Toxic Leaders Aren’t Leaders. Let’s Stop Calling Them That

Workplace

“Toxic” is the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2018, for good reason. The dictionary says searches for the word increased by 45% from 2017, thanks in part to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, “red tide” algae in Florida, and the latest craze, “toxic masculinity.”

But in the military, the word is still most commonly used in the context of “toxic leadership.” We’ve all had that boss for whom nothing was ever good enough, everything was everyone else’s fault, and in a fatigue-inducing spin on the old Army advertising slogan, ensured his subordinates got more done after 5:00 p.m. than most people did all day.

The problem is deeper, though. Steve Leonard wrote an excellent piece last week on how toxic leaders aren’t always the screamers; sometimes, the guy who is indecisive and goes along to get along can be just as toxic. After reading it, I came away with one conclusion: it’s time to jettison the term “toxic leader” altogether.

Any boss who is truly toxic is no leader. They don’t lead their troops, they drive them.

Management vs. Leadership

“Toxic manager” doesn’t have the same ring, but it’s more accurate. I have long argued that leadership and management are two sides to the same coin of organizational oversight. Each depends on the other, but they are distinct disciplines. Management is a science, while leadership is an art form.

The Army has a doctrinal publication on leadership, that provides a concise definition of leadership: “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” But it contains no definitive prescription for effective leadership, because there is no definitive prescription. Leadership, to me, has always been inherently intuitive.

Toxic managers continue to get promoted because, in our data-driven world, they are good managers. Commanders’ primary mission is to ensure their units are ready to fight. We can measure readiness. How many planes are able to fly? How many tanks can shoot, move, and communicate? How many soldiers can qualify with their weapons?  Readiness also includes more mundane metrics like “how many soldiers meet all the medical requirements for deployment?” or “how many soldiers have made the necessary arrangements to ensure their families are ready for deployment?”

Good managers not only know these numbers by heart, they have a plan to correct the deficiencies, and they excel at hitting their targets. Understanding where the deficiencies lie, and how to prioritize the allocation of resources to correct those deficiencies is management. Tracking progress towards those goals and re-allocating resources to keep the process moving is management.

Fixing units without breaking people

Ensuring that you’re able to do that without breaking your subordinates’ spirit is leadership. Of all the definitions of leadership I’ve heard, including the Army’s, my favorite remains, “the ability to obtain willing compliance with orders.” When soldiers, or any employee for that matter, follows direction not because the were told to, but because they want to, that’s leadership.  Good leaders know how to coax the best performance out of each employee. They don’t have to beat them into submission.

This is what most civilians misunderstand about the military. Commanders have the legal authority to order their subordinates to perform a certain task or follow a particular course of action. The subordinate is legally obligated to comply with those orders. Unlike the civilian world, they cannot simply quit if they don’t like it. All the discussion of toxic managers in the military (and there are plenty) perpetuates the myth that we’re all just screaming our way through our careers.

The truth is that any commander who relies solely on his legal authority to get things done isn’t leading. So why, even if (or especially if) he’s “toxic,” do we call him that? The short answer is that someone suggested the term, we all understood the intent, and went along.

Reclaiming leadership from the toxic

Toxic managers aren’t necessarily bad people, although some undoubtedly are. Most are just insecure regarding their own abilities and seek to mask their incompetence (real or perceived) through aggressiveness. That we ought to pity them doesn’t make them any less destructive.

Like any large enterprise, the military must continue to be data-driven and rely on statistics to measure readiness. But until someone much smarter than I comes up with a way to quantify a unit’s morale (beyond the “command climate survey”) and include it in how we measure readiness, the system will continue to reward toxic managers.

The true test of leadership comes when a unit deploys. It is one thing to know how to manage maintenance, supply, and personnel assignments, or how to run the staff planning process to generate operations orders. It is quite another to know how to convince bone-weary soldiers to pick up their rucksacks and continue the mission, even in the face of what literally seems like certain death. Military leadership sets itself apart by being able to do the latter.

Toxic managers will always be among us. The best we can do is identify them early and either educate them, or replace them quickly. The least we can do is stop calling them leaders.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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