11/30 – Juvenile Leadership: Toward A Theoretical Understanding

Mark Bell

Mark Bell

Mark Bell

Mark Bell


Movement toward a new theory is framed on distinctions between toxic leadership and juvenile leadership in that toxic leadership cannot fully explain certain aspects, behaviors, and actions of certain negative, dysfunctional, destructive, or otherwise ‘bad’ leadership realities. Juvenile leadership involves four distinct elements including pettiness, emotionalism, connivingness, and dramaturgical activity. Juvenile leadership is proposed as being motivated by certain unmet safety needs including insecurity, feeling threatened, and self-protection coupled with lapses in experiential leadership learning such as a lack of involvement in professional development programs or lacking a significant positive mentor/mentee relationship. Five distinct research propositions are presented in an effort to move toward the theory. Critical and fundamental distinctions are presented between toxic leadership and the new juvenile leadership theory. Several suggestions for future research in the area of juvenile leadership are presented.

Juvenile Leadership: Toward A Theoretical Understanding

In the leadership literature, much concern is given to leadership styles and theories that seem to positively contribute to organizational effectiveness and efficiency goals and the professional development of followers. This emphasis on positive-oriented leadership is worthwhile. However, many organizational followers rarely experience positive leadership styles in practical, everyday application. Instead, followers in many organizational contexts experience leadership, which they would likely characterize as ‘bad.’ By comparison with the perceptually ‘good’ leadership theories such as transformational, servant, authentic, etc., there is a relative paucity of qualitative or quantitative studies and theoretical or conceptual articles involving the ‘bad’ forms of leadership. The emphasis on the good at the sake of the bad could potentially fail to address the realities experienced by many organizational followers. As such, this article focuses on advancing a theoretical understanding of a particular type of bad leadership called juvenile leadership. In order to build a theoretical case for juvenile leadership, the article first deals with the current theory related to ‘bad’ leadership. Second, the article addresses the distinctive elements of juvenile leadership. Third, the article moves toward the development of juvenile leadership theory by distinguishing it from toxic leadership, the dominant theory related to bad leadership in the present literature, and by proposing ways by which the new theory can be studied, proved, or disproved. Juvenile leadership is presented as a theoretical way of understanding certain leadership actions, behaviors, and tendencies, which are not fully explained by toxic leadership theory.

 Current Theory on ‘Bad’ Leadership

An overview of current theory related to bad leadership is warranted because juvenile leadership is premised on the notion that current theory does not explain certain aspects of negative leadership. Many different terms are used in the literature to describe bad leadership including toxic, dysfunctional, self-serving, destructive, abusive, etc. Each of these are briefly discussed, but toxic leadership stands out, at this point, as the dominant theoretical method for understanding bad leadership. As such, toxic leadership receives more emphasis here as the bad leadership theory from which juvenile leadership will be separate.

Dysfunctional and Destructive Leadership

Dysfunctional leadership is a way of describing leadership styles, which do not function well or where certain leadership attributes exist that do not correspond well to effective organizational outcomes. Dandira (2012) likens dysfunctional leadership to an infectious disease, which only serves to weaken an organization (p. 187). According to Dandira, dysfunctional leadership is actually the result of trying to apply management principles to leadership scenarios (p. 188). Leaders act to inspire individuals toward a united vision, whereas managers focus on tasks such as planning and controlling. Therefore, dysfunction is likely to result when individuals are emphasizing management tasks as their mode of leadership. Dandira includes poor communication, dictatorial tendencies, too much planning and too little action, and heavy-handed control as signs of dysfunctional leadership (pp. 187-189). Dysfunctional leadership in the sense described by Dandira is primarily a mismatch of style and context, i.e. management style exercised in a leadership context. Personal or individual characteristics may also lead to situations of dysfunctional leadership. Jha and Jha (2015) claim dysfunctional leadership can occur as a result of aggressive, hostile, or even belittling behaviors on the part of the leader (p. 23). According to Jha and Jha, these behaviors establish a pattern of dysfunctional leadership because they are in violation of the organizational norms and, therefore, negatively influence the performance of organizational members and the entire organization (p. 23). If this is accurate, when organizational norms that require aggressive, hostile, or even belittling behaviors exist, leaders exhibiting these behaviors may be functional rather than dysfunctional. Overall, contextual and situational realities would seem to have significant influence on whether or not certain leadership behaviors are considered dysfunctional.

Destructive leadership is another descriptive term applied within the literature to certain leadership behavior patterns. Destructive leadership has more negative connotation with the use of the term than does dysfunctional leadership. Destructive leadership carries with it the connotation of the tearing down or destroying of an organization rather than merely an organization functioning at a dissatisfying level. Shaw, Erickson, and Harvey (2011) completed a cluster analysis whereby they identified seven clusters of destructive leadership behaviors (pp. 585-586). Some of the destructive leader behaviors identified by Shaw et al. include lying, unethical behavior, inability to delegate, inability to negotiate, lack of functional skills, ineffective negotiating skills, divisiveness, erratic behavior, bullying, inability to manage conflict, and so on (pp. 585-586). Several clusters of destructive behavior patterns identified in the Shaw et al. study included some form of significant personal impact on organizational followers. The destructive nature of follower outcomes associated with these leadership patterns labeled by Schyns and Schilling (2013) as “quite severe” (p. 139). In describing destructive leadership behavior patterns, Schyns and Schilling claim these behaviors are the polar opposite of “constructive leadership” (p. 139). Therefore, the point is reinforced that destructive leadership describes a set of or series of leadership behaviors, which tear down individuals, groups, and organizations rather than just limiting their effectiveness or efficiencies.

Self-serving Leadership and Abusive Supervision

Whether one classifies self-serving leadership and abusive supervision as dysfunctional or destructive in nature, both constructs receive appropriate attention in the literature related to bad or negative leadership. The terminology used to label these behavior patterns, self-serving or abusive, is descriptive in nature. Self-serving leaders are more concerned with their own personal needs, wants, and desires than the needs and wants of the organizations they serve or the individuals they lead. Decoster, Stouten, Camps, and Tripp (2014) take the description a step further claiming these leaders “act self-servingly at the expense of others” (p. 648). Decoster et al. claim the focus of these leaders is on personal well-being, the enhancing of that well-being, and the preservation of that well-being (p. 648). Self-serving leadership describes a set of leadership behavior patterns, which may be best understood as directly opposite of a servant leadership approach. Leaders whose behaviors are enacted at the expense of followers may also be those that are described as abusive. Abusive supervision carries a more significant connotation than self-serving leaders because abusive supervision is certainly directed toward someone else, whereas the expense to others associated with a self-serving leader may manifest directly or indirectly. According to Tepper (2000), abusive supervision is a subjective description applied to leadership behaviors from the perspective of followers (p. 178). As such, followers would describe leadership behaviors as abusive when they experience a “sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact” (p. 178). The lack of direct physical contact is an important aspect of abusive supervision as the abuse can be felt based on words and actions and does not require physical contact. As noted with other forms of negative or bad leadership, abusive supervision and self-serving leadership are ways of describing leadership behaviors, which are generally seen as not having positive individual, group, or organizational outcomes.

Toxic Leadership

Toxic leadership stands out in the literature relating to bad leadership for a number of reasons. First, more work has been done on toxic leadership than other bad leadership types. Toxic leadership alone seems to offer a true theoretical angle on bad leadership. As such, toxic leadership is more fully developed including scales for measurement. Second, toxic leadership alone in the bad leadership literature offers a prescriptive avenue to understanding rather than merely a descriptive way of knowing. In other words, the work on toxic leadership is developed enough that one can apply the theory, test the theory, and produce prescriptive results. Other work on bad leadership, i.e. destructive, dysfunctional, abusive, self-serving, describe leadership behaviors. Description is important but prescription is more valuable. Third, much of the work in the bad leadership literature has congealed around the notion of toxic leadership because the term itself resonates with individuals. The term toxic conveys a deeply powerful meaning considering the intrinsic nature of these leaders and the extremely detrimental nature of organizational outcomes that can be associated with these leaders. As such, toxic leadership as a theory seems to include aspects and markers of most of the previous work done in the area of bad leadership.

Conceptually, toxic leadership involves many of the descriptively negative leadership behaviors that characterize much of the bad leadership literature. Lipman-Blumen (2005) seems to capture the essence of toxic leadership as a way of characterizing the “destructive behaviors and dysfunctional personal qualities” (p. 29) [italics in original] of individuals whose influence on followers and organizations is “poisonous” (p. 29). The toxic nature of these leaders means they are more than simply dysfunctional, more than simply destructive, but are instead some combination of dysfunctional and destructive which has the affect of introducing poisonous venom into an organization. According to Lipman-Blumen, the toxic leader is more than just authoritarian, undependable, difficult, or overly strict (p. 29). However, Lipman-Blumen does differentiate between the intentionally toxic leader who makes deliberate choices to invoke harm on others for personal gain and the unintentionally toxic leader who invokes harm as a result of carelessness, recklessness, or incompetence (p. 29). Subsequent work on toxic leadership does not seem to subscribe to the notion of being an unintentionally toxic leader. Instead, other work on toxic leadership seems to demonstrate a clear intention on the behalf of the leader involved. Regardless of intentionality, a toxic leader has a negative realized impact on organizations, groups and teams within the organization, and individual members. The poisonous, toxic, and infectious nature of the leadership style permeates throughout the organization having numerous cascading effects.

Perhaps the most substantive effort to develop and expand toxic leadership theory is that of Schmidt (2008). In that work, Schmidt describes toxic leadership as being derived from dysfunctional and destructive leader behaviors but being set apart as a distinct leadership construct (pp. 1-2). In order to make that distinction, Schmidt conducted both qualitative and quantitative work in order to arrive at a definition of toxic leadership theory based on five dimensions, which were summarily used to develop an instrument used to measure the dimensions. According to Schmidt, “toxic leadership is composed of the following five dimensions: abusive supervision, authoritarian leadership, narcissism, self-promotion, and unpredictability” (Abstract). These dimensions are spoken of in various ways throughout the bad leadership literature, but the Schmidt study is the first to isolate these dimensions as the elements that when found together lead to toxic leadership realties. Table 1 demonstrates the five dimensions of toxic leadership as compiled from Schmidt’s descriptions of the dimensions (pp. 4-5).

Table 1: Toxic Leadership Dimensions and Dimension Descriptions

Table 1: Toxic Leadership Dimensions and Dimension Descriptions

Schmidt’s (2008) work on toxic leadership was meant to provide an accurate definition or description of toxic leadership while simultaneously creating a method for “detecting toxic leadership” (p. 71). The process of being able to detect toxic leadership involves the measurement instrument, which Schmidt also developed, tested, and validated in the study. After several processes of consolidation and refinement, Schmidt’s toxic leadership scale was developed measuring the five dimensions of toxic leadership with a survey instrument involving thirty questions (p. 116). As mentioned, Schmidt’s work regarding toxic leadership is instrumental in understanding from a theoretical perspective how various destructive and dysfunctional leadership behaviors can be described and detected. The ability to detect such leadership in an organization allows for the potential ability to prescribe interventions, preventative measures, and other solutions.

Elements of Juvenile Leadership

Toxic leadership theory is robust in explaining certain dimensions of bad leadership that cumulatively poison an organization. However, toxic leadership is unable at present to explain a different form of bad leadership characterized here as juvenile leadership. The four primary elements of juvenile leadership are described including pettiness, emotional reactivity, connivingness, and dramaturgical behavior patterns.  The choice of the term, juvenile, to describe these elements is also explained.


The choice of which term most adequately described this form of leadership was considered at length. Some consideration was given to terms such as shallow, sophomoric, or superficial. The term juvenile was chosen because it is the single term, which most robustly seems to describe the set of behaviors, actions, and attitudes that characterize these leaders. A basic definition of the term juvenile given by Merriam-Webster (2015) uses language such as “unpleasantly childish” or an individual who reflects “psychological or intellectual immaturity.” Juvenile is not chosen here to reflect an age range of potential leaders. Rather, juvenile is chosen because it comprehensively reflects the often irrational and immature actions and attitudes of the individuals where the term applies. Therefore, the application of the term juvenile to a leadership style should be made objectively.


The nature of pettiness in leadership behaviors is neither illusive nor unimaginable. Many organizational members have experienced the petty nature of certain organizational leaders. Pettiness in leadership is not a desirable trait but exists nonetheless in differing bad leadership styles. In a general sense, pettiness involves shallowness, narrow-mindedness, a focus on issues of limited importance or relevancy, and brings little substance to any conversation or activity. Pettiness is often a trait associated with immature individuals. In a leadership paradigm, pettiness is a form of leadership behavior, which might be expressed through the assignment of ‘busy work’ or the ‘nit picking’ of assigned work. This pettiness is more than poor delegation or extreme micromanagement on the part of the leader. The pettiness element of juvenile leadership would involve the creation of work tasks that have no substantive contribution to organizational goals. Additionally, the pettiness element of juvenile leadership would involve a leader who constantly finds fault in the results of work so that criticism can be applied. Often, this pettiness of the juvenile leader is demonstrated by the creation and assignment of ‘busy work’ without the benefit of clearly defined processes or objectives providing ample opportunity to ‘nit pick’ the outcome of the assigned work project. Pettiness in leadership has no apparent positive contribution to organizational outcomes but may be nonetheless demonstrated by certain leaders.


All leaders and followers are emotional individuals. The emotionalism element of juvenile leadership is not assigning some negative quality to the emotional attributes of leaders simply because their emotions affect their decisions. Emotions naturally affect all individuals in decision-making processes. However, juvenile leaders demonstrate an emotional reaction to organizational, individual, and contextual stimuli when those stimuli are present. Especially when faced with unexpected stimuli, the juvenile leader will react with emotions such as fear or anger, and these emotions then become the driver of the decision-making process. Emotionalism in leadership is not necessarily a negative as leaders often use emotion to cast vision, encourage followers, and guide individuals. The emotionalism aspect of the juvenile leader may be best described as the ‘knee-jerk’ reaction that some people have to unexpected situations. This emotional reactivity or ‘knee-jerk’ reaction serves to extremely limit the leader’s ability to be objective. In many respects, these leaders bounce emotionally from one tragedy to another flinging decisions about without considering all the facts, weighing the various factors, and engaging informed followers. This emotional reactivity is clearly demonstrated within the organizational context, and followers are keenly aware of these leaders and how they are driven by and operate on their emotional reaction to any given scenario. The emotionalism of juvenile leaders often leads to quick, uninformed decisions with significant ramifications for individuals’ involved and organizational outcomes.


Many leaders over time, both public and private, have proved themselves to be conniving. These leaders may set up schemes to defraud consumers or they may intentionally conspire to cheat organizational partners. This is the same essence of the conniver, which applies to a particular connivingness in the juvenile leader. Juvenile leaders will conspire, although the conspiracy is largely of their own making and in their own mind, to set organizational members up for failure or to otherwise engage in ‘backstabbing’ behaviors. Juvenile leaders are likely to offer pleasantries to followers in person while offering a litany of negatives to others concerning that follower in private. Juvenile leaders will tear down their followers to upper management or other organizational leaders. Juvenile leaders demonstrate these conniving behaviors by creating organizational situations where followers may not have the knowledge, resources, or other forms of support necessary to achieve success. Juvenile leaders’ connivingness may or may not stop short of direct and intentional sabotage of a particular follower’s organizational assignments even when the juvenile leader established the organizational assignment in the beginning. The most pervasive and evident realities of the connivingness of juvenile leaders is demonstrated by those leaders’ willingness to backstab followers with other organizational leaders and their willingness to create scenarios with the intent of follower failure outcomes.

Dramaturgical Activity

Certain individuals within a larger society will often demonstrate their apparent need for drama in their life or frequent dramatic events. Certain leaders also seem to thrive on constant drama within their leadership context or their larger organizational life. Juvenile leaders are leaders who thrive on the dramatic elements of organizational life. When drama does not seem to be readily present, juvenile leaders will engage in dramaturgical activities designed to create the missing dramatic elements. These dramaturgical activities are akin to ‘making mountains out of molehills’ or taking the trivial to an exaggerated level of importance. Dramaturgical activities may include the construction of crises where none previously existed. Juvenile leaders seem to thrive on the drama and especially seem to thrive on their ability to create, perpetuate, and ultimately solve the dilemma. This sequence is an obviously unhealthy cycle of drama, but juvenile leaders need the elements of chaos in the organization as a way of maintaining their own mental satisfaction. Perhaps, the juvenile leader’s greatest mental satisfaction comes from his or her ability to then step in, as the leader, and provide the solution to the prefabricated crisis. Juvenile leaders will work to create and perpetuate drama where they perceive none exists.

These four elements of the juvenile leader’s behavior will likely remind the reader of an immature, inexperienced individual who one might say ‘needs to grow up.’ Indeed, the juvenile leadership elements and, thus, the attributes of a juvenile leader are less than positive. Organizational members following these type leaders may often make reference to the seemingly immature actions and behaviors of the leader in organizational social conversations such as the proverbial ‘water cooler’ talk. Table 2 provides a quick reference to the four elements of juvenile leadership—pettiness, emotionalism, connivingness, and dramaturgical activity and their associated descriptions.

Table 2: Juvenile Leadership Elements and Descriptions

Table 2: Juvenile Leadership Elements and Descriptions

Toward A Theory

The four elements of juvenile leadership are ways of describing the behaviors, actions, and attitudes of these leaders. Describing sets of behaviors and grouping those behaviors together does not alone move toward a theory. Describing these elements and grouping them together as juvenile leadership, is not enough by itself to help explain why this type leadership can and does exist. In order to work toward a theory of juvenile leadership, an exploration of the underlying motivational needs and experiential factors associated with these leaders is necessary. Constructs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs along with a discussion of professional development experiences such as mentoring are considered as the foundational theoretical elements of juvenile leadership. Additionally, in order to move toward a theory of juvenile leadership, a discussion is provided which contrasts juvenile leadership from toxic leadership. This discussion is premised on the notion that toxic leadership does not explain the outcomes of the framed theoretical elements. Finally, a discussion of ways by which the juvenile leadership theory can be tested, measured, and more fully investigated is provided.

Motivation Needs Factors

An initial effort to isolate factors that contribute to juvenile leadership theory must begin with examining the motivational needs of the leaders involved. One of the most accepted theories related to the motivation stemming from the satisfaction of individual needs is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. Maslow’s theory claims that needs are hierarchical in nature and higher level needs do not begin to motivate so long as lower level needs are left unfulfilled (Parrish, 2014, p. 153). Maslow’s hierarchy is often depicted graphically as a pyramid where the lower level needs are the foundation upon which higher level needs are built. This is an adequate graphic description. According to the theory and demonstrated graphically on the pyramid, needs ascend in motivational power from physiological to safety to love to self-esteem and finally to self-actualization (Parrish, 2014, p. 154). For the purposes of juvenile leadership, the focus is on the lower order need of safety, and these safety needs are considered in an organizational context. In other words, the safety needs are applied to an organizational context and, specifically, to an organizational leadership context. Parrish notes that safety needs involve elements such as security and psychological safety including the “essential areas of people’s priorities” (p. 154). In an organizational context, these safety needs would include security of position, feeling threatened by other members, or feelings of insecurity relative to one’s own abilities.

The safety needs identified by Maslow’s theory applied in an organizational context are very influential in the development of juvenile leadership. Certain leaders may experience insecurity as a result of their own assessment of their competence, skill, or ability. This insecurity is a safety need because these leaders realize that others may also perceive the leaders’ inadequacies. The leader’s sense of insecurity presents, therefore, a significant motivational need. Bechtoldt (2015) refers to this self-recognition of leadership inadequacies as “impostorism” (p. 484). What Bechtoldt is saying is these leaders assess their own capability and feel as though they are leadership imposters or they are somehow not the real thing—in a leadership sense. Bechtoldt chronicles the faulty delegation decisions which imposters are likely to make by seeking out followers who the leader perceives as insecure (p. 484). Thus, the safety need related to feelings of insecurity seems linked to faulty delegation practices.

Proposition 1: Leaders motivated by feelings of insecurity derived from a personal assessment of inadequacy are likely to engage in faulty delegation techniques such as the creation of busy work and petty critiques of its vague details.

Juvenile leaders may well recognize their own incompetence’s, but they are also likely to recognize the competencies of their followers. These leaders recognize their weaknesses and the strengths of the people they lead. These leaders then feel threatened because they are leading individuals who are perceived as more competent and capable than the leader. Much like the insecurity element, the threat felt by these leaders is also understood as a safety need in consideration of Maslow’s hierarchy. Any feeling of threat to one’s leadership would naturally jeopardize the sense of security felt by the leader resulting in behaviors, albeit negative behaviors, motivated by the perceived threat to safety and security. Whitely, Sy, and Johnson (2012) note the strong connection between leader’s expectations of followers and their conceptions of those followers (p. 822). In other words, leaders connect how they perceive followers with what they expect of followers. Moreover, Whitely et al. claim a leader’s perceptions of followers, both negative and positive, have a significant impact on the quality of the interpersonal relationship dynamic between the leader and the follower (p. 823). As such, a juvenile leader is likely to perceive competence in some followers and expect those followers to potentially threaten their leadership. The negative connotation of that feeling of threat will negatively impact the interpersonal dynamic between the leader and the follower.

Proposition 2: Leaders motivated by feelings of threat derived from the assessment of high competence in a follower are likely to engage in negative interpersonal dynamics such as backstabbing conversation with other leaders in relation to the follower.

The first two propositions related to the influence of safety needs of juvenile leaders considered feelings of insecurity and feelings of threat as related to assessments of competence between the leader and the followers. These factors are interesting and force the discussion to the safety need related to self-protection. Juvenile leaders who may feel incompetent while recognizing the competence of followers are very likely to experience concern over the ability to retain their leadership protection. This self-protection of leadership position is relevant to Maslow’s safety needs. Kong (2014) discusses self-protection in leadership as a method by which self-interests are more important than the “collective benefits” (p. 107) of those involved such as followers or other organizational stakeholders. Kong further notes how self-protective leaders are driven by fear and anxiety and may engage in risky or corruptive behavior (p. 107). The perceived need to self-protect would likely lead a juvenile leader to act in risky ways, which others would probably view as corrupt. As such, a self-protecting juvenile leader would most likely target followers with those contemptible methods.

Proposition 3: Leaders motivated by feelings of self-protection are likely to engage in corruptive, conniving behaviors such as intentionally influencing organizational scenarios in ways where followers will fail to meet organizational objectives.

Three of Maslow’s safety needs will work to motivate the juvenile leader when these needs, considered in their organizational sense, are perceived as unmet by the leader. These organizational safety needs include—feelings of insecurity about one’s own competence, feelings of threat because of followers’ competences, and the desire to self-protect one’s leadership position and are demonstrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Unmet Safety Needs As Motivating Factors

Figure 1: Unmet Safety Needs As Motivating Factors

Experiential Factors

By way of continuing the effort to move toward a juvenile leadership theory, one must consider factors, which would contribute to the theory but are not specifically linked to the unmet needs that motivate these leaders. As such, a discussion of the factors related to the leaders individual professional experience is warranted. The professional development experiences of individual leaders have apparent influence on their leadership capability, style, and method. Thus, it is proposed that lapses in certain professional experiential factors will negatively impact leadership outcomes.

Great Man Theory or Trait Theory might premise that leadership skill and style are based on certain intrinsic, ‘born-with’ traits or characteristics. You either have those leadership traits or you do not. However, the majority of the leadership literature would disagree with this notion and would point to the value of professional development processes in preparing leaders for leadership realities. These professional development programs are often industry or organization specific, which adds experiential value for leaders leading in those organizations or industries. Miskelly and Duncan (2014) describe one such professional leadership development program in the healthcare industry, which was designed to deliver “leadership, maturity, and professional identity development” (p. 38). In the program analysis study they completed, Miskelly and Duncan found the leadership development program not only accomplished the stated goals of developing leadership skills but also added a variety of other beneficial skillsets to those involved in the program (p. 38). A professional development program is designed to build skill, aptitude, and reasoning ability so that leaders are able to manage contextual realities as they emerge. This widespread practice of training and developing leaders in organizations and across industries is extensive but not universal. As such, some leaders find themselves thrust into leadership positions in companies or organizations and are ill-prepared for the realities of leadership. These juvenile leaders are likely to demonstrate high levels of emotionalism in their leadership style as stressors emerge in situational contexts. Without the experience of professional development programs, these juvenile leaders are likely to react emotionally to situations with high degrees of subjective reasoning.

Proposition 4: Leaders thrust into organizational leadership positions without the experience of professional development are likely to react emotionally to stressful situations and make decisions that lack objective reasoning.

In the absence of or in conjunction with a professional leadership development program, many leaders benefit greatly from a leadership mentor/mentee relationship. A positive mentor can have great influence on a mentee by transferring experiential learning and wisdom from the mentor to the mentee. Mentoring as means of transferring leadership knowledge and practical experiential wisdom seems to have value in developing new leaders across industries and within most organizations. In addition to the benefit of transferring leadership experiences, mentors provide mentees with additional support. For example, Smith (2013) describes how mentoring provides a link for the mentee to the organization for means of resource support as well as helping to “acclimate them to the profession” (p. 15). Overall, Smith notes growth in enhanced leadership skill results from the mentor/mentee relationship (p. 20). These skills include emotional control in stressful situations and a desire to promote harmonious organizations. Mentors provide new leaders with skills in maintaining harmony. It is worth noting, positive mentor experiences are what provides the experience from which a leader is able to positively contribute leadership skills. Thus, a lapse in experience with a positive mentor will negatively influence a juvenile leader’s ability to lead harmoniously.

Proposition 5: Leaders thrust into organizational leadership positions without the experience of positive mentorship are unlikely to create harmonious workplaces but may feed disharmony through the creation of drama and crises.

Experiential factors will contribute to the juvenile leadership reality when there are certain lapses, which exist in valuable professional experiences. When there are lapses in professional development and when there is a lack of experience with a positive mentor, juvenile leaders will act in ways that are wrought with emotion and drama. Professional development and positive mentoring seem to alleviate these negative consequences as a result of leaders having had those experiences. Experiential lapse factors are demonstrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Experiential Lapse Factors

Figure 2: Experiential Lapse Factors

The discussion thus far has elaborated on two substantive aspects of juvenile leadership—unmet safety needs motivating these leaders and the experiential factors influencing these leaders. The juvenile leadership theory has to consider these two aspects in tandem, as juvenile leadership may not exist unless both aspects are active simultaneously. Figure 3 is a theoretical model representing these aspects in tandem as juvenile leadership is conceived as existing in the space of the oval, which develops when you overlap the unmet needs and experiential lapse factors circles. It is in the space of the overlap where juvenile leadership is birthed. Thus, it seems apparent that juvenile leadership requires the simultaneous existence of motivation derived from the three unmet safety needs of insecurity, threat, and self-protection coupled with an inexperienced leader who has not had positive mentors contributing to his or her professional development. It is suggested that juvenile leadership will not exist except in cases where the circle of unmet safety needs overlaps with the circle of experiential lapse factors. Likewise, it is suggested that juvenile leadership will exist when the circles do overlap as a manifestation of their cumulative effects.

Figure 3: Theoretical Model of Juvenile Leadership

Figure 3: Theoretical Model of Juvenile Leadership

Distinctions between Toxic and Juvenile Leadership

The primary reasoning for the development of the juvenile leadership theory is to explain an area of ‘bad’ leadership, which is not explained by the most robust existing negative leadership theory—toxic leadership. Conceptually, both toxic and juvenile leadership are destructive, dysfunctional, and/or negative theories, but they explain different aspects of bad leadership. The distinctions between the two theories are discussed in terms of their unique dimensions/elements, unique leader motivation, and the differences associated with these leaders’ leadership experience.

The dimensions of toxic leadership as explained by Schmidt (2008) include abusiveness, authoritarianism, narcissism, self-promotion, and unpredicticableness. Schmidt further notes toxic leaders have significantly negative influence on individuals and organizations as a uniquely “insidious type of dysfunctional leadership” (p. 1). Juvenile leadership’s elements—pettiness, emotionalism, connivingness, and dramaturgical activity are not as poisonous in nature as are the dimensions of toxic leadership. The essence of toxic leadership is insidious, poisonous—toxic whereas the essence of juvenile leadership is immature, sophomoric—juvenile. Thus, juvenile leadership describes a set of leadership characteristics which are not as strongly negative as those described by toxic leadership.

The motivations of toxic leaders are significantly different than the motivations of juvenile leaders. Schmidt (2008) explains the overwhelming motivating factor of toxic leadership seems to be narcissism (p. 10). In fact, this narcissism is what Schmidt calls extreme narcissism where self-interest, the enhancing of self, and selfishness are the dominant motivating characteristics (p. 10). Schmidt further notes that some would describe these leaders as egomaniacal in nature (p. 25). Contrast the extreme self-interest, narcissistic motivation of a toxic leader with the unmet safety and security needs of a juvenile leader. A juvenile leader is likely insecure due to self-perceptions of inadequacy, feels threatened by others’ competencies, and acts in ways to self-preserve. Ego is not as dominant with a juvenile leader whose unmet safety needs likely exist because the juvenile leader is overwhelmed by his or her role as leader. Thus, the juvenile leader is motivated to satisfy safety needs whereas a toxic leader is motivated by ego, self-interest, and narcissistic tendencies.

Another major distinction between the juvenile leader and the toxic leader involves the aspect of where each leader is at on his or her own personal journey of professional development and leadership experience. Juvenile leaders lack the experiences of either professional development programs designed to train individuals concerning leadership skill and ability or they lack the experience of a mentor/mentee relationship where similar leadership experiences, values, and attributes can be transferred from one to another. On the other hand, toxic leaders do not necessary lack professional development or other experiential learning in the art of leadership. Rather, they are either opposed to or dismissive of such experiences. Wasylyshyn (2012) notes how toxic leaders have a “fundamental disinterest in their [own] development” (p. 76). Further, Wasylyshyn claims toxic leaders’ lack of concern for leadership development is demonstrated by an attitude of irreverence for the outcomes of their behaviors so long as they are meeting their objectives (p. 76). Therefore, the fundamental distinction between toxic and juvenile leaders in the area of leadership experiences and professional development is that what juvenile leaders lack toxic leaders do not care to possess.

Future Research

The theory of juvenile leadership as presented thus far provides ample future research opportunities. Future research regarding the theory may be best considered by asking questions. For example, why does a theory of juvenile leadership matter? To answer this question, future research may involve considerations related to juvenile leadership’s impact on followers, leaders, and organizations. What are the consequences of juvenile leadership on individuals and groups? Can juvenile leadership be thwarted by professional development and more widespread mentoring? What are the relative weights of the influences of the lapses in experience and the unmet safety needs? Juvenile leadership seems to occur as these two aspects intersect, but does juvenile leadership occur when only one or two of the unmet safety needs are motivating the individual and/or when only one of the lapses in experience is present? What other organizational context factors and/or situational realities may be factors in juvenile leadership? Are there other factors that contribute to juvenile leadership besides unmet needs, lapses in professional experiences, organizational contexts, or situational realities? In other words, are there other factors that need to be discovered? What happens if juvenile leadership is left unchecked in an organization? Does juvenile leadership, left unchecked, potentially evolve into toxic leadership? Can juvenile leadership correct itself without intervention? Qualitative studies involving the research propositions stated in this paper are needed to initially answer some of these questions. Qualitative studies would serve to enlighten researchers concerning other potential contributing factors. Eventually, quantitative work may lead to a diagnostic survey instrument’s development and, thus, ways to statistically measure, describe, and make inferences relative to the theory. As this litany of unanswered questions suggests, future research in the area of juvenile leadership is needed and the opportunities are abundant.


The purpose of this article was to move toward a theory of juvenile leadership. In order to move toward a theoretical explanation of this particular type of bad leadership, other forms of bad leadership and toxic leadership in particular have been explored. The theory of juvenile leadership is premised on the notion that certain bad leadership occurrences cannot be fully explained at present by toxic leadership or by other means of simply describing negative leadership tendencies. Juvenile leadership has four important elements including pettiness, emotionalism, connivingness, and dramaturgical activity. These juvenile leadership tendencies are theorized to occur based on the motivational qualities of unmet safety needs including insecurity, feelings of threat, and the desire to self-protect coupled with lapses of experiences involving professional leadership development and/or positive mentor/mentee relationships. Juvenile leadership is fundamentally and theoretically distinct from toxic leadership and affords ample future research endeavors. This effort to move toward a theory of juvenile leadership is substantive, but the continued need exists to further explore the theory.


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About the Author

Mark Bell currently serves as Academic Dean and MBA Program faculty with Bethel University’s (TN) College of Professional Studies. Mark holds an MBA from Bethel and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. Mark’s research interests include effective followership and ineffective leadership.


  1. […] Mark Bell introduces what he terms Juvenile Leadership, offering a theoretical understanding of the term and it’s distinction from toxic leadership. […]

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