Battling toxic leadership
June 27, 2012
An Army survey confirms what most NCOs already know -- toxic leadership destroys units' morale and leads to highly qualified Soldiers leaving the Army. NCOs can teach junior Soldiers how to identify toxic leadership to help purge it from the ranks. Units can also implement a culture of mentorship so that junior NCOs understand the importance of a positive leadership style.
The CASAL: Army Leaders' Perceptions of Army Leaders and Army Leadership Practices Special Report published in June 2011 solicited feedback from officers,
warrant officers and NCOs who are on the pulse of Army leadership.
"The presence of toxic leaders in the force may create a self-perpetuating cycle with harmful and long-lasting effects on morale, productivity and retention of quality personnel," the report said.
The survey contained a few surprising and alarming results. It found that toxic leaders accomplish their goals more frequently than constructive leaders, and that toxic leaders are perceived by their peers to achieve
a higher level of leadership responsibility and move through the ranks at a quicker pace.
In addition, 83 percent of respondents said they had directly observed a toxic leader in the last year. On the brighter side, 97 percent said they had observed an
exceptional leader. With the prevalence of toxic leaders in the Army, noncommissioned officers have a duty to help their junior Soldiers identify and stop toxic leadership and encourage exceptional leaders.
Identifying a toxic leader
Toxic leaders aren't simply those who yell or make Soldiers do something they don't want to do. Rather, the Army defines toxic leaders as those who put their own needs or image above their subordinates', who micromanage their subordinates and who are insecure in their own positions.
At the company level, feedback from Soldiers is critical in helping identify a toxic leader, said 1st Sgt. Michael Lindsay, first sergeant of Headquarters Support Company, I Corps, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Lindsay wrote a paper on toxic leadership and has implemented a training program to alert his Soldiers to the presence of toxic leadership.
"There are different ways to get feedback, including command climate surveys, open-door policies and sensing sessions," Lindsay said. "But the most effective is when the first sergeant gets out of his or her office, talks with the Soldiers and watches how their leaders interact with them and others."
Though the company's leaders should be involved in their unit, they need to monitor their junior leaders in a way that empowers them, Lindsay said.
"There must be a balance," Lindsay wrote. "The company leadership must not come across as micromanaging its subordinates, but should be interested in the daily operations of the company, the morale of the unit and the training of its
Combating toxic leadership
Lindsay identifies three approaches to assist junior Soldiers and NCOs in combating toxic leadership.
"I believe through general education, professional development programs and mentorship programs, we can significantly reduce the number of leaders who are toxic to the unit," Lindsay said.
The pre-emptive approach includes general education of Soldiers, such as how to identify traits and characteristics of a toxic leader. The professional development approach includes using the existing NCO Professional Development programs to delve into how to properly mentor, counsel, develop and assess the unit's Soldiers. This can be done in conjunction with sergeant's time or through on-the-spot training.
The last approach involves directly mentoring and counseling a toxic leader.
The senior leader should mentor toxic leaders on a plan of action and how to change their leadership style. Lindsay said he found that when he corrected NCOs and counseled them on what attitudes or behaviors were enabling toxic leadership, they were able to become more positive leaders.