“He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.” – Proverb

As a young leader in the Army, I learned early that loyalty was first among equals when it came to professional values. I’d been raised on the virtue of loyalty and had long kept Elbert Hubbard’s Loyalty Pledge hanging in a place of honor in my room. “If you work for a man,” Hubbard pronounced, “in Heaven’s name, work for him, speak well of him, and stand by the institution that he represents.” Through good leaders and bad, I lived Hubbard’s words. Loyalty was non-negotiable.

But that courtesy was not always returned. There were occasions over the years when I was forced to contend with followers who weren’t just disloyal, they were toxic. As much focus as we put on toxic leaders, toxic followers are just as disruptive and destructive to an organization. Rather than destroy culture and cohesion from the top down, toxic followers wreak havoc from within, tearing at the tendrils that hold an organization together.

A good follower is more than just loyal. A good follower is accountable. A good follower offers positive support and influence. A good follower provides honest, constructive feedback. A good follower helps keep the team focused, united, and on task. A good follower is everything a toxic follower is not.

WHAT LIES BENEATH: THE BEHAVIORS THAT DRIVE TOXIC FOLLOWERSHIP

The symptoms of toxic followership are familiar: an inability or unwillingness to mesh with the team, a tendency to manipulate others, and performance that is often unnumbered by ethical or moral behavior. But those are just the outward symptoms. Like an iceberg, there is far more that lies below the surface of a toxic follower. Unpacking the psychology that underpins toxic followership is as informative as it is fascinating, but it’s also not essential to dealing with it effectively. Recognizing the behaviors, however, is critical.

History provides numerous examples of toxic followership, and few stand out quite as clearly as General George McClellan, Lincoln’s commander of the Army of the Potomac at one point early in the Civil War. McClellan was deeply narcissistic and arrogant. He was annoyed and frustrated that others to whom he felt superior held positions of greater authority. He was an outspoken critic of the President, referring to him as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.” He firmly believed that he was a more intelligent and capable leader than Lincoln, and his narcissism was ultimately his downfall, leading to his firing in November 1862.

Most toxic followers will not be as obvious as McClellan. If you want to root out the rot among your followers, you have to be alert and aware to the more subtle signs, especially among those who are closest to you. Some behaviors tend to show themselves over time: a missing moral compass or a misguided sense of ethics, for example. Other behaviors might be less obvious, such as a lack of compassion or empathy for others borne out in their inability to form meaningful social connections. Typically, toxic followers reveal themselves over time through behavior that ranges from ingratiating (the excessive flattery served up like an aphrodisiac in a culture of toxic leadership) to infuriating (deliberately sabotaging organization goals and seeing glory for themselves).

FIVE TOOLS TO FIX A TOXIC FOLLOWER PROBLEM

While toxic leaders are destructive in their own right, toxic followers can have a far greater and more lasting effect on an organization. As Air Force leader Michael Boswell wrote in 2015:

“A toxic leader impacts morale and works upward as well as downward. Toxic followers can be more dangerous because they affect all levels of rank structure. Not only do they spout venom amongst followers and peers, but also adversely impact the leader.”

Our focus on toxic leadership means that the research – and literature – on toxic followership lags somewhat. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tactics that can be effectively employed to contend with it. Not surprisingly, leaders can address toxic followership using the same trusted and proven tools that work well in many other situations.

1. Explain the why.

Don’t simply tell people what to do, frame the bigger picture for them. Give them context. Describe your logic. The better your subordinates understand the why, the harder it is for toxic followers to subvert your intent.

2. Be open to feedback.

Research shows that leaders who encourage honest and direct feedback foster climates of trust. Subordinates tend to feel more valued and appreciated; they believe that their opinions matter. You might not be able to stop a toxic follower from attempting to sow discontent, but you can’t undercut their effectiveness by giving your team a voice.

3. Forge a culture of accountability.

As Australian Lieutenant General David Morrison noted in 2013, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” Don’t just talk about standards and values, live them. Uphold them. Reinforce them through positive acknowledgment. An organization with a strong culture of accountability is a toxic follower’s worst nightmare.

4. Be a positive presence.

Leadership by walking around is a real thing. Circulate. Get to know everyone who works for you. Spend time with them. Bring a positivity to the workplace that can’t be easily subverted. A positive presence not only engenders trust, it strengthens the sense of team that underpins every successful organization.

5. Always put the team first.

Remember the tired adage, “There is no I in team”? Well, it’s true. In more ways than one. So is, “We go farther together.” As a leader, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Your team is ultimately what will drive your success. So, it’s up to you to remind them of that each and every day. Use “we” instead of “I.” Talk about your successes in terms of “us.” A strong sense of team togetherness makes it that much harder for a toxic follower to tear that team apart.

Don’t Get Sidetracked by Toxic Followers

Through it all, you have to keep in mind that toxic followers are going to be present in every organization. Try as you might, they will still find a way to infiltrate your teams. But you don’t have to allow them to tear your organization apart or sidetrack your team goals. Be the best leader possible and lead your team with a strong, positive presence. In the end, your vision and strategy will prevail, and the toxic followers will either fall in line or fall by the wayside. It’s their choice.

 

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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 senior 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 former 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.