Colonel George E. Reed, U.S. Army
N 2003, Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White asked the U.S. Army War College (AWC) to address how the Army could effectively assess leaders to detect those who might have “destructive leadership styles.”1 The most important first step in detecting and treating toxic leadership is to recognize the symptoms. The terms toxic leader, toxic manager, toxic culture, and toxic organization appear with increasing frequency in business, leadership, and management literature. Analyst Gillian Flynn provides a particularly descriptive definition of a toxic manager; he is the “manager who bullies, threatens, yells. The manager whose mood swings determine the climate of the office on any given workday. Who forces employees to whisper in sympathy in cubicles and hallways. The backbiting, belittling boss from hell. Call it what you want—poor interpersonal skills, unfortunate office practices—but some people, by sheer shameful force of their personalities make working for them rotten.”2 In Kathy Simmons’s “Executive Update Online,” Rob Rosner describes a toxic atmosphere: “It’s all about ends [but] nothing is said about means. It’s about when bosses only know how to use the stick and there is nary a carrot in sight. And finally, it’s in the pain that is in the faces of all the people who work there.”3 Writer Marcia Whicker describes toxic leaders as “maladjusted, malcontent, and often malevolent, even malicious. They succeed by tearing others down. They glory in turf protection, fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers.”4 In 2003, 20 AWC students focused on the topic of command climate and leaders’ roles in shaping MILITARY REVIEW July - August 2004
it. The students provided a well-considered description of toxic leaders: “Destructive leaders are focused on visible short-term mission accomplishment. They provide superiors with impressive, articulate presentations and enthusiastic responses to missions. But, they are unconcerned about, or oblivious to, staff or troop morale and/or climate. They are seen by the majority of subordinates as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible, and petty.”5 A loud, decisive, demanding leader is not necessarily toxic. A leader with a soft voice and façade of sincerity can also be toxic. In the end, it is not one specific behavior that deems one toxic; it is the cumulative effect of demotivational behavior on unit morale and climate over time that tells the tale. Toxic leaders might be highly competent and effective in a short-sighted sense, but they contribute to an unhealthy command climate with ramifications extending far beyond their tenure. Three key elements of the toxic leader syndrome are— 1. An apparent lack of concern for the wellbeing of subordinates. 2. A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate. 3. A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest. In his best-selling book Band of Brothers, Stephen E. Ambrose provides an example of a toxic leader—the detested commander of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.6 Ambrose writes, “Anyone who has ever been in the Army knows the type. [He] was the classic chickenshit. He generated maximum anxiety over minimum significance.” He had poor judgment, but his style was what generated resentment. He “could not see the 67
Toxic leadership is often perplexing to subordinates and strains communications.
unrest and the contempt that was breeding in the troops. You led by fear or you led by example. We were being led by fear.”7 Superiors took no action and, characteristically, no soldier officially complained to the chain of command, but the soldiers considered taking matters into their own hands and discussed shooting him when the company got into combat.8 Things did not go that far because the commander left the unit before Easy Company engaged in combat operations. Unfortunately, toxic leaders...
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