Eradicating toxic leadership
By Chief Master Sgt. Bradley Reilly, 14th Operations Group
/ Published June 23, 2017
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Ever heard of the term “Toxic Leadership?”
Toxic leadership is not typically a hot topic of discussion in leadership development programs. Rightly so, no one wants to focus on bad leadership, any decent approach to teaching leadership and training leaders, especially in the military, should be an inherently positive one.
Not only do we desire great leaders, we naturally and optimistically want to assume every leader will approach their roles and responsibilities with a positive attitude and with the best interest of the people and institution they serve at heart.
Why discuss negative aspects of leadership at all? Because it’s real; it exists every day in our military and it must be addressed.
What exactly is toxic leadership? I recently read a great article from Task and Purpose, written by Brock Young who described several symptoms that I thought perfectly captured a toxic command climate. I urge you to read the article, which can be found at http://taskandpurpose.com/8-symptoms-of-a-toxic-command-climate/
From his article, Young lists eight symptoms of toxic command climate.
1. Micromanagement exists often on an epic scale.
2. There’s a lack of respect shown from higher echelons to lower, and the lack of simple professionalism.
3. Zero-defect mentalities and zero-tolerance policies are standard.
4. Leaders tend to have a suffocating adversity to risk.
5. There’s no meaningful purpose behind any order or task given to subordinate elements.
6. There is no attempt to develop subordinates.
7. Superiors take all authority from the noncommissioned officers and subordinate grade officers within the command.
8. There is a complete lack of trust of superiors, between peers and between subordinates.
Boiled down, the eight symptoms fall under two cornerstones: Distrust on all levels and self-preservation at all cost.
If you have never had the displeasure of serving under a toxic leader, consider yourself very fortunate. Toxic leadership is a disease with no antidote.
When a toxic leader infects a command all you can hope to do is survive it. There are no effective tools to deal with a toxic leader. The short list of suggested techniques includes “the foxhole” and “when in Rome”-- neither are helpful.
Worse, there are no tools to remain an effective leader in a toxic environment. As much as you try to protect and insulate your team, all of your best positive leadership tools will be quickly stripped from your arsenal or rendered completely irrelevant by the senseless decisions of a power grabbing toxic leader.
The climate created under the oppressiveness of a toxic leader permeates every fiber of a command. It severs trust across the breadth and depth, stifles initiative and creates apprehensiveness, crushes innovation and creative problem solving and turns the most motivated and hardest workers into 9 to 5’ers.
Distrust: At the heart of a toxic leader is fear and self-doubt. Low self-esteem, low self-confidence and high fear of endangering their next promotion makes them afraid of everyone and everything they can’t control. Micromanagement is the instrument of choice for the toxic leader.
Toxic leaders can’t delegate because they don’t trust enough in their subordinates to empower them. They micromanage everything because they are terrified that a subordinate is going to mess it up and in their fall take the toxic leader down too. They create a zero defect mentality not because they are perfectionists, but as a tools to hold against their subordinates, to prove that you cannot be entrusted with responsibilities, to bring up time and time again to remind you and validate their micromanagement over you.
Self-preservation: Adversity to accept risk is another essential trait of the toxic leader. It’s not exactly what you might be thinking; this is not about mitigating necessary operational risk through the operational risk management process. This is about making command decisions that exclusively eliminate personal risk to the toxic leader.
If a toxic leader can’t effectively remove himself from the frag pattern of a risky decision, a barricade of well-timed and cleverly worded emails will certainly absorb the blast. Their career progression is more important than anything else to them; including the unit, mission, and the people they are entrusted to lead.
If developing subordinates is essential to great leadership, under developing leaders is essential to toxic leadership. Toxic leaders have no time to develop leaders as they have absolutely no plan to trust you as a leader, and since they are largely terrified by anyone competent, developing a subordinate leader would be the very worst thing a toxic leader could do.
So what do you do?
All you can really do is survive. You can’t hope to change a toxic leader, but you can prevent your subordinates from becoming one in the future.
Inoculate the future: Toxic leaders don’t start out all bad, they evolve to it. Toxic leadership grows best when there is a vacuum of concerned leadership, a lack of mentoring and professional development and a lack of “toxic” inoculation from subordinate leaders. It grows where apathy, assumption and lack of expectation prevails. It grows where subordinates lose trust. The best way to prevent toxic leadership is to eradicate the behavior before it starts.
Build trust: Building and maintaining trust up and down the chain of command may be the single most important and difficult task of a great leader. You cannot surge trust, trust must be earned, and it can only be earned over a protracted period of observation and mentorship.
The only way that you can effectively build trust across your organization is by training, tasking, observing and empowering your subordinate leaders to accomplish or supervise essential tasks.
Start with a clear intent and what you think the end state looks like. Guidance, mentoring and feedback complete the trust loop, you have to provide clarity and shared understanding to ensure your subordinate leaders have the information required to make solid decisions; it’s the only way that subordinate leaders will be able to understand your expectations, predict your approach and anticipate the decision that you would make under the same circumstances.
Over time, empowered, entrusted, trained and mentored, the subordinate leader will begin to make predictable decisions of his own, consistent with the mission, and lock step with the intent of the commander. You will have gained unequivocal trust for your subordinate.
But it gets better, your empowerment, investment and mentoring provide an observable example of what right looks like. Through your own consistency in decision making, thoughtful deliberation of critical issues and sage guidance you will have earned the reciprocating trust of your subordinates and the organization will flourish.