Jul 03

Abundant Toxic Leadership

I used to think that the military, with its rigid caste structure and virtually guaranteed promotion rates for officers was particularly suited for the megalomaniacal personality that is germane to toxic leadership.  Now that I’ve had years in the civilian world, I’ve come to find that toxic leadership is actually the norm.

Ask any Soldier, Airman, Seaman or Marine…

Ask anyone who has served in the military if they have ever experienced a toxic leader, then sit down because it’s going to be a while.  My experience was in the Army, and I can tell you that we felt the wrath of self-serving senior leadership so much that it became it’s own joke:  The Big Green Weenie.

The Army has a way of screwing you over that is so powerful and personal, a lesser man would be broken by it, but soldiers are not lesser men.  They manage to find a way to survive through it.  Some are particularly strong willed and make the decision to stay and become a better leader than they received, most just get out.

Recently I spoke with a friend who is getting deployed in a few months.  The Army is changing its command and control structure and their unit is facing an 18 month deployment to Kuwait without combat pay.  Think about how many levels of leadership this decision had to go through, but no one stopped it.  No one spoke up that this was unnecessary and unconscionable.  Bottom line is, they don’t care about the soldier.

I’ve seen toxic leadership first hand when a company commander used an incorrect codeword while our unit was on DRF (2 hour recall) and we all thought we were about to make a jump into some combat environment.  I watched soldiers hugging their children at 4am in the parking lot, then turn in their cell phones, only to find out it was all a drill.  When I confronted the commander about it, as his XO, I was reprimanded.  He didn’t care about the company of men he was leading, he cared that he could add a bullet to his OER.

Identifying Toxic Leadership

As I have slowly matured over the years (very slowly), I have learned to study the toxic leader instead of getting angry, and impart lessons to their peers, subordinates, and leaders in the hopes that behaviors can be eliminated.  Just today I heard about a leader who denied all overtime pay to an employee that only worked 47.5 hours instead of the arbitrarily assigned 48 hour minimum.  There is no company policy that says you must work a minimum of 48 hours to get paid for any of them, so this must be something he has decided to implement.  After I heard the story,I thought about the short-sightedness of this particular leader.  What was more valuable?  Paying this man 7.5 hours of overtime, or saving John Deere the few hundred dollars?  By saving the company a minuscule amount, he totally eradicated any possible clout for this employee (and all others that may hear the story) and the employee is sure to give minimum effort for this boss in the future.  That leader showed he doesn’t care about the individual.

The problem is that the toxic leader is usually unaware that they are a problem.  Many of them have “studied” leadership extensively, and in my own unscientific observation, there is an inverse relationship between the number of John C. Maxwell books on a shelf and the quality of the leader. Here’s an easy test to determine if you are one of those people that is a problem:

  1. What is more valuable to you, a “good job” from your boss or your subordinates?
  2. When a problem occurs, do you think first how to fix it or who to blame?
  3. When you look back at your career, what are you most proud of?  Personal success or your subordinate’s success?
  4. Do you believe fear is a powerful motivator?
  5. Do you take the time to know the people that work for you?  Do you know their families? Their goals?  Their hobbies?

If praise from your boss means more to you, if you always look to assign blame, if your personal success is most important, if you believe fear is a powerful motivator, and you don’t know your subordinates, YOU ARE A TOXIC LEADER.

I’m just going to tell you, because no one else will:  Your subordinates hate you, many would really love their jobs if it wasn’t for you.  People have changed careers, uprooted their families, and took pay cuts because they would rather do all that than work for you.  You are not better than anyone else, in fact, you have been promoted further than you deserve because you like to kiss ass. You should not be in charge of anyone.  You haven’t been passed over for promotion unfairly and you do not deserve any more responsibility.

Is your subordinate Toxic to your organization?

There are some of you that are good leaders, but have subordinate leaders that are toxic and don’t even know it (Let me just say, if you know that a subordinate is a terrible leader and you leave him or her in that position, you are just as at fault for the stress, pain, and cost that the toxic leader causes, and you are a coward).  So i’m going to give you some tips in order to identify these people.

  • You are looking for someone that places the organization above their subordinates.
  • You are looking for someone that has no trouble accepting praise and rarely gives anyone else credit.
  • Ask them what they think of their peers, if they have mostly negative things to say, then you likely have a toxic leader.
  • When something goes wrong, see if they tell you who was at fault or if they focus instead on how to fix the problem.  See how easy it is for them to answer the question about who was at fault.
  • Talk to their subordinates.  If you’re a leader that’s worth a damn, then you should already be doing this.

Someone who doesn’t care about employees who is in a leadership position is like a nuclear bomb to morale.  These people negatively influence not only their own teams, but adjacent units as well.  Their mere presence reduces productivity, and drives away your best leaders.

If you care at all for the people working for you, you will actively hunt down any toxic members and eliminate them from your team.  If you don’t want to do that…well…you’re the problem.


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  1. Penny Seegers

    My husband is experiencing this right now. He returned from a deployment in March. His GOVCC is still stuck in HOA so DTS payments being sent to said card are being denied. In the meantime, we continue to get nasty grams from the GOVCC issuer to pay the over $2,000 bal that the denied DTS should have paid off. But when my husband called his Battalion support contact at USACAPOC, Mr. Ricky Powell, his call was not answered for over 2 months. Mr. Powell point blank told my husband that since he is an SFC he should be capable of fixing the problem himself and he would not help him. He said it would take to much of his time to send a lot of emails to track down who he needed to talk to in HOA to get the card released. Mr. Powell also said he hadn’t answered any of my husband previous calls because he doesn’t answer the phone if he doesn’t know who is calling! WTF not only is Mr. Powell a toxic leader but the Army is paying him to do a job he refuses to do!?

  2. Ken Warner

    Kuwait isn’t combat, so why would they expect combat pay? The 18 month part sucks, but so did getting extended to 15 months in Ramadi, and finding out from the news two weeks after it was announced. At least in Kuwait, they’ll be able to call home, and have regular internet access.

    Aside from that gripe, this was a pretty good article. It gives a lot of good information in a pretty short post. Well done, sir.

  3. Jamie Shofner

    Very good read. As a recently retired USAF enlisted it has truly been an eye opener. I find myself trying to understand all sides of the individual and situation so that the future could possibly have a better outcome. Thank you.

  4. David Weber

    So much truth in here

  5. Newton Stoeber

    Excellent blog post. I certainly appreciate this site. Keep writing!

  6. Terence Latigo

    Good post. I certainly love this site. Keep it up!

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