Toxic Leadership
Retired Col. George E. Reed, associate professor of leadership studies at the University of San Diego, speaks about toxic leadership Dec. 7, at the Pentagon.

WASHINGTON (ARMY News Service , Dec. 13, 2010) -- The American public has more confidence in leadership of the military than it does the Supreme Court, medicine, education and a long list of other professions, according to the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership.

That positive message was brought to the Pentagon Dec. 7, by George E. Reed, an associate professor in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego. He spoke to a packed auditorium about "toxic leadership."

While Reed, a retired Army colonel with 27 years of progressive leadership as a military policeman, was quick to point out the virtues of Army leadership, he also reminded the audience that when an institution doesn't get the kind of leadership that's consistent with its goals and values, it stands out and becomes toxic.

Toxic leaders leave a wake in their path that extends long beyond their tenure, and superiors often do not see or acknowledge the negative impact of those toxic leaders, he said.

"We tend to talk about leadership in positive, glowing and inspirational terms, which is good because we all want to drive people to positive behavior," he said. "In practice, there's bad leadership practice in our organizations and that is an organizational challenge and an organizational task to deal with it."

Borrowing a quote by Harvard leadership expert and lecturer Barbara Kellerman, Reed added that to study leadership without considering the fact that there's bad leadership is like studying medicine without giving consideration to disease.

Reed said he didn't come to the Pentagon to be a "father confessor" or to advocate subordinates confront toxic seniors, because he said that rarely fares well for the junior. Rather he wanted the audience to consider their own individual leadership styles and make a self-evaluation.

He asked the audience to think about leadership style and whether that was really important. He said a bad leader who is out of control and a raving lunatic can still be professional and get the job done.

"Is a bad boss going to keep you from doing your job'" he said. "Of course not - you're a pro. You're going to overcome, persevere, get the job done anyway, because you're also a professional, mission first. So does leadership style matter'"

Reed believes toxic leadership style does matter, because it affects health, according to 90 percent of all physicans' offices that studied the effects of poor leadership on the physical well-being of subordinates. In short, stress kills.

He cautions though that not all loud, demanding and "large personality" supervisors are toxic. There's a time and place for almost any leadership style. The art is matching the appropriate style to the context of a given situation, he added.

"Good leaders are typically extroverts. They're outgoing people with a level of charisma," he said. "They're people who get people who want to follow them. Maybe it starts out with their physical appearance. Maybe it's a perception of competency, but in the end, leadership is ratified in the hearts and minds of the followers."

"Good leaders add value to the organization. They add energy to the organization. They're uplifting," said Reed. "But some leaders, merely because of the way they react with other people, consume energy from the organization. They suck it out of the organization.

"Some people have a leadership style that's so bad they do not contribute to the organization. They are in fact a detriment to the organization," he said. "The mission gets accomplished not because of them, but in spite of them. This is the back-biting, belittling boss from hell."

In 2004 Reed wrote a research paper at the request of the secretary of the Army on what constituted toxic leadership and in fact what the definition of it was. Reed was a colonel and on the faculty of the Army War College at the time.

The secretary also wanted to know how the Army could identify leaders with destructive leadership styles. When "Toxic Leadership" was published by Military Review (see link), Reed received hundreds of e-mails from Soldiers of all ranks who wanted to tell him about how bad their bosses were.

He came up with a three-part definition of toxic leadership and what to look for. He concluded toxic leaders show an apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates. Second, their personality or interpersonal technique negatively affects the organizational climate. Third, they're toxic if a conviction is held by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest "designed to advance them over the carcasses of their subordinates."

"If one and two are there, that's probably good enough to identify a toxic leader," he said.

Looking back at his own leadership style, Reed believes those who worked for him during his Army career would say two important elements that he brought to the table were sincerity and care for his subordinates.

"They reacted positively," he said. "I like to say I reached my station in life because of the tolerance of my superiors and the unfailing support of my subordinates.

"Be yourself, learn your own leadership styles," he concluded. "My objective is to convince everyone that the band of tolerance for toxic leaders needs to be tightened up a little bit, that there are some types of leadership style that ought not to take place in organizations that care about people."

Page last updated Mon December 13th, 2010 at 16:37