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Combating toxic company leadership

Published: 05:45PM February 2nd, 2012

Toxic leaders are detrimental to the morale, good order and discipline and over all mission success of a unit. The purpose of this paper is to generally define what is toxic leadership, how to identify these traits, and then how to combat them at the company level.

The Army defines toxic leaders as commanders and leaders who put their own needs first, micromanage subordinates, behave in a mean-spirited manner or display poor decision making. A study for the Center for Army Leadership found that toxic leaders promote themselves at the expense of subordinates, usually without considering long-term ramifications to their subordinates, their unit and the military profession.

In January 2005, Col. Denise F. Williams classified “Toxic Leaders” as leaders who take part in destructive behaviors and show signs of dysfunctional personal characteristics. including incompetence, malfunctioning, maladjusted, sense of inadequacy, malcontent, irresponsible, amoral, cowardice, insatiable ambition, arrogance, selfish values, avarice and greed, lack of integrity, deception, malevolent, malicious, malfeasance and egotism.

There has been a lot of thought in defining these characteristics and what they mean to an organization. However, there is very little on how we can identify and negate these characteristics early in a Soldier’s career in order to develop them into strong leaders for the organization and the Army as a whole.

As a company first sergeant, it is one of my duties to help identify toxic leaders and toxic traits forming in future leaders, to advise the commander, and help develop plans of action in combating toxic leadership in the unit. Feedback mechanisms at the company level may include command climate surveys, open door policies, and sensing sessions; however, the most effective mechanism is getting out of your office and talk with your Soldiers and see how their leaders interact with them and others.

I have found that the more time the company leadership spends with its Soldiers the easier it is to identify problems and fix them on the spot. There must be a balance; the company leadership must not come across as micromanaging its subordinates, but to be interested in the daily operations of the company, the morale, of the unit, and the training of its Soldiers.

There are multiple approaches in combating toxic leadership. The first being the pre-emptive approach. This approach should be conducted as general education. This should be what a toxic leader is and what their characteristics are. The first order effect of educating your Soldiers on what a toxic leader is to give them a general understanding of the problem and this will start the feedback mechanism. The expected second order effect will be individuals start self-assessing and identifying issues with-in themselves that they may need to work on.

The second approach, professional development, would be integrated into existing professional development programs such as the monthly NCO/officer professional development program. In these forums you can go into greater detail with your leaders and talk about identifying these traits and how to properly mentor, counsel, develop, and assess their subordinates. Proper mentorship and development of leaders by senior leaders is imperative for this program to work.

The third approach is the direct approach. Once a toxic leader is identified he/she will be assessed and counseled by the company leadership and then assigned a senior mentor. This senior mentor will conduct an initial counseling outlining a plan of action with goals and expectations that are developed by the mentor and the leader. The progress will be assessed monthly and the plan of action updated based upon progress. Part of the plan of action may even include professional counseling.

I believe through general education, professional development programs and mentorship programs we can significantly reduce the number of leaders that are toxic to the unit.