Toxic: Understanding the Dark Side of Leadership

Workplace

“You learn far more from negative leadership than positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it.” 

— General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

In retrospect, he really wasn’t a bad guy. Quiet and likeable, the kind of unremarkable person most of us pass by without noticing.  He was obsessed with minor details, the sort of leader who thrives on the mundane duties of the staff. He survived the post Cold War drawdown by learning to do well at the jobs few others pursued, away from the deep talent pools where the competition was fierce and the career risks were highest. He was an average officer in every respect. A careerist who rowed well when the ship captain was looking, who let others do the heavy rowing when he wasn’t.

Then the Army selected him to command. He thrived on the idea of being in command, but not necessarily the responsibilities that came with being the commander. Command required him to make decisions, decisions that carried risk, and risk was not part of the equation for him. Risk incurred threats to his career, his promotability, his self-image. Fortunately, the Army did what the Army tends to do: it surrounded him with leaders who could make the hard decisions for him, who would bear the burden of risks he was unwilling and unable to take.

He wasn’t much of a leader. But, was he toxic?

We tend to think of toxic leaders in very specific and limiting terms. In a June 2012 article for the Association of the United States Army magazine, retired Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer offered this definition: “Toxic leaders are individuals whose behavior appears driven by self-centered careerism at the expense of their subordinates and unit, and whose style is characterized by abusive and dictatorial behavior that promotes an unhealthy organizational climate.”

Such a narrow definition limits our understanding of toxic leaders. Leaders who can’t control their emotions or actions, create hostile command environments that foster all manner of dysfunctional behavior. Leaders who see themselves “above the law”, who set a deeply negative example in how they lead their lives. But if we constrain our understanding of toxic leadership, we also hinder our ability to identify it and eliminate it. A leader who is indecisive, who lacks presence, or fails to develop subordinate leaders is just as toxic as one who can’t communicate without screaming. A leader unable to set the example, unwilling to empower his subordinates, or unable to communicate vision and direction is as toxic as one who fails to uphold the values of our profession.

Toxic Leadership: It’s Not Just About Them

It’s time to widen the aperture on toxic leadership. In her 1996 book, Toxic leaders: When organizations go badDr. Marcia Whicker, a professor of Public Administration at Virginia Commonwealth University, coined the term toxic leader. This led to much broader understanding of what defines a toxic leader: “A toxic leader is a person who has responsibility over a group of people or an organization, and who abuses the leader–follower relationship by leaving the group or organization in a worse-off condition than when s/he first found them.”

Why is this definition more useful? Because rather than focus on the character attributes of the leader, it emphasises the destructive nature of the individual on the organization. Ironically, we often ignore the behavior of the most toxic leaders because we convince ourselves the ends (mission success) justify the means. In reality, that success is achieved at the expense of the organization, on the backs of people whose hard work typically benefits only the aspirations of the toxic leader.

Years after going our separate ways, my former commander reached out and requested my feedback. My assessment was honest, but direct. He didn’t fit any of the traditional stereotypes for a toxic leader, but his deep aversion to risk meant that he couldn’t make decisions under pressure. He didn’t accept the responsibilities of his position and blamed others for his shortfalls. He couldn’t communicate vision or guidance. He failed to develop his subordinate leaders. He lacked confidence and his presence was weak. He didn’t trust his subordinate leaders and they didn’t trust him. In the end, the organization was weaker with him than without him, and it suffered as a result of his leadership.

I scrolled through the feedback tool until coming to the last page, on which a lone comment box could be found. I clicked on the text block and typed three words: He was toxic.

I thought about the many times we needed a commander capable of making critical decisions, and how those decisions were put on the shoulders of others. I thought about how often the organization floundered without clear guidance or direction. I thought about what the future held for junior leaders who had been denied opportunities to grow and develop. He didn’t fit Lt. Gen. Ulmer’s definition of a toxic leader, but his impact on the organization left no doubt. He wasn’t abusive or dictatorial, and his behavior didn’t reflect a self-centered focus as much as it did a sincere aversion to risk and a genuine lack of confidence. Sometimes, it isn’t what leaders do that makes them toxic, it’s what they don’t do.

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.

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