In early January NPR ran a story titled “Army Takes on its Own Toxic Leaders.” The reaction was immediate, and the story seemed to resonate with a lot of people. At least six different people asked me if I had heard it. I listened for myself and was captivated by what I heard. I knew immediately that this was an important topic to which many people can relate and decided to present on it at the 2014 ASTD ICE Conference in Washington, DC, May 4-8, 2014. Any of us who have been in organizational life of any sort for more than a few years can identify at least one toxic leader whom we have known.

So, what is a toxic leader? According to LTG (Ret.) Walt Ulmer, Jr., former President and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, toxic leaders are “individuals whose behavior appears driven by self-centered careerism at the expense of their subordinates and unit, and whose style is characterized by abusive and dictatorial behavior that promotes an unhealthy organizational climate.”

You’ve probably seen, and perhaps had the misfortune to work under, at least one in your career. Jack Nicholson’s character as Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men” is a well-known fictional example. His infamous thundered line, “You can’t handle the truth!!” shortly before he confesses to ordering the Code Red which resulted in a Marine’s death, is a classic depiction.

So how prevalent is toxic leadership? According to the results of a US Army Command & General Staff Officer college survey, it may be as much as 18% of the officer corps! As for the federal government, an anonymous employee review titled, “Toxic Leaders” reads,

  • Pros – Awesome travel to different places
  • Cons – Toxic leaders throughout the place
  • No, I would not recommend this company to a friend

What is the cause of toxic leadership? Underlying personality traits may provide a clue. People with narcissistic personality traits or possible sociopathic tendencies are more likely to gravitate towards a toxic leadership style. Their personality types place self-advancement at the core of their being and place the needs of others last (if even considered). Another possible explanation is “Bathsheba Syndrome” in which a person’s successes and achievement “goes to their head” and they start to consider themselves above the rules which apply to others. Leonardo DiCaprio spoke of this when he said,

“As soon as people give you enough compliments and you’re wielding more power than you’ve ever had in your life, it’s not that you become arrogant or rude to people, but you get a false sense of your own importance and what you’ve accomplished. You actually think you’ve altered the course of history.”

If toxic leadership is anathema, then how do these leaders continue to exist in our organizations? One theory was posited by a retired senior executive from the Intel Community whom I know. She used a metaphor of toxic leaders as a “two-sided coin;” which side of the coin you see depends upon who you are. The toxic leader’s superior sees the “shiny” side of the coin; whereas the people underneath that person see the dark side. Toxic leaders are experts at managing their boss’s perceptions. They produce short-term results (although at the expense of the long-term health of their organization and the people in it). And they tell the boss what s/he wants to hear.

I have a personal experience with this perception management. For five years, I led an organization with three subordinate groups. I did everything I knew to create a great work environment: established an open door policy, got to know my people, invited involvement in decision-making, etc. Yet, year after year, our employee climate surveys were bad. Nothing I did improved morale. Finally, I asked the Employee Assistance Program to investigate. Only after months of focus group interviews did they finally uncover a toxic leader heading one of the groups. I was completely surprised; why had people not spoken up earlier? When the truth came out, this person’s subordinates described it as the “beaten wife syndrome;” they were afraid to speak up. Looking back over the years, I realized that the warning signs had been there and I had ignored them or allowed this toxic leader to explain them away by blaming someone else.

What can you do to survive a toxic leader? Take care of yourself and implement typical steps to increase resiliency such as taking breaks, get out, sleep, exercise and meditation. If the abusive pattern persists and is unbearable, you should document everything for potential evidence, build a coalition of like-minded peers, possibly confront the toxic leader or take it higher levels in the organization. As a last resort, you may consider leaving the organization.

Our organizations have a responsibility for screening out toxic leaders. They should employ mechanisms to identify them such as 360 assessments before advancement, protection for whistleblowers, mentoring, holding toxic leaders accountable and removing them, if necessary. The long-term health of our organizations and the people in them depend upon organizational leadership taking a stand on this issue.

Have you ever dealt with a toxic leader? Please share your experiences and recommendations.

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