Army Survey Raises Worries Over Damage Caused by Toxic Leaders

The Washington Post reports that a U.S. Army survey of leadership and morale showed 80 percent of 22,000 Army officers and sergeants had observed a “toxic” leader in the last year. The same survey found 97% had observed an “exceptional leader” in this same time frame.

The survey defined toxic leaders as those who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making. The army is exploring whether subordinates views should be factored into the evaluations of commanders being considered for promotion with a questions like “Does the senior officer engender a climate of trust?”

First, let’s applaud the 97% “exceptional leaders”. That is an outstanding figure. I conduct an exercise in my workshops in which we collectively identify about 40 characteristics of an ideal leader. I then ask how many of those in the room work for a leader with at least 90 percent of those characteristics. It is rare that more than 5 to 10% feel they do work for such a leader. While the 97% percent “exceptional leader” figure is arrived at somewhat differently it is an extraordinary percentage.

But the 80 percent figure is also remarkably high. Partly this may be a result of the definition used for “toxic”. It is arguable whether “poor decision making” qualifies as toxicity. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders” , Professor Jean Lipman-Blumen offers a more complete list of toxic behaviors and their destructive impact.

Nevertheless, almost anyone who has worked in the military structure at some point finds themselves in a command with a toxic leader. Given the value placed on rank differential in the military, and the tremendous responsibility borne by most commands, this becomes an extremely dysfunctional situation.

The policy the military is contemplating could help alleviate the most egregious cases of toxic leadership. But as Lipman-Blumen argues in her book, the leader is only part of the equation. It is equally important to focus on how followers prop up and propel toxic leaders into the positions at which they ultimately arrive. The military already requires junior aviation officers to learn how to assert themselves in instances where the flight commander is about to make a potentially lethal error. Given the power placed in the hands of senior military officers, all mid-level and junior officers would benefit from similar training.

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