We all know about toxic leaders. There are plenty of them around. Some are especially skilled with the ability to use their words to grind down anyone they perceive as a threat.

I call these leaders ototoxic – named after the medical description of drugs that cause adverse reactions to the ears’ cochlea or auditory nerves.

Ototoxicity is a distinctive quality of a poor leader, who can leave a trail of damage.

Ototoxic leaders betray themselves by a number of logical fallacies – hallmarks of their communication style. US President Donald Trump has given us plenty of examples during his presidency.

They play the person not the argument

The ototoxic leader will go after a person’s character or pick on a personal trait. They take aim at anything personal, but will avoid addressing the logical merits of the argument. This is known as an ad hominem fallacy.

Donald Trump critiqued fellow Republicans – “Lyin’ Ted” (Cruz), “Lil’ Marco” (Rubio), “Low Energy Jeb” (Bush). There were also repeated references to “Crooked Hillary”. He repeatedly accused opponents of being “too aggressive”, (usually a woman) or “not forceful enough” (usually a man), or in the case of “Lil’ Bob” Corker, of not being “tall” enough to be taken seriously.

They use straw-man arguments

an oxotoxic leader will also exaggerate, or blatantly fabricate, an opposing point of view. This allows them to position their perspective as more reasonable and practical. In the third presidential debate before his election, Trump accused Hillary Clinton of advocating an open border policy, misquoting comments she made in relation to free trade. In a climate of widespread national hostility towards immigration, the border wall seemed to many as the more reasonable option.

In the workplace, an ototoxic leader will use overblown rhetoric to belittle someone else’s initiative, exaggerating potential cost overruns or overstating other risks in order to then position their proposal as the more reasonable one.

They appeal to hypocrisy

This defensive strategy turns an initial criticism back on the accuser. Trump used this rhetorical flourish during his presidency after refusing to face criticisms that he didn’t take a position on the violence following the Charlottesville rally. Rebutting the criticisms of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, Trump maintained that ‘many others’ had also done bad things, implying they were equally culpable.

In the workplace, an ototoxic leader can often be heard defending their actions using the appeal to hypocrisy. “You think I’m aggressive? What about that meeting last week when you didn’t agree with me? You were just as bad, if not worse!”

They use the firefighter arsonist tactic

Named after the rare syndrome where firefighters light fires intentionally only to later arrive as a hero to put it out, the ototoxic leader will overly dramatise a potential problem, at the same time pointing the finger of blame at others for causing it. Once the situation reaches a critical mass, the ototoxic leader will then step in with a last-minute solution, ‘saving the day’.

Trump is well versed in this tactic. Stoking anti-Muslim sentiment as early as March 2011 with his calls for then President Obama to show his birth certificate and trading on unfounded ‘birther’ claims, Trump proceeded to inflame fears throughout the election campaign. He threatened the mass deportation of Syrian asylum seekers while promising to create a database of all Muslims in the US, along with making false claims of seeing ‘thousands and thousands’ of people in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Centre Towers in 2001. Trump stepped in to solve the ‘problem’ by signing his two travel bans within the first 100 days of his tenure.

More recently, Trump repeatedly covered himself in glory after meeting Kim Jong-un at their historic first summit in June 2018. Mere months after painting Kim as “Little Rocket Man” who, according to Trump posed the greatest threat to Western civilisation and was enabled by his predecessors who “should have been handled a long time ago”, following the summit Trump celebrated the “success” of the meeting. He waxed lyrical about the leaders “tremendous” relationship, including the beautiful “love letters” he received from the North Korean dictator in the lead up to the summit, while going on to extol the virtues of Kim, including his “great personality”, his sense of humour, intelligence and his negotiation abilities. Following the script of the hero who rides in to save the day, Trump tweeted that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office…there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

In the workplace, the ototoxic leader will spark a flame of disquiet around a project or strategy then proceed to escalate concerns – often through back channel politics – before presenting a grand ‘solution’ that saves the day.

Passive and aggressive

Ototoxic leaders can be aggressive or passive. The actively toxic communicator, who uses aggressive and intimidating language to subordinate others, can be bombastic, opinionated and openly dismissive of those who have different views. Their default mode of questioning almost exclusively involves closed questions (yes or no). Their inability to be open and listen to other’s views is usually a symptom of their lack of empathy.

The passive ototoxic leader is no less poisonous. In one-on-one settings, they are an impatient listener and will quickly interrupt their interlocutor in order to express their own view, often cutting the other person off in mid-sentence.

This ototoxic leader will tend to become frustrated in meetings if the consensus view is running contrary to theirs, to the point they will actively disengage from what’s going on in the room. They will resist all attempts to re-engage them by looking to shut down the conversation wherever possible.

Energy suckers

The net effect of the ototoxic leader’s tactics and communication style is to de-energise those they come into contact with.

Research shows that these de-energising ties have a disproportionate impact on an organisation’s culture. They are a ‘toxicity multiplier’, reducing the levels of individual performance, employee engagement and general well-being.

A disproportionate level of conflict between teams is generated and trust decreases. Rather than investing the energy to achieve their goals, those who work under an ototoxic leader spend a disproportionate amount of time analysing the relationship and devising strategies to palliate the person.

Join the conversation

Does your leader speak with a “forked tongue”?