Lionizing J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover

A 2011 film featured Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s Director for nearly fifty years. DiCaprio aptly depicted this 20th century symbol of unbridled political power whose abusive leadership was well known. Yet presidents, the press, and ordinary citizens venerated Hoover even as he perpetrated reprehensible acts, including blackmailing politicians and railroading innocent people to protect informants. Today the FBI building in Washington, D.C. still proudly bears his name.

Hoover’s legacy follows a predictable response pattern to leaders who manipulate, mistreat, and undermine their followers: we frequently lionize them.

Toxic Leaders

Most people claim they abhor toxic leaders. Yet we often follow them – from the Catholic Church’s Cardinal Bernard Law, to the Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, to “junk bond king” Michael Milken – and remain under their spell even when we clearly know their corruption and cruelty.


The Allure of Toxic Leaders

In The Allure of Toxic Leaders, Jean Lipman-Blumen defines toxic leaders as those who engage in destructive behaviors and exhibit dysfunctional personal characteristics that result in serious and enduring harm to their followers and their organizations. This is not just the incompetent or insensitive boss, whom most of us dislike but who don’t do serious damage. Rather, the toxic leader has poisonous impact.

Lipman-Blumen’s 2005 research showed that most people actually prefer toxic leaders to their more nontoxic counterparts.

She warned us not to look for many “saints” among high-profile leaders. She wrote, “Saints rarely seek elected or appointed office. They seldom enter the rough-and-tumble of politics or the corporate world . . . Oftentimes they are even absent from the sacred assemblies of the church.”1

Forty years ago Yale University researcher Stanley Milgram conducted a set of experiments that supported the intoxicating allure of toxic leaders. 2 In these experiments, an actor appeared as a “scientist” in a white lab coat. The “scientist” instructed willing participants to administer what they believed to be electric shocks – some very dangerous – to other “volunteers” engaged in the experiment.  A large percentage of the participants obeyed the malevolent authority, just because the so-called authority wearing scientific garb said, “The experiment must go on.”

This uncomfortable truth spans cultures throughout recorded history. People consistently elect, appoint, promote, and perpetuate destructive leaders.

What renders us lethargic, reluctant, and inept to avoid leaders like Hoover?

The answers – that we’ll explore next time – probably say more about followers than about the leaders themselves.




1Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians–and How We Can Survive Them. Oxford University Press, 2005.

2Stanley Milgram, Obedience and Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, 1974.

Photo Credit: Cliff

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