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9 Revelations About Toxic Leaders If you're squeamish about dealing with ruthless, narcissistic, sadistic, maniacal, backstabbing slime-balls, executive life is not for you.

By Steve Tobak Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


As a staunch supporter of corporate America, it gives me no pleasure to admit that some of the biggest jerks I've known in my life have been senior executives.

Wait, it gets worse.

I was one of them.

Yes, I'm afraid it's true. Most of the guys I thought were jerks would probably say the same thing about me. I don't suppose we'll ever know who the real jerks were. Probably all of us.

If that's not confusing enough, you should also know that some of the best people I've known were senior executives. Puzzle me that.

Under the best conditions, relationships are subjective and situational. When you add all the pressures of the corporate world with so much on the line, workplace dynamics between highly motivated and opinionated individuals with diverse personalities can get pretty darn complicated ... and overheated.

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While a relatively high percentage of accomplished business leaders can be brash and ruthless, contrary to what you might think, it's not all motivated by selfish greed and political posturing. A lot of it is normal conflict and competition, not to mention your average everyday dysfunctional behavior.

During my years as a high-tech senior executive, I learned some interesting things about top executives, including myself. And they just might come in handy, especially if you someday find yourself on the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. And don't be too surprised if, someday, some of these revelations end up applying to you.

Absolute power does corrupt absolutely.

Yes, the old adage is true. If you give people absolute authority and don't hold them accountable with airtight oversight, you can expect ugly things to happen. That's not always the case, but the risk is way too high to risk it, if that makes sense.

Top execs can be loony, too.

I once read that about 20 percent of the population has been diagnosed with some form of psychological disorder. Personally, I think the percentage is much higher at the executive level. After all, it's so much easier to be delusional when you're actually on a pedestal. Forget executive coaches; CEOs would be better off with shrinks.

Big egos grow like bubbles until something pops them.

I'm sure this is something a good shrink could explain, but for some reason, executive egos naturally tend to expand to fill as much room as you give them. That is, until some event where their bubble gets popped in a very public and humiliating way, i.e., they get fired.

There is such a thing as evil genius.

When I was a youngster, I used to wonder why there were no James Bond-like evil villains in the world. Turns out there are … in the boardroom. They're not just petty, vindictive, bullying, and manipulative. There is evil genius in some of their machinations. I know. I've seen it.

Nobody really walks on water.

While it's true that going head-to-head with a powerful exec is usually a loser – especially if it's your boss – there's an old Japanese saying, "If you stand by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by." Most dysfunctional executives eventually self-destruct. You can wait them out.

Related: 2 Lessons You Can Learn From Entrepreneurial Failure

Big executives lie big.

Former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson, Microsemi chief executive James Peterson, and former Broadcom SVP Vahid Manian all got caught for lying on their resumes. And I've actually seen top executives of public companies lie through their teeth like boastful little kids in board meetings. No kidding.

Success is its own worst enemy.

If they're not grounded, success goes to people's heads. The more successful CEOs are, the more they're compensated, and the less oversight they're subjected to, the more risks they will take. Eventually, their egos will write checks that reality can't cash. I'm not making that up; there have been studies.

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the boardroom.

I've worked with some of the most narcissistic, sadistic, toxic, ruthless, maniacal, small-minded, passive aggressive, backstabbing, sugarcoating, brown-nosing slime-balls you will ever have the pleasure of being targeted for extinction by. But then, that just comes with the territory.

Everyone is an a--hole some of the time.

Why can't we all just get along? Because this enormous Petrie dish called life on Earth doesn't work that way. When you think about how different we are, how screwed up our brains can get, and how out of hand the business world is sometimes, it's hard to believe that anything gets done at all. But it does. God bless us, everyone.

Related: This Is Where Big Ideas Come From

Steve Tobak

Author and Managing Partner, Invisor Consulting

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

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