Sunday, August 17, 2008

Toxic Leadership

As promised, a discussion on toxic leadership. I am getting a lot of this information first- and second-hand (sadly) but have derived some terms and concepts from these people.

So first, we need to define terms here. What exactly do I mean when I say someone is a toxic leader? COL Denise Williams writes, "Toxic leaders can be characterized as leaders who take part in destructive behaviors and show signs of dysfunctional personal characteristics." She further goes on to say that a toxic leader is one who causes serious and enduring damage on their subordinates and organizations. I think this is a pretty good definition, so we'll go with this. Now the questions get a little harder. What makes a toxic leader? Why do we put up with them? And what do we do once we've found one?

Toxic leaders are an interesting breed. Sometimes you can tell right off, like when the officer in charge jumps up and down, smashing furniture while cussing like a pirate in front of everyone in the area about incompetent subordinates. But other times, you don't know until (tragically) much too late that your boss has been busily taking credit for your ideas, and blaming you for his failures. COL George E. Reed, in an article from the July-August 2004 Military Review magazine, says that the three key elements of the toxic leader are an apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates, a personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate (see above re: cussing like a pirate), and a conviction by their subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest.

Sometimes, as stated earlier, you can't tell until it's almost too late. But you should start assessing your area, looking at the morale and general feeling among your seniors, peers, and subordinates, and see if any of the three elements above look familiar. PLEASE DON'T confuse Soldiers (employees) tired of hard work with Soldiers tired of abuse. We all get cranky when there's a lot going on and it's nonstop.

So say you find that someone in your chain of command is, in fact, a toxic leader. Why and how did they get to where they are? Well, the first sad fact is that while leaders are born, leadership styles are made. So someone taught your T.L. everything they know. Frightening, eh? Hints toward vicous circles and futility and all that. The second sad fact, and this particularly applies to the military, is that most of the time we are so mission-focused that we don't particularly care how something gets done, as long as it gets done. It's as if Pharoah told us, "Build me some pyramids out there in the desert" and came back later to say, "Wow, those are neat!" without thinking about the millions of man-hours, the whips, the dead slaves, etc. And we're conditioned to "suck it up and drive on." No one wants a whiner, and we often forget as military leaders that there is a difference between whining and a legitimate gripe. So when your T.L. is screaming at you and threatening your career unless you get his mission accomplished, you will just take it and execute. And unless your T.L.'s boss is within earshot, all the big boss will see is that the mission got accomplished, and that T.L. got it done. So old T.L. gets rewarded, and the pyramid gets built on the backs of the slaves.

So what do we do? We all know T.L., I guarantee you can point to one in your organization without too much thought. How do we keep them from succeeding? How do we keep from perpetuating the vicous cycle? And how do we keep from becoming one?

The army uses various command climate assessment tools to measure these kinds of things, with varying degrees of efficacy. But the main thing is that we have to notice what's going on around us. We have to be aware that T.L. is getting up to his old tricks, and we have to make sure that our peers and subordinates are aware of them too. This way, we can mitigate the effects. As leaders, we have to be involved; we can't sit in our office (or ivory tower, or Fortress of Solitude) and ignore what's going on in our organization until it's too late. And the bottom line, after we've noticed the behavior and seen what's going on, is that we have to make a stand. If you're a leader, you must refuse to accept T.L.'s behavior in your organization. If you're a peer, you have to let T.L know. You may even have to go to the boss and let the Man know. And if you're a subordinate, you have to make sure that the Man knows. If you can't or won't go directly, use alternate means. Find a peer of T.L.'s, use your Chaplain, but you have to make sure the boss is aware.

If you think you might be a T.L., well, the first step is admitting you have a problem. There are a lot of books on leadership out there. But if you're in the Army, I will refer you to the seven Army Values and Field Manual 6-22 (Army Leadership). Both of those are good guides. But you have to make a change. Think of the slaves.