Leadership Lessons: Preventing a toxic leader

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Rudolf Kuehne
  • 319th Air Base Wing Chief of Safety
What is a toxic leader? The Army defines a toxic leader as one who lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, who operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest, and who uses dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want.

I once worked for a leader who was abusive, callous and self-absorbed. This individual would launch into a tirade whenever something was not to his liking, whether it be a late car, a wrong coffee order or a bad font in a presentation. What mattered most was his own success, his own image and his status as THE leader of the organization. As a result, he had an organization that was obedient, but which lacked buy-in. His division chiefs and subordinate commanders stopped communicating with him and even worked to insulate lower-level subordinates from his influence. In the end, what little success this unit had happened in spite of the leader, not because of him.

I contend that toxic leaders are created, not born. A young leader may start off as a hard-working, idealistic individual who truly cares about his Airmen only to morph into a leader who exacts disproportionate punishments and works the Airmen to extremes. The blame for this metamorphosis does not lie entirely with the leader, though. The creation of a toxic leader is ultimately the fault of the chain of command that rewarded the toxic leader's methods through promotions and higher level job assignments. It is the chain of command that valued the leader's ability to "get the job done" while ignoring the wreckage that was left behind.

If the chain of command can create a toxic leader, then it can also stop one from developing. This is accomplished through mentorship, peer/subordinate intervention, and an in-depth analysis of organizational success. Mentorship is one of those words that has been thrown around quite a bit in the Air Force and has become synonymous with career advice. But mentorship is much more than that; it is the key to teaching young leaders and future leaders what it means to lead. Air Force leaders at all levels, whether they are general officers, colonels, captains, chief master sergeants or technical sergeants, must take the time to meet with young Airmen to discuss acceptable and unacceptable leadership methods.

While senior leaders influence the development of leadership styles, peers can force it to change. The proper application of peer pressure can be a powerful thing, and when a group of lieutenants or staff sergeants see a peer being a toxic leader, they should feel empowered to intervene. A frank and open discussion with a peer can go a long way toward resolving bad habits and poor leadership styles. When intervention fails to change the toxic leader's ways, peers should feel empowered to bring it up the chain of command. Subordinates should also feel empowered to bring abusive leadership practices up the chain of command or to the Inspector General if necessary.

All too often, success reinforces a toxic leader. Success becomes confirmation that a poor leadership style is effective. To break this cycle, we need to analyze success with the same scrutiny we use to analyze failure. When failure occurs, we deconstruct it and attempt to identify lessons learned. But when success happens, we tend to accept it and ignore what it took get there. Analyzing successes properly will not only identify processes that can be benchmarked across the organization but also will open the eyes of a young leader and show him that success is the result of a team working together--not because of a brutal leadership style.

A toxic leader is a cancer who can undermine an organization from the inside out, but this is a cancer that can be prevented. It takes active participation from all levels of Air Force leaders and peers to ensure that young leaders understand what it means to lead in the United States Air Force. Finally, senior leaders need to recognize when a toxic leader exists in their organization, and they need to be ready to and willing to address that behavior.