“The culture of an organization is like a river. It can be fluid, strong and consistent, serving as a lubricant while guiding its members in the right direction. In contrast, a river can become stale and toxic, silently killing those who drink at its shore.” ~ Ron Kaufman (2002)

Each year, the Oxford Press selects, then narrows down, a list of words that best highlight the manner in which the English lexicon is changing in response to current events. According to Katherine Martin, editor of the publisher’s US Dictionaries, “Oxford’s 2018 Word of the Year is … toxic.”

The Word of the Year is a word or phrase that Oxford judges to aptly reflect “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and has lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” In 2017 the Word of the Year was “youth-quake,” defined as a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” Influenced by the Brexit referendum and the general political landscape, “post-truth” was chosen as Oxford’s word for 2016.

According to the publisher’s website, “toxic” was chosen from a shortlist “drawn from evidence gathered by (its) extensive language research program which gathers around 150 million words of current English from web-based publications each month.” Apart from being used in an array of contexts, both in its literal and more metaphorical senses, the word “toxic” had a 45% rise in the number of times it was referenced in 2018.

As a neologism that describes the current zeitgeist, Oxford is correct in linking “toxicity” to pollutants that endanger relationships, organizations, schools, and churches. Since its inauguration, the 21st Century has unfortunately been plagued by a number of corrupt and unethical leadership scandals. Moral deficiencies have been prevalent among leaders in the public, private, political, and faith-based sectors. Most recently, the algae of toxic leadership have been exposed in the crucibles of political partisanship, sexual harassment, religious hierarchies, media-wars, and unethical investment ruses. As a result, there is a pressing need for leaders to honestly assess the levels of toxicity within themselves and the cultures of their respective organizations.

In his book, Reflections on the Psalms (1986), the British novelist and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis referred to the 19th Psalm as “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” Apart from its elegant theological poetry, the 19th Psalm of the 19th Book of the Bible provides valuable insights to leaders who are interested in detoxifying themselves and their respective organizations during the 19th year of the to the 21st Century.

The 19th Paean of David celebrates the value of God’s creative Word. According to Israel’s 2nd King, the insights contained in the Word of the Lord, as found in His “Law,” are superior to secular wisdom and material wealth. The first part (1-6) of Psalm 19 highlights the implications of God’s Word “spoken” (communicated) through the created order. While the second section (7-10), focuses on the value of God’s Word communicated in His “Law,” the third and final section (11-14), draws attention to the “servant” who has the wisdom to pray that God’s Word “cleans,” “preserve,” and “orders” his/her life “blamelessly.”

David outlines five detoxifying tonics in God’s Word, each with its own specific outcome: (1) Testimonies, (2) Precepts, (3) Commandments, (4) Fear of the Lord, and (5) Judgements (19:7-9). Testimonies are aspects of the Word of God that testify (indicate) to God’s Will. If listened to, the Lord’s Testimonies provide “wisdom.” Precepts, on the other hand, are instructions that are “right.” When prudently observed, God’s precepts bring inward “happiness,” which flows from a clean ethical conscience.

According to Israel’s intuitive political and spiritual leader, the Commandments found in God’s Law are “pure.” Consequently, if respected, they “enlighten” leaders with the requisite knowledge and discernment for making appropriate decisions. While the “Fear of the Lord” is that aspect of His Word that nurtures a “reverential respect” for God that can help leaders remain “clean,” Judgements are those aspects of the Lord’s moral system of “truth and justice” that regulate interpersonal relationships and society.

Before his death, David shared a valuable counsel with Israel’s future leader. “Be strong, and show yourself a man, keeping the charge of the Lord your God.”  Reminiscent of his 19th Psalm, David concluded his instruction to his son Solomon by exhorting him to “walk in God’s ways and keep his statutes, commandments, precepts, and testimonies, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn” (1 Kings 2:1-3).

The 19th Psalm celebrates the detoxifying value of God’s Word as something “more precious than fine gold and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb” (19:10).  While not advocating works of righteousness, the Psalmist contends that adherence to this Word “revives the soul,” “makes wise the simple,” and “enlightens the eyes.” King David concludes his enlightening Canticle with a beautiful prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (19:14).

Understood in such a holistic fashion, the 19th Psalm has much to offer the 21st Century leader interested in “detoxifying” their hearts, words, and actions. But what exactly is “toxic leadership” and how can it be effectively expurgated?

The hearts, words, and actions of toxic leaders may be understood as ongoing exploitative, devaluing, and demeaning “arrows” that “poison” the sense of dignity, self-worth, and efficacy of their constituents, employees, and/or followers. When they diminish a person’s meaning and purpose, these destructive engagements may be physical, psychosocial or even spiritual.  As a result, the toxicity of an organization’s culture increases, eroding and disabling the physiological, psychosocial, and spiritual well-being of those who encompass it.

Data from numerous research studies unfortunately indicate a current increase of such toxic leaders. The Life Meets Work Survey entitled, Detoxifying your Culture and Encouraging More Mindful Leadership (2017) reveals that 56% of employees report having toxic workplace leaders, who publicly belittle subordinates, have explosive outbursts, and accept credit for others’ successes. Additionally, over eighty percent (81%) of employees suspect they have been discriminated by their toxic managers. According to Kenneth Matos, psychologist and Vice President of Research for Life Meets Work, “while toxic leaders can be highly effective in the short term, their methods tend to burn out employees and present long-term risks for the organization.”

In their book, Toxic Workplace: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (2009), M. Kusy and E. Holloway suggest that toxic leaders have an “insidious effect . . . on organizational life and the welfare of both the organization and those who work diligently in pursuit of the organization’s success.” The authors provide ample evidence to support the conclusions of the Life Meets Work Survey by insisting that toxic leaders abuse their power and position, and leave their organization worse than when they found it. They do this by imbuing an institution’s culture with their own toxic personal characteristics that attracts sycophants with similar personalities. Left unchecked, toxic leaders compromise an organization’s values and norms.

Like Kusy and Holloway, Jean Lipman-Blumen describes toxic leaders as leaders, who, by virtue of their “dysfunctional personal characteristics and destructive behaviors inflict reasonably serious and enduring harm.” In her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders : Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Survive Them (2005), she suggests that toxic leaders leave their followers and others who come within their sphere of influence worse off than they found them either on a personal and/or corporate basis.

Numerous authors can be cited that identify the deleterious characteristics of toxic leaders. In her New York Times bestselling book, Take Time for Your Life (1998), Cheryl Robinson identifies six profiles of toxicity.

  1. Blamers: who always complain about what is wrong in their life and blame others
  2. Drainers: who always want guidance, support, information, advice or help without give and take
  3. Shamers: who cut off, put down, criticize or make fun of other people
  4. Discounters: who discount or challenge everything others say. They have to be right and can find fault with any position
  5. Gossips: who thrive on talking about others behind their back, most times to avoid talking about themselves
  6. Demonizers: who demonize those they disagree with

Theo Veldsman, professor and Department Head of Industrial Psychology and People Management at the University of Johannesburg, laments that “three out of every ten leaders are toxic.” Similar to Robinson’s categories, Velsman identifies five profiles of toxic individuals in his 2017 Conversation Magazine article, How Toxic Leaders Destroy People as well as Organizations:

  1. Cold Fish: believes the ends justifies the means. All decision and action are justifiable in terms of the results desired.
  2. Snake: believes the world serves them in the endeavor to satisfy their personal needs like greed, status, and power.
  3. Glory Seeker: believes personal glory and public visibility at any cost, regardless if they have made any contribution.
  4. Puppet Master: believes absolute, centralized control over everything and anyone, under all circumstances.
  5. Monarch: believes ruling the organization as if it is their kingdom. All of its assets are available for their personal use.

Finally, like Robinson, and Velsman, Barbara Kellerman identifies a number of leadership toxicities. Most disconcerting, in her book, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens and Why It Matters (2004), Kellerman, suggests that an organizational culture itself can actually become toxic if the leader and at least some followers (or both) reflect one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Incompetence – lack the will or skill (or both) to sustain effective action
  2. Rigidity – are stiff and unyielding
  3. Intemperance – lack self-control and are aided and abetted by followers who are unwilling to effectively intervene
  4. Callousness – are uncaring or unkind. Ignored and discounted are the needs, wants, and wishes of most members of the group or organization, especially subordinates
  5. Corruption – put self-interest ahead of the public interest
  6. Insularity – minimize or disregard the welfare of those outside the group or organization
  7. Evil – commit atrocities. The harm can be physical, psychological or both

Unfortunately, apart from adversely affecting the more secular sectors of society, toxic leadership may also be detected in religious organizations. According to Thom S. Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources and Founding Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism, toxic church leaders are characterized by fourteen symptoms.

  1. They rarely demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Paul notes those specific attributes in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. You won’t see them much in toxic leaders.
  2. They seek a minimalist structure of accountability. Indeed, if they could get away with it, they would operate in a totally autocratic fashion, with heavy, top down leadership.
  3. They expect behavior of others they don’t expect of themselves. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  4. They see almost everyone else as inferior to themselves. They criticize other leaders while building themselves up.
  5. They show favoritism. It is clear that they have a favored few while they marginalize the rest.
  6. They have frequent anger outbursts. This behavior takes place when they don’t get their way.
  7. They say one thing to some people, but different things to others. This is a soft way of saying they lie.
  8. They seek to dismiss or marginalize people before they attempt to develop them. People are means to their ends; they see them as projects, not God’s people who need mentoring and developing.
  9. They are manipulative. Their most common tactic is using partial truths to get their way.
  10. They lack transparency. Autocratic leaders are rarely transparent. If they get caught abusing their power, they deny it.
  11. They do not allow for pushback or disagreement. When someone does disagree, he or she becomes the victim of the leader’s anger and marginalization.
  12. They surround themselves with sycophants. Their inner circle includes close friends and a host of “yes people.”
  13. They communicate poorly. In essence, any clarity of communication would reveal their autocratic behavior, so they keep their communications unintelligible and obtuse.
  14. They are self-absorbed. In fact, they would unlikely see themselves in any of these symptoms.

While a distinct minority, Rainer warns that because of their “often charismatic and charming personalities, toxic religious leaders can do great harm to the cause of Christ disproportionate to their numbers.”

In response to society’s increasing level of toxicity, a renewed emphasis on Ethical and Values-Based Leadership has fortuitously emerged. Values-Based Leadership (VBL) describes behaviors that are rooted in ethical and moral foundations. Values-Based Leaders are therefore identified as “those with an underlying moral, ethical foundation” (Bass & Avolio, 1993; Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Brown & Treviño, 2006; Gardner & Avolio, 2005). Examples of prominent VBL models include spiritual, servant, authentic, ethical, and transformational.

In contrast to their toxic counterparts, Values Based Leaders have an ethical core of principles that inform their decisions, prioritize their work, and guide their inter-relationships. By adhering to a set of principled values they guard themselves and their administrative cultures from becoming toxic. On the other hand, a lack of such an ethical core often results in entitlement, corruption, falsehood, and an arrogant desire to “throw people under the bus” for the sake of self-preservation.

Michael Brown, Linda Trevino, and David Harrison, define Ethical Leadership (EL) as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making.” Their article, Ethical Leadership: A Social Learning Perspective for Construct Development and Testing (2005), distinguishes Ethical Leadership as “the skill of ethical decision-making and the integration ethical values within the structure of a system.”

In their 2006 article, A Cross-Cultural Examination of The Endorsement of Ethical Leadership, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, Christian Resick, Paul Hanges, Marcus Dickson, and Jacqueline Mitchelson identify six basic qualities of Ethical Leadership. According to the authors, an Ethical Leader must be: (1) accountable, (2) human/society oriented, (3) fair and honest, (4) encouraging and strengthening, (5) motivating, and (6) interested in increasing a culture of ethical awareness. The behavior of ethical leaders is further characterized by (1) an adherence to ethic rules, (2) respectful towards staff/employees and followers, (3) includes subordinates in decision making processes, (4) shares success as well as failure with followers, and (5) never makes concessions regarding justice and basic rights. In other words, leaders are considered ethical as long as they display good, right, and moral behaviors.

Aside from administrative competencies, individual characteristics are also associated with Ethical Leadership. According to Subhasree Kar (2012), Ethical Leaders are differentiated from their more “toxic” counterparts as “honest, caring, and principled individuals who make fair and balanced decisions” (Ethical Leadership: Best Practice for Success). Ethical leaders frequently communicate with their followers about ethics, set clear ethical standards, and are intent on seeing that those standards are followed. Like Resick, Hanges, Dickson, Mitchelson, Brown, Trevino, and Harrison, Karr insists that ethical leaders “do not just talk a good game—they practice what they preach and are proactive role models for ethical conduct.”

Finally, the Center for Ethical Leadership defines the Ethical Leader as one who “knows their core values and has the courage to live them in all parts of their lives in service of the common good.” According to the Center, additional characteristics of an Ethical Leader include the ability to (1) inspire, (2) stimulate, and (2) nurture visionary behaviors in others. By respecting the rights and dignity of their peers, employees, and followers in such a fashion, ethical leaders use their power and authority to serve the greater good instead of self-serving interests.

In 1953, the Hooker Chemical Company disguised their once industrial chemical dumpsite called Love Canal with earth and sold it to the city of Niagara Falls in New York for one dollar. While the three-block tract of land was originally envisioned by entrepreneur William T. Love to be a “dream community,” in 1910 Love Canal exploded. Eighty-two different toxic compounds, eleven of them suspected carcinogens, percolated upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the community’s public school and the backyards and basements of 100 homes. Unsurprisingly, the explosion precipitated an increase of cancer deaths, miscarriages, and birth-defects in the area.

What went wrong? The Hooker Chemical Company tried to bury their toxicity. Although the company’s un-principled leaders thought they could conceal their former activities by burying them, the contaminants resurfaced with extended consequences. Had they been honest and disposed of them properly in the first place, the terrible Love Canal catastrophe could have been prevented.

Left unchecked, the 19th Year of the 21st Century can experience a similar fate. The contaminants created by unethical hearts, minds, and actions cannot be adequately concealed. On the contrary, to do so merely exacerbates their dangerous long-term effects. To reduce the deleterious consequences associated with societal toxicity, leaders living in the 19th year of the 3rd Millennium would be wise to heed the detoxifying exhortations of King David’s 19th Psalm. Rather than attempt to conceal unethical postures and activities, leaders that are willing to “walk in God’s ways and keep His statutes, commandments, precepts, and testimonies, will prosper in all that they do and wherever they turn” (1 Kings 2:1-3). Only by adopting the principles found in the Detox Toolbox of God’s Word will they emerge as the Values-Based Leaders that humanity so desperately needs.

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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