Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Michael D. Coovert, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Walter C. Borman, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Michael Braun, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Chad Dubé, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Joseph A. Vandello, Ph.D.


egoistic dominance, abusive supervision, destructive leadership


Toxic leaders are a serious problem, but shockingly, there is no standard detection tool that is both efficient and accurate. Compounding the problem are the various definitions and descriptions used to operationalize toxic leadership. This research sought to align the literature, offer a concise definition, and assess the domains indicative of toxic leadership through two conceptually compatible studies. Study 1 involved development of a toxic leader threat detection scale. Results using a variable-centered approach indicated that follower perceptions (n = 357) of leader empathy (4-item scale; α = .93) and the need for achievement recognition (4-item scale; α = .83) significantly predicted the egoistic dominance behaviors (5-item scale; α = .93) employed by toxic leaders (R2 = .647, p < .001). Using a person-centered approach, the scale scores also revealed latent clusters of distinct behavioral patterns, representing significantly different toxic leader threat levels (low, medium, and high). Study 2 assessed whether followers (n = 357), without access to behavioral information, would infer toxic characteristics simply from a leader’s physical appearance. Participants perceived images of male leaders (η2 = .131) with masculine facial structures (η2 = .596) as most likely to behave aggressively, while feminine facial structures (η2 = .400) and female images (η2 = .104) created the highest perceptions of empathy. The subjects also selected male leaders with masculine faces (η2 = .044; η2 = .015) as more likely to desire recognition, but with an inverse relationship (η2 = .073) such that feminine looking males earned the lowest scores. Overall, these results supported the idea that empathy and the need for achievement recognition create an “ego gone wild” condition and, not only can we measure the behavioral tendencies of toxic leaders, but perhaps we can “see” them as well.