Toxic Leadership: Characteristics of susceptible followers

It is interesting that toxic leaders are able to entrench themselves so quickly in organisations. If we look at some toxic leaders from the past it becomes evident that these individuals could never have reached the heights of their power without a solid follower base and colluders who helped them to meet their goals and gain power.


Dr Paul Vorster

In the last article on toxic leadership, we delved into the characteristics of toxic leaders. In this article, we look a little more closely at the followers that support toxic leaders and provide them with their power base. More importantly, we explore the characteristics that make followers susceptible to the cunning wiles of toxic leaders and more particularly the social forces that may override moral thinking.

The Power of Leaders

It is interesting that toxic leaders are able to entrench themselves so quickly in organisations. If we look at some toxic leaders from the past it becomes evident that these individuals could never have reached the heights of their power without a solid follower base and colluders who helped them to meet their goals and gain power.

If one takes Adolf Hitler as an example, we come to the realisation that this leader had the capacity to draw an entire country into his way of thinking. Using the economic depression and hardships endured in Germany after World War I (1914 – 1918), Hitler was able to mobilise an entire movement (the Nationalist Socialist or Nazi Party) and later in the 1930’s large proportions of the German population to make war on the world.

But, what is interesting is how Hitler was able to mobilise large proportions of the German population to follow his vision. By promising to ‘make Germany great again’ Hitler instilled a new form of German pride, self-respect and dignity to the already downtrodden German people.

This message was emotive, charismatic and powerful and appealed to millions of Germans. With the rise of his Arian viewpoints, branding the German people as ‘Übermensch’ or superhuman (a term invented by German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra and twisted by Hitler), Hitler was able to polarise people of different races brandishing any non-Arian as subhuman and responsible for the socioeconomic chaos in Germany at the time.

This racist rhetoric resulted in the so-called ‘Final Solution’ which resulted in the extermination and ethnic cleansing of over six million Jews. This doesn’t include the millions of gypsies, mentally challenged, homosexual, and other marginalised communities who were systematically exterminated by the Nazis from 1942 - 1945 and the heinous medical experiments conducted in the name of progress. 

Hitler knew that stroking the German nation’s pride would result in their obedience and allegiance. On a very basic level, Hitler was able to tap into the unmet needs of the German population at the time to mobilise them to his cause. It is easy for us to think that the same thing cannot possibly happen in the modern world and that the Nazi’s were inherently evil. However, if the Rwandan Genocide (1994) and the Bosnian Genocide (1992 – 1995) are considered, then some very uncomfortable questions need to be asked about human nature. Is it possible that there is a flaw in human nature that makes us susceptible to the influence of toxic leaders? Is it possible that any one of us can act without remorse or conscience if we believe strongly enough in the message of a leader?

On Human Nature

In 1941, during the height of Nazi power in Germany, German sociologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm published a book entitled The Fear of Freedom in which he outlined why human beings are susceptible to the control of leadership and institutions.

Fromm explained that all people are faced with the notion of freedom in their personal and professional lives. When people realise that they are free to do as they want and please, within reason, they also realise that personal freedom comes with great responsibility and massive ambiguity.  People have to make their own way, have to decide what they want to do with their lives and guide themselves towards meaning. Additionally, people feel small and insignificant and are faced with the conundrum of deciding for themselves what is right and wrong.

Freedom is, therefore, anxiety inducing. It is easier, says Fromm, to follow a set of rules and regulations laid down by others, than to make our own way in a chaotic and ambiguous world. Fromm called this the ‘escape from freedom’ and he postulated that the large majority of people seek external meaning and purpose from sources outside themselves. Fromm indicated that any institution sets down rules and regulations, informs the individual about what they should do with their lives, gives them control over others, and allows them to avoid the existential horrors of dealing with the world alone. Fromm indicated that religion is such an external source as it provides us with rules to live by, tells us how to act, and provides us with control and meaning in our lives. Additionally, government, public and private institutions all serve the same purpose.

Think for a moment. In modern organisations there are rules and regulations that guide your behaviour, tell you what your purpose should be professionally, and give you control of some aspect of organisational functioning. This is a very good example of how institutions, no matter their nature, take away freedom and make us follow a simple, structured and understandable ideal which makes us feel comfortable and in control.

In short, to reduce our anxiety when dealing with freedom, organisations and institutions allow us to feel less anxious about what to do with our lives and give us feedback on how well we are doing. It is therefore very appealing to follow an external ideal, instead of wrestling with freedom to find intrinsic meaning, which Fromm referred to as ‘positive freedom’. This aspect of human nature is what makes human beings susceptible to leaders and the structure they create. More importantly, the followers feel less responsible and accountable for their actions because the leader takes ultimate responsibility. Leaders tell us what to do, how to do it, and give us feedback on how well we executed their orders. This is the central concept of obedience that is instilled in us from a young age by our parents and entrenched in our social and professional lives. As Fromm argued, we are hardwired to obey and seek external meaning from others. Unfortunately, doing so, often makes us obey uncritically and may in some cases override our moral compasses.   

Susceptible Followers

There are many examples of followers who supported toxic leadership regimes. The question that has to be asked is why people do so? Although Fromm provides us with some explanation as to why people are so susceptible to an external structure, just how susceptible are we? Also, how far can we be pushed before we stop doing what leaders demand of us?

Most Nazis were considered good and responsible citizens with no history of mental illness or psychotic tendencies. In fact, to become a member of the elite Nazi SS you had to pass numerous physical and psychological tests, and prove that you had no history of criminality. However, SS soldiers were able to commit atrocities in the blink of an eye when ordered to do so by their leaders.

Philip Zimbardo in his book entitled The Lucifer Effect (2007) refers to this as the mundane nature of evil, where normal, run-of-the-mill, individuals are capable of extreme immoral acts under certain specified conditions. These conditions are enacted by three social forces referred to as the obedience to authority, role conformity and group apathy to which individuals are uniquely susceptible. We discuss these aspects in the next few sections.

  1. 1.      Obedience to Authority

Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, wanted to understand how individuals can follow orders from an authority figure even though these orders may be morally reprehensible. Milgram set himself the task of conducting a series of experiments in the 1950’s and 1960’s to determine to what extent psychologically healthy people would obey an authority figure when instructed to do immoral things. Milgram postulated that human beings had a flaw, a social need, to obey authority figures and that they would do so relatively uncritically in certain situations.

One of these experiments, referred to as the Milgram Electric Shock Experiment placed individuals in a situation where they had to administer electric shocks to a research participant (who was actually an actor working for Milgram and was never harmed) of successive intensity. Shocks would be administered every time the actor answered incorrectly to the learning of word pairs in a fake learning and memory experiment. Each time the actor gave an incorrect answer, the intensity of the shocks would increase. The participant that administered the shocks was told what to do by a fake professor (another actor in a white lab coat) who was instructed to tell the participant to continue the experiment without intimidating the participant. General scripted comments by the professor would be “please continue” or “the experiment requires that you continue”. If the participant objected and refused to continue the experiment, then the experiment was halted. The point of the experiment was to evaluate whether individuals would put a stop to the experiment, or whether they would continue inflicting pain on a participant if instructed to do so by an authority figure (the fake professor in the white lab coat).

The results of this experiment were shocking, to say the least. Over two-thirds of participants (60-70% on average) would inflict shocks to the highest level of intensity (which was twice the mains voltage in the US) ignoring the screams and shouts of pain from the actor. To see more of this experiment and modern replications of the study please refer to this link.

Milgram explained that it is human nature to defer responsibility to an authority figure. This happens more often when the context of the situation is ambiguous or threatening, and the individual is not completely sure of what to do. Interestingly, this deference of responsibility allows the individual to feel very little remorse for their immoral behaviour, simply because someone in authority told them to engage in the immoral act. The rationale is that the authority figure is responsible for the unethical behaviour, not the participant.

According to Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser (2007) these types of followers are called conformers and their capacity to obey without thinking critically is enhanced when they have low core self-evaluations (are not confident in themselves and their abilities), have unmet needs (when basic physiological or psychological needs are not satisfied), and have low levels of psychological maturity (an underdeveloped identity/sense-of-self that is easily replaced and influenced by group identity).

What is interesting is how these characteristics relate to the general German population just after the WWI period and how the charismatic and authoritarian nature of Hitler provided guidance and the deference of responsibility to the masses. It also raises interesting questions about modern day South African politics where a large proportion of the South African population have unmet needs, low core self-evaluations, and are drawn into the emotive and charismatic arguments of their leaders, which have all been a result of low socio-economic standing (similar to Germany at the time). In fact, all of the characteristics of conformers are often found in groups of very low socio-economic status. These individuals often have unmet needs, feel abandoned by society and worthless, and lack the moral development and ego development to stand against immoral leaders.

  1. 2.      Role Conformity

Philip Zimbardo took Milgram’s work further when he embarked on a study to determine how the roles people play in their professional lives can alter personality to such an extent that immoral behaviour becomes acceptable. In the Stanford Prisoner experiment, Zimbardo chose the most psychologically healthy men studying at Stanford University and split them into two roles, prisoners and wardens.

The participants would play a game, full-time for two weeks, where they would run a mock prison. The wardens would guard the prisoners in the basement of Stanford University where the mock prison was set up in eight-hour shifts. To increase the realism of the experiment for participants and reinforce their roles, Zimbardo organised that the prisoners (chosen randomly) would be ‘mock arrested’ by the local police department and booked like real prisoners. They were also given white frocks to wear with numbers printed on them and a chain around their ankles (wardens were instructed to refer to the prisoners only by their numbers thus deindividuating them). The wardens (also chosen randomly) would receive khaki uniforms, sunglasses and a whistle which would reinforce their role. With no input from an external source, the prisoners and wardens would be observed by Zimbardo and other social psychologists.

The results were once again shocking. The entire experiment had to be called off after six days because prisoners presented with extreme stress reactions (akin to mental breakdowns). This was because the wardens started seeing the prisoners as real prisoners, something reinforced by their roles, and thus treated them abusively. To see the experiment in action and its consequences refer to this link.

What Zimbardo realised was that rules and culture reinforced in certain roles can be as powerful as an authority figure in controlling human behaviour. Roles could unconsciously alter the behaviour of individuals in such a manner that they would engage in morally reprehensible acts without much thought. In this case, an ‘invisible hand’ (culture, rules, and roles) acted as the authority figure empowering the individual to engage in reprehensible acts without much thought.

This raises interesting questions about the roles people play in their professional lives and how organisational culture, rules and climate, which are instilled by leaders, can invisibly affect individual behaviour. Once again, individuals with low core self-evaluations with unmet needs and low levels of psychological maturity are at the highest risk. This is because the role and the identity it provides replaces the underdeveloped self-identity of conformers making them view their role as the only aspect of their lives that provides them with meaning, pride and a sense of identity. Conformers often imbue themselves with an external sense of identity provided by their role, or organisational context. However, situations, where such individuals are exposed to large groups of people, can result in a sense of apathy which can be as dangerous as being influenced by a role or a leader. 

  1. 3.      Group Apathy

In 1968 social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley embarked on a study to understand why large groups of people are slow to react to morally ambiguous situations. This research was spurred by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Boston, where 37 witnesses observed her murder, which took approximately 30-40 minutes and did nothing to intervene. None of the witnesses even called the police. This gave the murderer time to flee and return to the murder scene to continue the job.

This event shocked the Boston public and the people of the United States at large and raised numerous questions about the helping behaviour of individuals. The big question was why so many people did nothing to help. You can refer to interviews with Darley and Latané by following this link.

Darley and Latané did numerous experiments where they put people in some form of jeopardy and observed groups of varying sizes to determine whether the perceived size of the group affected the helping behaviours of individuals (whether they would intervene and help the individual in jeopardy). What Darley and Latané found was that the larger the group of people the less willing individuals in the group were to assist or intervene. If individuals were placed in the situations alone, they almost always intervened or helped.

Darley and Latané proposed that this behaviour was a result of perceived responsibility in the group. In smaller groups people felt more individually responsible for intervening and assisting, whereas if people were placed in larger groups they felt less responsible, often inferring that someone else would intervene. This phenomenon was coined the ‘Bystander Effect’ or ‘Group Apathy’ and had serious implications for individuals operating in large groups. 

Ultimately, the perceived size of the group, and how the group behaves, greatly influences the perceived individual accountability and responsibility of individuals which becomes diffused amongst the group’s members. This effect is even more powerful when the group is charismatically affected by a leader. Essentially, a single leader could whip a group of individuals into a frenzied mob, where the mob would act without remorse or conscience and reference one another’s behaviour to evaluate the social desirability of certain actions. In such cases, such as can be seen in the mobs in Rwanda for example, the morality of individuals can be overridden by this effect allowing the toxic leader to exert his/her influence to even greater extremes. There are even wider implications for modern organisations in which larger and larger groups of people work together on a daily basis.

Once again, individuals with low levels of psychological maturity and who are externally focused (seek meaning and structure externally from others, instead of internally from themselves) are at greater risk succumbing to this social force.    

The Implications for Modern Organisations

            The characteristics of susceptible followers (i.e., low self-evaluations, unmet needs, and low psychological maturity) interact with the three social forces (obedience to authority, role conformity, and group apathy) to make individuals more susceptible to the influence of toxic leaders. These characteristics of followers and the innate hardwiring of our social natures make individuals uniquely susceptible to instructions of toxic leaders.

            It is, therefore, necessary for us to be aware of how these forces interact with our natures to bypass our morality and force us to act as automatons (individuals that do as they are told without critically analysing the instructions from leaders). It is only when followers are able to identify these social weaknesses that they can defend against them. Interestingly, Zimbardo noted that when individuals are made aware of these social forces they can override them relatively easily.  In other words, being aware of these forces, asking critical questions about the leader, and being aware of your own state of mind, can inoculate you from giving in to the manipulation from toxic leaders. Additionally, being aware of ambiguous or threatening environments (such a merger, or acquisition, or when organisations are laying off individuals) can make us aware of the contexts that make us seek certainty from our roles, others and leaders. In order to battle this effect, and to evaluate how susceptible you are, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I enticed by what the leader can offer me? Do I have basic needs that are unmet such as a need for security, certainty, or basic resources? Am I in a threatening environment at work? Do I seek certainty from my leader(s)?
  • Do I have a sense of self beyond my professional life? Can I differentiate between who I am, and what my organisation is, or is my identity interweaved with my organisation’s identity?
  • Can I distinguish between a good logical argument and an emotive charismatic argument? Am I easily won over by charismatic/emotive speeches? Do these speeches/emotive arguments make me feel strongly and deeply?
  • Do I tend to do as I am told, or follow an ideal that others lay down for me? How critical and mindful am I about my actions on a daily basis?
  • Do I tend to disappear into the background in meetings and group discussions? Do I stand apart from the group’s views, or do I tend to often do as the group wants?
  • What is my degree of comfort being told what to do by a leader? Do I fear to make my own structure, or following my own convictions?
  • Am I able to take individual responsibility and accountability for my actions, or am I more likely to share responsibility with the group? Do I often think that someone else will do the right thing instead of me?
  • Do I often feel lost when I am not told what to do by others or a system of structure? Am I capable of creating my own certainty or structure, or am I dependent on others for this?

Coming Soon in the final article on Toxic Leadership

In our next, and final article on toxic leadership, we will look more closely at the characteristics of colluders. Whereas followers are dangerous because they do as the leader wants without thinking critically, colluders do as the leader does because they want to. We will explore the colluder value system and seek to understand why these individuals often reinforce the leader’s message and can turn on the leader in an instant.  


Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

Milgram, S., & Gudehus, C. (1978). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Nietzsche, F. (1995). Thus spake Zarathustra: A book for all and none. New York: Modern Library.

Baynes, N. H. (1942). The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922 – August 1939, Volumes 1 and 2. London, England: Oxford University Press.

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 176-194.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.