In the military, few actions have more serious implications than relief for cause and removal of primary duties—employee termination or reassignment in civilian parlance. Unfortunately, those implications often discourage top leaders from pursuing these actions, even when they are clearly warranted. This has far-reaching and enduring consequences, especially when the toxic leader gets a pass and is allowed to go on to serve in higher ranks. Too much is at stake to allow caustic leaders to remain in organizations unchecked.
Although perhaps fewer in number today compared to yesteryear, toxic leaders perpetuate undesirable command climates and shatter the creativity, drive, and quest for excellence that underpin a majority of our workforce. If we seek long-term organizational effectiveness, we cannot tolerate bad behavior from those in charge. We must recognize the warning signs of toxic leaders, marshal the courage to correct the problem, and then take the necessary action if these leaders are unwilling or unable to change their modus operandi.
Some might ask whether it matters if organizations retain toxic leaders provided they are exceptionally intelligent or technical experts. The answer depends on the environment—the social and economic landscapes. Toxic kings, for example, could easily rule with an iron fist because their “workforce” generally was uneducated and lived day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, performing their duties with no hope for a better life.
Fast forward to the Industrial Age. Managers took the place of kings, and the workforce was more educated, but the workers still relied on their hands and backs to perform manual labor. An employee who dared to complain was shown the door, especially during economic downturns when prospective employees waited in lines for a job interview.
The organizational environment today, however, is quite different. Employees are free agents who often possess more knowledge than their bosses, especially as it relates to technology. They now sit in the driver’s seat. The best of these 20- and 30-something-year-olds will jump ship when uninspired, and more quickly if leadership dinosaurs treat them in insolent fashion.1 Senior leaders can attempt to rely on rank alone to command respect, or we can wake up and understand societal realities. Rewarding inspirational leadership and removing toxic leaders are the most effective methods for attracting and retaining a highly motivated, skilled, intelligent, and diverse and inclusive workforce.2
Contemplating a relief for cause or removal of primary duties is not for the faint of heart. Barriers abound at every juncture, and an inability to effect permanent change in a member’s leadership style is in itself a leadership failure. In my major command tour, I failed in my attempts to reshape at least a half-dozen leaders. The resulting reliefs and removals of duties likely ended all hopes of upward progression for these chief petty officers through commanders. I received justified scrutiny from my boss, continued to second guess myself, and lost many nights of sleep when I was unsuccessful in correcting these toxic situations. Fortunately, my deputy was mature and stalwart enough to support the required way ahead. We both learned much about this sensitive and virtually unspoken subject. I offer the following perspectives to help the many men and women who have the dubious distinction of being the first person in the chain of command to confront a toxic leader.
Identifying Toxic Leaders
The first step is the most difficult—identifying a toxic leader. They do not sport a “toxic” tattoo; they often are very pleasant to senior personnel (kissing up while kicking down); and their direct reports typically achieve above average to excellent results, at least in the short term, through fear, intimidation, and retribution. There are, however, at least four effective ways to ferret out bad leaders.
Defense Equal Opportunity Command Survey. The Defense Equal Opportunity Command Survey (DEOCS), hosted by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, is similar to civilian organization climate surveys. Before requesting a DEOCS, however, first-line supervisors and the command must complete some preparatory work. Specifically, leadership should explain the survey and the importance of the information collected to the crew. This effort yields several benefits:
• It gives leaders an opportunity to clarify the purpose of the survey and how it can benefit the unit and the Coast Guard.
• It allows leaders to emphasize that answering the questions honestly may be the best way to identify strengths and shortfalls across the command. It is impossible to make positive changes if concerns or problems are not expressed.
• It provides an opportunity to underscore that the DEOCS is anonymous. The goal is crew honesty. Participants should never include examples or information that could identify them, possibly resulting in retribution from the toxic leader. Any indication of retaliation of any sort must be handled immediately or the reliability and validity of future survey data will be tainted.
• It demonstrates to the crew that leaders are interested in the survey results. The command cadre, in turn, should be fully transparent and promulgate at least the quantitative section of the survey.
One final, and important, point—the next higher command authority should demonstrate an interest in the DEOCS survey for the subordinate command, from marketing to reviewing survey results.
The pros of this approach include anonymity, truth telling, detailed qualitative and quantitative results, and identification of symptoms of problems (although further investigative work is required to understand root causes). The cons of this approach are that it is labor intensive; can be dismissed by the crew if not marketed correctly; is susceptible to leaders who may attempt to “game” the system; and should be deployed only annually or, at most, every nine months.
Local Surveys. A more nimble option is to deploy a localized survey, either in hard copy or via the Internet. If top leadership senses command climate issues but cannot determine the root cause, a short anonymous survey may be launched and managed by a trusted command agent, such as the command master/senior chief (CM/SC) or Leadership and Diversity Advisory Council chair. Once survey results are tallied and problem areas identified, leaders can begin one-on-one deep dive conversations to ensure challenges and causes become clear.
The pros of this approach include simplicity; the ability to fine-tune survey questions; and quick turnaround from survey creation to data collection. Cons include possibly creating anxiety by signaling to the command that a personnel issue might exist; needing to understand research design sufficiently to develop a proper instrument; and ensuring command action, without which employees can become disgruntled and question why the survey was deployed in the first place.
The Command Master/Senior Chief. The CM/SC is the command’s senior leadership ambassador and an invaluable resource both in seeking out command climate clues and acting as a sounding board for members with concerns. Marketing the CM/SC’s role, if done appropriately, helps to create an atmosphere whereby crew members feel empowered and encouraged to voice potential leadership problems. The gold and silver badge network is replete with senior enlisted members who will not accept poor leadership that marginalizes the workforce.
The pros of this approach include immediate identification of potential problems; one-on-one collaboration; and a chance for quick resolution of leadership challenges. A potential con is a lack of trust in confiding in the CM/SC. Certain members may not feel comfortable reporting toxic situations. This could occur if the CM/SC and the potential toxic leader are friends (or perceived to be).
Management by Walking Around. This continues to be one of the best methods for gaining insight into command climate. Chatting with junior members, especially from subordinate units, is always a highlight (I often found their comments to be extremely insightful). However, trust has to be established first, and that takes time and patience.
The pros of this approach include establishing good relationships in general; demonstrating to the command that top leadership is engaged and interested; and ensuring leaders understand what members are doing and thinking. Cons include the time and effort it takes (although well worth it) and the possibility that thin-skinned supervisors (e.g., department heads) might feel intimated by the “boss” talking to their staffs.
Some leaders may not fully understand the power of a strong command climate and may dismiss the professional and personal effects on employees and members who are harassed, coerced, and marginalized. These individuals might consider the focus on command climate to be nothing more than a popularity contest among commanders. The truth, however, is that the leader’s role often is about garnering commitment across the workforce while setting high standards, striving to set people up for success, and holding all members accountable. This simple recipe helps to breed unit and command success. In the end, talented and dedicated members appreciate leaders whose expectations are transparent and who hold people responsible.
Addressing Toxic Leaders
When a toxic leader is identified, the first uncomfortable conversation occurs—explaining concerns and providing data that indicates behavioral failings. On rare occasions, the toxic leader accepts the feedback, owns his or her shortfalls, and changes virtually overnight. Relapses might occur, but consistent course corrections offered in a respectful manner help the leader change slowly but surely.
More frequently, however, the leader will dismiss any allegations of being toxic. It is important to remain optimistic and respectful. This is the time to start documenting conversations, observations, requirements, and leader successes and failures and to apprise the next higher command authority. This also is an excellent juncture to begin speaking with the human resources entity that manages evaluations and separations; these experts can offer sage advice and help frame the leadership challenge. Engaging past commanding officers or officers-in-charge also may help shed light on the situation. It is possible the person in question is not receiving the command support required to lead appropriately. Or these discussions can confirm that the person in question acted inappropriately in past assignments. Unfortunately, in one case, it became clear to me that certain commanding officers did not counsel at least one of the toxic leaders I removed, nor did they annotate bad behavior. Rather, they simply kicked the can down the road.
During early dialog with a toxic leader, be prepared for much conversation, turmoil, dismay, and anxiety. In addition, know the signs of a toxic leader. The following traits are common, and all toxic leaders will possess some or all:
The individual typically is a very good manager or technician but has low emotional intelligence.3 Toxic leaders live by the checklist, both as a management tool (which can be helpful for repetitive tasks) and in leadership. The problem is that processes are structured, but people differ day to day, sometimes hour to hour, depending on mood, situation, and a host of other variables. While attempting to change their attitude, toxic leaders may state that they greet each individual every morning, bring baked goods in every week, play sports with the crew, etc. Often, they see this “checking the box” as all that is required. But if the bad behavior continues to negatively affect the team, the “good” behavior is seen as fraudulent.
There is a gap between toxic leaders’ self-assessments and the ratings provided by a majority of their direct reports. Similarly, a great divide exists between how they understand a great leader should behave and their performance (specifically, theory is understood, but application is deficient).
Toxic leaders assume virtually no responsibility for a breakdown in relationships and the harmful environment. From their perspective, it is always the fault of many or all of their direct reports. Common complaints include one or more members of the team lack technical proficiency, cannot get along, or are attempting to derail the leader.
There is a tendency to rely on rank and titles versus performing the necessary work to establish strong relationships and lead selflessly. Although the power bases of coercion, reward, and legitimacy generally net either resistance or compliance, toxic leaders do not grasp the concept that referent and expert power typically, and more dependably, yield employee commitment.4
Many toxic leaders present a persona that is the antithesis of their true being. Specifically, these men and women believe acting like a tyrant demonstrates their strength. In actuality, however, they often are scared—afraid they will not succeed or that someone will discover their insecurities.
When behavior cannot be changed for the better, toxic leaders must be relieved. Obstacles abound, including resistance from superiors, pushback from the toxic leader (which can take many forms and may involve false accusations), and arduous hours, days, weeks, and even months documenting and implementing change. But if we love our country, our military service, and all people who serve in our outstanding organizations, we will not allow the toxic leader to flourish. We should graciously attempt to change the member’s behavior, and if that is not possible, remove the cancerous personality from our ranks.
1. For a better understanding of organizational power bases through the aristocracy, bureaucracy, and infocracy ages, consider reading James Clawson’s Level Three Leadership: Getting Below the Surface, 5th ed. (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012).
2. Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
3. For additional information on emotional intelligence, see Dan Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).
4. See John French and Bertram Raven’s work on the five forms of power—referent, legitimate, expert, coercive, and reward.
Captain Stump has served for 27 years in both operations and human resources. He holds a BS in civil engineering from the Virginia Military Institute, an MPA from Baruch College, an MBA from Boston University, an MA in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College, and a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of San Diego.
Photo Credit: Leigh-Anne Stump