Toxic Leadership: What Are We Talking About?, by LTG Walter F. Ulmer, Jr. (US ARmy Retired), ARMY, June 2012.
The U.S. Army War College study, "Leadership Lessons at Division Command Level-2010: A Review of Division Commander Leader Behaviors and Organizational Climates in Selected Army Divisions after Nine Years of War," surveyed and interviewed 183 officers from four divisions just returning from deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. The study summarized officer views of toxic leaders as "self-serving, arrogant, volatile, and opinionated to the point of being organizationally dysfunctional … very persuasive, responsive, and accommodating to their seniors." In those interviews, the report continued, "it seemed clear that officers were not describing the 'tough but fair,' or even the 'oversupervisor,' or the 'not really good with people,' or even the 'rarely takes tactical initiative.'" These officers' perceptions make a discernible, important distinction between tough and toxic. An assessment of a leader as inferior or even unsatisfactory based on decision-making inadequacies, clumsy interpersonal skills or lack of drive did not automatically label him as toxic. It is also possible to "make tough, sound decisions on time," "see the big picture [and] provide context and perspective," and "get out of the headquarters and visit the troops"—the top behaviors of a highly regarded senior leader as reported in a 2004 division commander study—and still be conspicuously toxic as judged by a majority of subordinates. In other words, while all toxic officers are ultimately poor leaders, not all poor leaders are toxic. The forthcoming version of Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership notes, "Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization and mission performance." A recent study on ethical behavior by the Army Center of Excellence for the Professional Military Ethic, "ACPME Technical Report 2010-01: MNF-I Excellence in Character and Ethical Leadership (EXCEL) Study," stated, "The Army should develop leaders who understand the line between being firm … and being abusive; and identify and separate those found to be abusive." Identify and separate are the important words.
A proposed definition: Toxic leaders are individuals whose behavior appears driven by self-centered careerism at the expense of their subordinates and unit, and whose style is characterized by abusive and dictatorial behavior that promotes an unhealthy organizational climate. Other observations about toxic leaders from surveys, interviews and literature—most derived from research and discussions about senior leaders or managers—are:
- They rarely take blame or share glory.
- They are not toxic all the time, or to all people.
- They are rarely if ever toxic when in the company of "the boss."
- They sometimes have good ideas and accomplish good things.
- They can be charming when the occasion fits.
- They are frequently described as extremely bright and hard-working.
- They often have a coterie of devoted "fans" who keep appearing on their staffs.
- Most have been seen as toxic by subordinates since early in their career.
- Their boss either does not know or pretends not to know, and almost never records, their abuse of subordinates.
|Two of the categories used in data collected from selected CGSC and War College student samples during 1996–2010||Estimates in population|
|Essentially transformational: Inspirational, encouraging, puts mission and troops first; coaches, builds teams and a healthy climate; sets high standards for self and others; generates and reciprocates trust.||30–50 percent|
|Essentially toxic: Alienates and abuses subordinates; creates a hostile climate; often rules by fear; rejects bad news; seen as self-serving and arrogant; is skillful in upward relationships; usually bright, energetic and technically competent.||8–10 percent|