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14 Qualities of Toxic Leadership

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 a 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 demand loyalty 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 deeper problem—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.

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  • Thank you for tackling a difficult topic. I would encourage you to consider writing about: What do you do when you are in ministry with one of these toxic leaders? or what if you personally were hurt significantly by one of these types of leaders in a previous ministry?

    We were in a situation where we witnessed this although we loathed what was going on because we personally saw it hurt the church members but we were stuck because of the forced loyalty where we had no wiggle room. We honestly felt like we served under Laban but if it had not been for the love we had for the Lord we would not have continued. We committed to serving for a set amount of time and reached it but before we knew it we were kicked out because my husband asked what he should do next since the Lord had been burdening his heart to preach more and more. We were abandoned in a specifically needy time (health conditions prevented us from moving out of the area immediately) of our lives without a pastor for several months before the Lord lead us to a new ministry. This happened because we were told after our last service good-bye fellowship, “you know you can never come back, don’t you?” when the congregation had been given a lovely speech about how they thought of us as “children in the ministry” and they hoped when they were old my husband would return to preach at the church. That was one of the hardest trials we ever went through!

    We know that toxic pastors are not a topic many people talk about but yet so many people are hurting because they don’t know what to do when they’re in a situation like this or have been hurt and just simply kicked to the curb with no place to go. It damages God’s servants and causes casualties when people believe they really are not worthy to serve or lose hope because the situation is not an easy one to navigate and they fear causing a rumble within the congregation.

    Thank the Lord our hearts have been healing and we are now serving in a new place with non-toxic leaders but that is not always the case. I heard of a family in youth work that had something similar happen to them seven times throughout their service to the Lord. It is beyond my comprehension how those types of toxic people really justify their actions without believing they will really be accountable to God for their actions of ruining trust and violating their position.

    May the servants who serve with these types of people know that there is always hope that the Lord will see and reward the toxic leadership in the way that He sees fit. That they can still serve God faithfully because they serve Christ first and foremost. There are others who have borne the burden of this type of experience and moved on to do good and wonderful service to the Lord. Don’t give up fulfilling God’s call because of the opinions and actions of one person! And don’t be weary in well doing for in due season ye will reap if ye faint not!

  • AMEN!!…looking forward to part 2…this helps leaders and followers both…to realize the proper roles and biblical approaches that the LORD Jesus established as our perfect example. Power exercised under the control of the Holy Spirit with meekness, combined with love and compassion…and for both leader and follower in any context. The power to lead in a godly manner and likewise, the power to follow in a godly manner…both are SPIRIT filled roles. Loved the article. Thanks for posting your heart felt insights.

  • Thank you for this article, very helpful! Looking forward to the next one!

  • Good article. It would be especially helpful to, as the Apostle Paul did, name some names within our circles so these general observations can be applied to relevant and practical examples.

  • Dear Cary,
    I am a 77-year-old great-grandmother, writing for twenty-five years of the grace and glory of God; for five years blogging on For the past six months, the Lord has been leading as I have been in the process of getting five of our books ready for publication through Createspace and Kindle.
    As I have been learning, I have been looking for other less known Christian authors that have the same message that the Lord has given me, believing that God is doing a great work beyond what we can see.
    Coming across your book DONE on Amazon I am blessed to look forward to reading your work, and hopefully to align with other authors who are proclaiming the truths of God’s kingdom that is ours in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Here on your site I find more that excites me, seeing how God is working through you and your ministry.
    In the next few weeks as we publish and market through Amazon and our website, I hope to feature other authors and their work on our website. Yours will be one of the first, as I pray for the Lord to bless you and your ministry.
    In Christ ~ Fran Rogers

  • I just bless God for your life Pastor Cary, and I pray for more grace upon your life. I’ve been so blessed reading your messages. I just finished the ’14 things’ to tell young adults, and then reading this has blessed me so much! Would you be coming to the UK anytime soon? Thanks


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