You or somebody around you is probably perceived as a toxic leader.
A recent Army survey of civilians and soldiers from rank of E-5 to O-6 found that roughly one in five sees his or her superior as “toxic and unethical.” (Read about it in this week’s Army Times cover story “No More ‘Toxic Leaders,'” on newsstands only.)
To get a sense of what it all means, we talked to Army leadership guru George Reed. Now at the University of San Diego, he served for 27 years as an Army officer, including six years as the director of Command and Leadership Studies at the Army War College, and he has authored several articles on the topic.
While Reed said the problem of negative leadership appears to be gaining attention at the top, people continue to suffer quietly under the service’s bad bosses. (We got a taste of this when we asked troops to tell us about their own experiences.)
“There are people telling you they are suffering under commanders who don’t care about them, who exhibit all the signs of toxic leadership,” Reed said. “They disregard subordinates, they’re self-aggrandizing and petty; they are humiliating their subordinates and treating them with a pattern of disrespect. There are soldiers suffering under soldiers who are doing those things and the institution is not reacting to it.”
“This is a first, a major Army study,” Reed said. “We have a name for it, ‘toxic leadership.’ Now we’re getting large-scale information on how widespread the problem is. And I expect an attentive senior leader will act upon that information.”
Until then, toxic leadership remains ingrained in the Army. Many commanders are rewarded for short-term mission results over the well-being of soldiers. They cycle out of jobs quickly so they rarely get to see the consequences of their poor leadership styles.
“We want to be effective, but even great organizations can be run into the ground,” Reed said. “Soldiers will get the job done, they will fight the enemy, so why do we care? Soldiers will tell you lower retention rates, domestic violence, absenteeism, increased alcohol consumption, drug consumption, lack of productivity, lack of motivation. The spirits get crushed out of young up-and-coming people with high potential.”
Retention suffers because soldiers who ruefully watch bad leaders advance tend to hold the institution responsible.
“Their faith and confidence in the Army goes down when toxic leaders go up,” Reed said. “The soldier looks at the promotion list, slaps his head and says, ‘They can’t do that to my Army!'”
One part of the problem is that the evaluations used to retain and promote commanders provide only one perspective, from the top down. This view can mask toxic leaders, who are often “masters of kissing up and kicking down.”
“They know everything that’s going on in their unit, because if anything, they micromanage,” Reed said. “So if you’re at the top, looking down, they look good. But if you’re at the bottom, looking up, it’s misery in the ranks. The superiors don’t see it, and they can appreciate these people because everything’s done right now, they never turn down a mission, they’re very responsive, but they’re completely immune to the considerations from below.”
Criticism does not always come from above because commanders have more responsibilities than ever, and hence, little time to develop and counsel leaders below them. And when toxic leaders receive criticism comes from below, they tend to reject it.
“They are notoriously immune to criticism from subordinates,” Reed said. “First of all, they will avoid it if they can. Or faced with it, they will rationalize it away, ‘Oh, they don’t know what I’m up against,’ or ‘Yeah, but I had to because of this situation.’ They will dismiss the results.”
For the Army to fix the problem, it must clearly delineate what is acceptable and what is not, Reed said. When a people in authority treat each other with a lack of dignity and respect, the institution has to form a response that signals how clearly unacceptable this is.
In an all-volunteer Army, commanders must take matters into their own hands and be aware of their troops’ thoughts and motivations.
“If you’re going to be an enlightened leader, you have to care about the people in these formations, you have to care about the people in them, because the Army is a people-centric organization,” Reed said. “It’s good if its people are good, and it’s bad if the people are bad.”