Can a Toxic Leader Be Ethical? Yes and No.

Can a Toxic Leader Be Ethical?By Linda Fisher Thornton

A Leading in Context Blog reader requested that I address the question of whether or not someone who uses negative interpersonal behaviors can be thought of as an ethical leader.

Toxic leadership is gaining attention as we learn more about the harm that negative behaviors cause in the workplace. What kinds of behaviors could be considered toxic? I blogged about the problem in a previous post called Leadership and…The Cascade Stress Effect:

“If we use fear-based leadership, bullying, command-and-control leadership, belittling, sabotage or other forms of psychological violence, or allow them to be used by others in our organizations, we create the opposite of a supportive, productive learning organization. We create an environment of toxic stress that harms people and the organization.”

“Controlling leadership behaviors set off a cascade effect in organizations that looks like this:

  • We create a toxic, constantly stressful environment
  • which reduces people’s ability to learn and remember
  • and think creatively.
  • We get fear-based compliance
  • without engagement
  • which leaves people not doing their best work.
  • We get a low-trust culture
  • which leads to
  • people spending time worrying
  • individually and in groups.
  • We get poor individual
  • and group performance
  • and poor business outcomes.
  • We reduce the capacity of the business
  • to accomplish its mission
  • through people.”

Leadership and the Cascade Stress Effect, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog, June 2011

“Can someone who uses toxic leadership still be an ethical leader?”The answer to this important question is “yes and no.”


Yes, they can be an ethical leader in some of the dimensions of ethical leadership. Toxic leaders may be model citizens when it comes to ethically protecting the financial future of the company (or other areas of their ethical responsibility). They may show concern for the environment, or be active in community service. They may look in some ways like an ethical leader.


No, they are not an ethical leader, because regardless of how ethical they are in some areas of their leadership, leaders who use unethical interpersonal behaviors are not ethical interpersonally. 

Ethical leadership requires that we honor many different aspects of ethics, including demonstrating respect for others and creating a high trust work environment where people are valued and can do their best work. We must honor individual, interpersonal and societal ethics.

Since toxic leaders fail to honor interpersonal ethics, no matter how ethical they are in other areas of responsibility, they are not ethical leaders.

We can no longer evaluate a person’s leadership solely on results while ignoring the negative ripple effect created by interpersonal behavior choices. It’s time to see toxic leadership for what it really is – stress creating, inappropriate, negative, unethical leadership.


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2014 Leading in Context LLC 




  1. Regardless of the fact that they can be ethical or not, I think such leaders are a real pain in the ass. I can say it because I have worked with such an organisation in the past. It seems like a torture, they dominate your mind and rather your dreams which very easily turn into nightmares. And what is the point of controlling employees, Is it babysitting?
    I would love to read a post on the side-effects of having such a work culture. Thanks 🙂


  2. Let’s look at this excellent question from the point of view of “integrity.”
    The root of integrity is integer, or one, or wholeness. A person of integrity is whole as a human being. That person does not compartmentalize their life, acting with integrity at work but being morally corrupt personally, or vice versa.
    A person of integrity has a moral compass that pervades all they do.
    Thus, I submit, a toxic leader cannot be termed ethical. Their toxicity stains their reputation. Harvard’s Clayton Christensen says it’s easier to be ethical 1005 of the time. Why? Because once you take that first unethical step, the slippery slope gets steeper.


  3. As I have often said to corporate executives and board members, your job as a leader is to teach, enrich, develop others to be successful and accountable. Most leaders have narrow lenses and a high opinion of themselves. This can lead to unethical and toxic conduct that is harmful to others and the organizations that employ them.

    Linda is correct to point out that toxic leaders may have some ethical qualities that are attractive and of value. However, they typically put their interests first almost always at the expense of others.

    Purposeful leaders are truly a rare breed. They lead via their deeds and not convenient sound bytes. More importantly, they are committed to building values based organizations that produce goods or services that improve the lives of others.

    Upon closer examination, may I suggest that they work hard at building and monitoring their moral compasses. A moral compass built on purpose and comprised of values is the ultimate vaccine and anecdote to deal with moral dilemmas. How we use it or not determines whether our conduct is unethical, ethical, or even toxic.

    Great points as always Linda!!

    Mark Faris


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