Our Research

Tyranny of the Cause: Toxic Leadership in the Social Justice Sector

There seems to be an epidemic of toxic leadership in the social justice sector.

Almost weekly, we hear another story from another staff member about their experiences with an exploitative and/or controlling/bullying supervisor. The stories are strikingly similar. After over 50 formal, in-depth interviews, plus informal conversations with many dozens of nonprofit staff, we find you could practically copy and paste the language from one person to another: from public ridicule, blame, and censure, to micromanaging and nitpicking, to demanding long hours with low pay, and more.

Because social justice organizations have limited resources to invest in leadership development and capacity building, it is critical to examine and address how toxic leadership practices and unhealthy organizational culture not only undermine those efforts, but also jeopardize an organization’s mission and result in an exodus of emerging leaders. It’s equally important to build people-centered leadership practices across the sector that promote healthy organizational cultures and strengthen movement-building.

With our research, we hope to create a candid conversation about this issue, discuss root causes and impacts, and share strategies and challenges in addressing toxic leadership behaviors. We review the latest research on organizational development and movement-building, and synthesize the information to offer a new way forward for existing and emerging leaders, funders and capacity builders, and leadership development professionals. Our goal is to support healthy, sustainable leadership practices, build more accountability, and strengthen progressive social movements.

To read more about toxic leadership, check out:

Plus, Vega was featured as a guest author on this topic with her chapter “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the Nonprofit Sector” in David C. Yamada and Maureen Duffy’s and compilation, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States.