A recent Army study found a potential link between toxic leadership and troop suicides (National Public Radio, “Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders” by Daniel Zwerdling, 6 January 2014). This is not the first report on the topic, but the conclusion is startling. Considering the destructive effects of this style of leadership, it’s not a surprise.
Multiple reports have looked at this phenomenon in the Army, but it’s not only an Army problem. Toxic leadership is evident in many cases where officer and enlisted leaders have been relieved throughout the Department of Defense. The case of Captain Holly Graf, relieved of command of the USS Cowpens (CG-63) in 2010 for behavior easily categorized as toxic leadership, comes to mind.
The accusations against her—including verbal abuse, assault, and using her position for personal gain—meet the Army’s definition of a toxic leader. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 defines toxic leaders, in part, as those who “consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves.”
This definition and the charges against Captain Graf and others described a bully, someone who displays consistent negative behavior that harms others physically or emotionally. Toxic leaders and bullies also share similar motivations: creating a climate of fear or an imbalance of power, isolating individuals, and lessening others’ self-worth.
This problem is not limited to senior leadership levels. Unfortunately, it often goes unnoticed or is seen as something to joke about or be proud of. It’s not uncommon to hear leaders discuss interactions with subordinates as if it were a competition to see who used the best one-liner, a thoughtless one-upmanship for group amusement. This even occurs during important forums like disciplinary review boards when the course of a military member’s career may be on the line. These incidents are not always repetitive action against an individual, but they can repeatedly target a single population, or they may be directed against someone who is being bullied elsewhere.
A good butt-chewing can turn a career around, but when done for the participants’ entertainment, it’s bully behavior. These unprofessional situations are detrimental to unit cohesion and the morale of the subject of the attack. As the Army study found, the outcome could be disastrous. Left uncorrected, toxic leadership becomes an accepted and learned behavior, perpetuating its use.
Identifying toxic leaders can be difficult. According to NPR’s assessment of the Army reports, toxic leaders are adept at hiding their behavior from superiors, allowing them to get promoted. This may explain one of the biggest questions about Captain Graf; if so many people knew of her leadership style earlier in her career, how did she become a commanding officer and last in the position so long?
So how do we prevent, identify, and eliminate toxic leadership? Strategies for combating bullying offer suggestions. Prevention includes setting a tone of respect for all populations within a unit and establishing clear definitions of acceptable leadership tactics.
Identification requires widespread awareness of the behaviors and potential indicators of bullying. Bullies often have a following, a group loyal to them if only to avoid becoming their target. Victims often isolate themselves, withdrawing from and avoiding group settings to evade a bully, even getting themselves in trouble intentionally to avoid group scenarios. Bullies and those who support them tend to reinforce their own negative qualities, using results or intent to justify their behavior.
At senior levels, unit performance may indicate toxic leadership or bullying. Continuous calls for innovation and calculated risk-taking often go unanswered. In two otherwise similar commands, the one where these do not occur may suffer from a fear of failure caused by fear of a toxic leader.
When bullying occurs, leaders must hold perpetrators accountable while helping the target and the bully build self-acceptance. The victim must understand that, even if they were targeted for a shortcoming, they have personal worth and can improve. Bullies typically act out of feelings of insecurity within themselves, so they need guidance in accepting and improving themselves, too.
Toxic leadership and bullying have wide-ranging implications and potentially devastating results, but they can be prevented and corrected. Neither is solely an Army or uniformed-leader problem; they exist among military and civilian personnel throughout the Department of Defense.
Taken seriously, the Army studies empower us to discuss toxic leadership and start to identify the bullies in our ranks.
Ms. Cecil is a career educator who developed and delivered bully prevention in-service training for teachers and administrators in several Texas school districts. She holds a master’s degree in educational leadership.