitude of counselors” to confirm His given direction, and you allow any one man to veto that confirmation, you have usurped Jesus’ Lordship in your life.

One man among others, offering wise counsel, is biblical; one man wielding absolute control, in spite of others, is not biblical.

I can safely say, if I had allowed any one man to veto God’s clear leading in my life over the years, I would have missed a great number of God’s greatest blessing and opportunities for my life and ministry.

Proverbs 11:14 “14 Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.”

Proverbs 15:22 “22 Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established.”

5. Over-Emphasizes Authority and Morphs it Into Lordship—The continual emphasis of “position, title, or authority” exposes a gap in understanding the nature of biblical authority. Continually reminding people “who is in charge” is a sure sign of one who really isn’t in charge. A father or mother that must always yell, “I’m in charge here!” generally isn’t in charge and isn’t leading well.

Where biblical authority is lovingly expressed, people know where the authority rests—for it is being used to serve and care for them. The biblical use of authority generates appreciation, respect, and order because it is fully accountable to “the great shepherd of the sheep” and knows its place to “care for souls” and not to oppress them. (See Hebrews 13)

When a spiritual leader is over-emphasizing or over-reaching his authority, there is a deeper problem. A servant leader exercises authority under Christ’s authority, without the need to relish it, restate it, or reach beyond its scriptural bounds. That same spiritual leader is comfortable with the principle of “the priesthood of the believer”—the idea that every individual believer is accountable personally to Jesus Christ in all decisions and directions.

1 Corinthians 11:1 “1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”

6. Avoids Personal, Confrontational Conversations—Servant leaders are, by definition, problem solvers. (See Acts 6) That’s what leaders do—they resolve, reconcile, and serve by bringing hearts together in the fellowship of the gospel. Therefore, biblical leaders must become secure enough in Christ, and courageous enough in His grace, to be able to calmly and competently enter into potentially confrontational and controversial conversations.

Toxic leaders do three tragic things with possible confrontation. First, they avoid it. They dismiss problems, disregard concerns, avoid questions, hide sin, etc. Second, they become passive-aggressive and misuse the pulpit to confront publicly. Third, when confrontation becomes unavoidable, they become carnal, slanderous, hurtful, and make it personal.

Contrast this with the Apostle Paul’s call for a leader to help two ladies in Philippi to reconcile their discord:

Philippians 4:2, 3 “2 I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.”

7. Uses the Public Pulpit to Deal with Private Conflicts—A toxic leader takes private, resolvable issues, and uses them in the pulpit to coerce people. Or he takes personal matters to the pulpit to vent or rage or threaten.

The verbiage might be vague, but people know “who” or “what” the pastor is referencing. Verbal jabs and innuendos make the message clear, although plausibly deniable. The target person “gets the message” and is hurt. Observers are put in fear not to “cross the leader.” But mature Christians see through the game, and they will view the leader as either insecure or malicious. They will lose respect and trust, and probably don’t stay around. As they leave, the cycle repeats itself.

Most importantly, this tactic is a tragic misuse of the sacred responsibility to teach and preach the word of God from the pulpit. God warns us about this use of this type of force or cruelty.

Ezekiel 34:4 “4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.”


Toxic leaders hurt people, hurt themselves, and hurt the cause of the gospel. By God’s grace we can avoid these carnal tendencies, and seek to become leaders like Jesus.

These are only the first seven of fourteen toxic leadership qualities.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the last seven in the next post.