Toxic Leadership, Colonel George E. Reed, U.S. Army
Military Review – July–August 2004
In 2003, 20 [U.S. Army War College] students focused on the topic of command climate and leaders' roles in shaping it. The students provided a well-considered description of toxic leaders:
"Destructive leaders are focused on visible short-term mission accomplishment. They provide superiors with impressive, articulate presentations and enthusiastic responses to missions. But, they are unconcerned about, or oblivious to, staff or troop morale and/or climate. They are seen by the majority of subordinates as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible, and petty."
A loud, decisive, demanding leader is not necessarily toxic. A leader with a soft voice and façade of sincerity can also be toxic. In the end, it is not one specific behavior that deems one toxic; it is the cumulative effect of demotivational behavior on unit morale and climate over time that tells the tale. Toxic leaders might be highly competent and effective in a short-sighted sense, but they contribute to an unhealthy command climate with ramifications extending far beyond their tenure. Three key elements of the toxic leader syndrome are:—
1. An apparent lack of concern for the wellbeing of subordinates.
2. A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate.
3. A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest.
Toxic leadership, like leadership in general, is more easily described than defined, but terms like selfaggrandizing, petty, abusive, indifferent to unit climate, and interpersonally malicious seem to capture the concept. A toxic leader is poison to the unit—an insidious, slow-acting poison that complicates diagnosis and the application of an antidote. Large and complex organizations like the military should look for the phenomenon since culture and organizational policies might inadvertently combine to perpetuate it.