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September 10, 2021

Damaging masculine leadership

This article is about the damage that toxic masculine leadership can do to people. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public focus on leadership has reached new heights. The ability of political leaders to deliver on our expectations has, however, left much to be desired. By displaying a range of toxic masculinities (behaviour stereotypically, though not exclusively, associated with men which negatively impact society as a whole), the Premiers of numerous democratic countries – and especially Bolsonaro, Johnson and Trump – have effectively mismanaged governmental responses to COVID-19.

Some might argue that the potential mismanagement of crises is simply part of the price citizens pay for their freedom within democracies; after all, in coercive autocracies, subjects have little choice but to obey governmental edicts. Others suggest that we are in fact getting the worst of both worlds, enjoying the illusion of political involvement whilst suffering the hubris of politicians who seek popularity above integrity, loyalty above reason. But could the proponents of leadership studies also bear some responsibility for the shortcomings of our leaders by failing to explore the intended or unintended consequences of their theories?

Consulting the vast literature, we find a dearth of direct discussion on the emotional and bodily aspects of leadership. This is partly because of the concentration on linear rational accounts of individual attributes: traits and characteristics that are deemed to have a causal relationship to effective leadership. This focus on variables that can be measured to identify chains of causation extends even to matters of personality as in analyses of charisma and emotional intelligence(The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, and How to Get It). However, studies of leadership frequently neglect – or even worse, deny – embodied forms of non-rational behaviour despite their prevalence among leaders and the extent to which they often have a toxic impact at work, in sport, leisure or politics.

Jean Lipman-Blumen ( alerted us to the insatiable and narcissistic ambition of toxic leaders who lack integrity, are unethical, cynical, and untrustworthy. Yet toxic leaders readily find followers who – due to their own anxieties and insecurities – possess an excessive desire for certainty and control. By removing the need for reasoned choice and informed decision, authoritarian figures provide a simplified ‘truth’ to these followers, presenting a world in which they are no longer required to discriminate between fact and hyperbole. Using these means, populist political leadership and social media conspiracy theories have gained ever-increasing traction in recent times.

Whilst the toxicity identified in certain political leaders is most frequently attributed to psychological disturbance, it might instead reflect a more pervasive force in society surrounding attachment to masculine identities. In my new book Leadership, Gender and Ethics: Embodied Reason in challenging Masculinities, I explore how – through an embodied form of reasoning – masculinities might be challenged or at very least disrupted to deprive them of the power to institutionalize their toxic impact.

Criticisms of masculine excesses among leaders often take the form of challenging the dominance of scientific rationality that precludes embodied reason and passionate engagement with people. However, populist autocratic leaders recognise how communications which are as much (if not more) emotionally embodied than cognitively rational provide the essential prerequisites to the establishment of a cult following. Consequently, the posthumanist feminist critique of the disembodiment of masculine leaders can backfire as we have seen in the antics of Bolsonaro, Johnson and Trump. While embodied interactions may resonate with the lives of people, they can be equally as negative as positive. These populist leaders appeal very much to bodily emotions yet display even more toxic masculinities than the cold, calculating and cognitive practices of their more rational predecessors. While embodiment may be a necessary condition of ethical leadership, it is not sufficient for there has to be moral integrity around a collective and communal commitment whereby leadership is shared rather than located as the prerogative of a single individual.

Damaging attachments to masculine identities
In my book, I argue that what stands in the way of accomplishing this ideal is an attachment to masculine identities where leaders seek to preclude alternative views by surrounding themselves with sycophants to avoid any opposition to their control. While Trump has the highest turnover of “A-Team” staff of any recent President of the US (, most individuals who seek the most senior of political offices tend to be a little narcissistic in ways that incline them to prevent any criticism of their practices. Whereas the self is always insecure and precarious, masculine identities are particularly fragile because they reside in historical and contemporary myths about what it is to be a man.

Historically, men have managed this insecurity through physical prowess, military battles and male dominance in their relations especially with women, but these strategies had their wings clipped as feminism evolved. Some men responded by presenting a gentler and more intimate and sensitive image, but this tended also to be associated with a narcissistic lack of commitment to anything beyond themselves.

Others embraced a re-assertion of traditional masculine myths surrounding physical survival against the elements and took part in ‘back to nature’ haunts where homophobic aggression and hunting, shooting, fishing and fighting were celebrated in the hand-wringing masculine antics of authors like Robert Bly (

These responses are a clear indication of how men are attached to their masculine identities.

What is to be done?
As we have frequently witnessed in recent years, when excessive attachment to masculine identities forms a partnership with narcissistic tendencies, the impact on leadership effectiveness can be – quite literally – lethal. How is this issue to be confronted? Clearly there is no simple solution, but it can be argued that academics who study leadership bear at least some responsibility for this state of affairs where leaders are prepared to perpetuate disinformation, a hatred of opponents, and even violence against established democratic institutions. They do this simply because their masculinity is threatened by any failure to win in the competitive stakes for supremacy. This kind of attachment to masculinity can only be disrupted by research that exposes its devastating impact on everything and everyone.


Bly, R (1990) Iron John: A Book About Men, Boston: Addison-Wesley
Braidotti, R (2013) The Posthuman, Malden: MA: Polity Press
Knights D (2021) Leadership, Gender and Ethics: Embodied Reason in Challenging Masculinities, New York and London: Routledge.
Lipman-Blumen, J (2004) The Allure of Toxic Leaders, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rigio, R. E (1988) The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, How to Get It, How to Use It, New York: Dodd Mead.

Written By

David Knights
Lancaster University

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