“A Way” to Develop a Toxic Leader

“A Way” to Develop a Toxic Leader: How We as Leaders Create Our Own Monsters

Joe Byerly

Toxic leaders don’t just appear on the scene, they develop over time- and we are the ones that create them. Yep! It’s partly our fault as leaders because we fail to properly counsel them as they move up the ladder.

There you have it: “A way” to create a toxic leader.

So, I think it’s important for all of us to learn how not to build our own Frankensteins.

In his book, High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders, Morgan McCall Jr opines that “Believing the fittest will survive without much nurturing, organizations not only overlook people with potential to develop but also frequently and unintentionally derail the talented people they have identified as high flyers by rewarding them for their flaws, teaching them to behave in ineffective ways, reinforcing narrow perspectives and skills, and inflating their egos.”

Let’s look at the career of Colonel Toxic. As a platoon leader, Second Lieutenant Toxic was the star performer. He was physically fit, tactically sound, and his platoon was the top performing platoon in the battalion during his assignment. He pushed his Soldiers to extremes and demanded unwavering obedience. When he received his evaluation report, he was commended for his hard work with a superior rating. He was the number one platoon leader! Overtime continued success brought with it arrogance, insensitivity, and an overbearing leadership style. This rising star continued on this path for 23 years, until his brigade command. And that’s when it all fell apart. His command climate surveys became abysmal. His battalion commanders and staff officers were fearful of open communication, and everyone walked on egg shells when he was in the area. His organization was compliant, but not effective. He had obedience, but not buy-in. And so it goes, another promising military leader falls off the pyramid.

Is there anything we can do as leaders to keep the next Frankenstein from rising off the table?

Counsel, Counsel, Counsel: Counseling is our greatest weapon against creating monsters. Sitting down once a month or quarter with a subordinate to discuss performance (success and failure) is instrumental in their development. Just about everyone desires honest feedback, but rarely is it given.

Identify and highlight character flaws: Many of us overlook character flaws (insensitivity, overbearing, etc.) when successful outcomes are achieved. While this might not play a critical role in organizational performance at lower levels, this could severely impact performance at higher levels. Our star performer is still our subordinate and a fellow member of our profession, so that means it’s our job to help them become aware of developing character flaws. It’s nothing personal-it’s professional.

Scrutinize success just as much as failure: In the mind of your subordinate, their iron fist approach to leadership is what earned them a stellar performance evaluation. Morgan McCall Jr. says “seemingly stellar track records don’t always reveal who (or what) actually played the major role in a successful outcome, nor do they always show how results were achieved.” By helping them closely examine the causes of success, a leader may help a subordinate understand it wasn’t necessarily the authoritarian approach that made the unit successful, but it was several factors working in combination together, and maybe they performed well not because of the approach, but in spite of it.

Teach reflection: Reflection turns our key developmental experiences into lessons learned and provides us with the opportunity for introspection. Many top performers bounce from running assignment to running assignment, rarely taking a knee. As leaders we can use counseling opportunities and even writing assignments to provide this reflection space. (I’m reflecting on my own character flaws as I write this.)

There is no training regimen that will reprogram a toxic leader after 20 years of service. So let’s do our job as leaders and take the time to deliberately develop our subordinates.

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Comments

Wow! Everyone missed the key factor that has created an environment where "toxic leadership" has supposedly flourished and because it's incredibly hard to address. It is not necessary to like your boss. Interpersonal skills and communication while important are not THE fundamental factor. Tough to please, never say thank you commanders only alienate when one thing is missing. Integrity.

A martinet who is committed to his unit and his people can still be an effective leader. A micromanaging, never is good enough boss is still bearable when he fights, protects and advances the interests of the mission, unit and troops.

"Toxic leadership" (which is a overused buzz word) is just the manifestation of a system that in actuality places personal advancement over every other value the services espouse. It's no small irony that our creeds say never to leave anyone behind but "toxic leaders" do it at the drop of a hat or the appearance of an opportunity to advance.

All of you can kick around "counseling", "360 observations" and telling subordinates about their flaws till you're blue in the face but it's all a waste when integrity is in such short supply these days.

Need evidence? Open the newspaper. Command influence in the Marine urination case, along with nepotism for a former commandant's son, the decision to not pursue an innocent CPT's courtmartial and instead administratively separate him and send his lawyer for a psyche eval. http://gruntsandco.com/pc-claims-another-marine/ The slap on the wrists of an Army BDE commander (Johnson) and the relief of COL Z are examples. http://blogs.militarytimes.com/outside-the-wire/2011/01/05/ousted-172nd-...

The shameless political pliability of our General officers are evidence of the lack of integrity readily present and yet rewarded with the highest levels of responsibility. These range from Gen Allen's comment that Ramadan was contributing to green on blue attacks in Afghanistan to Gen Dempsey saying with a straight face that telling SF to "stay in Tripoli" wasn't a "stand down". Gen. Sacolick, director of force management and development for SOCOM said, “The days of Rambo are over, The defining characteristic of our operators [is] intellect.” in response to initiatives to facilitate women serving in our most demanding SOF. Not to be outdone Gen Dempsey actually implied that the rivalry between combat arms and support specialties is fueling some of our sexual harassment issues. Uh, how does that explain most of the assaults are being done by the support soldiers in those coed units?

Guys! INTEGRITY is the problem! You can't counsel someone to not be a self serving prick. You just teach him to hide it better.

major.rod----integrity does not answer just how in the heck an entire generation (those Lts/CPTs who are now LTC/COLs or the LTC/COLs who are now one stars) went astray.

There was something that occurred during the last ten years that is unique-micromanagement, lack of prudent risk taking, inability to build teams, inability to mentor/facilitate, poor staff leadership.

The items above contribute greatly to the issues of rape/assault, alcohol problems and suicide---arguing that the Force reflects society has been more or less a cop out

You are right toxic leadership has in fact become a buzz word--not sure what other word one could replace it with.

If the current crop of LTC/ COLs are the ones identified as "toxic leaders", aren't they the ones who were LTs & CPTs at the beginning of the war and, for many of us, our peers/ fellow LTs/ CPTs? Does that mean some of us (SWJ authors) are toxic leaders as well? Was there something in "their" development that we saw that directly contributed to their becoming toxic leaders? If so, could we have done something to correct it?

No, it explains it exactly. Stress and combat puts a spotlight on character like no other.

If one is looking for a phrase consider "lack of integrity". It gets to the core of the problem and demands a response from these politically pliant generals who talk a great talk. "Selfish service" is incompatible with leaders who possess integrity.

major.rod---still does not explain just how an entire generation of officers took the left fork instead of the right fork in the road---one cannot explain away this toxic generation with say a lack of integrity.

Something along the way occurred and I agree with a comment from Robert---they learned to make the old man happy---and the drive to one star was massively motivated by the sheer new numbers of one star billets.

So any good COL who had no failures during his BCT would at least get a look at for one star. If you are right we should have seen something on the integrity side at this point---but it was totally missing.

Secondly that was a phase on the promotion side that there were equal numbers of open LTC positions with a corresponding number of MAJs up for promotion---almost one or one.

Now currently there are far more LTCs available than available command positions so we will be seeing RIFs especially in the LTC ranks so they will be fighting for the best evals possible and making the old man happy goes a long way in ensuring COL.

You disagree with my point about integrity making it seem like it "just happened" (though it didn't, it was a process) but then do the same in that all of a sudden the officer corps learned to "make the old man happy". C'mon SGM.

We didn't "make the old man happy" 20-30 or more years ago? Of course we did (there were limits for me personally) but today personal goals have trumped organizational goals, moral courage and selfless service. That's an integrity issue.

Since WWII we've ALWAYS been fat at flag rank. Where did Robert say there was a massive increase in one star billets? My stats show a 3% increase of 11 billets in one AND two stars since 2011 in the Army. The approx 100k we brought on is over 3k times that number.

That one for one MAJ to LTC must have happened after '05. Don't see how that relates to poor leadership. I believe there will be a RIF of LTC's when I see one. I wish SWJ had a way to contact members so you could send me a reminder.

major.rod---do not like the word integrity as one man's integrity definition is another man's different definition.

I like the concept of just doing the right thing---many younger officers fully understand what is meant by "doing the right thing"---totally lost though in the current LTCs/COLs.

One staff officer can have integrity---the others not---there is then no trust---but if all officers drove on the concept of just doing the right thing---trust does build maybe slowly but it does build.

Where there is trust there is dialogue---where there is trust, and dialogue there is collaboration and a shared understanding.

Believe me we are far that currently.

When you get a one for one then all officers are promoted to include those that are in fact toxic-so how do you weed them out as some will inherently make it to COL.

Integrity and "doing the right thing" where never separate in my upbringing and military ethics training.

Now "toxic leadership"? THAT's a buzzword ignoring the illness and focusing on symptoms.

So if integrity is the "missing link" what is the uncaused cause that created the conditions for integrity to fail? Did they ever have it? Stress? Incompetence? Narcissism?

When I was an instructor I used to tell my students that I could teach a lot regarding leadership and tactics but the one thing I could not do is undo 22 years of bad parenting. If you don't have integrity as a new 2LT you're likely not to gain it thereafter.

We need to usher in a new era of professional, capable, collaborative combat leaders by tackling this toxic leader issue head on, and frankly, writing about it.

When I was a new 2ndLt, I read a number of readings and books about leadership, and one would think that the principles offered by former military professionals would have served as appropriate guides to grow good leaders, along with positive examples provided by senior leaders as we came out of the Gulf War era (the O-6 of today was an O-1/2 during DS/DS).

I suspect that the opposite happened because we failed to do what MAJ Byerly outlined above, and also failed to continue to define the underpinnings of good leadership as our forces shrunk, transformed, and then exploded to meet the demands of the Long War.

Put another way, we did a lot of learning from the culture pimps and the IED defeat gurus, but we let leadership development stagnate and didn't drive a steak knife through the heart of the toxic leaders who were among us. That is admittedly a generalization, because we have a ton of talent in the current force. Effective leadership that leverages collaboration, mission command, trust, and professionalism, still needs to be more uniform.

We need a new professional reading list that addresses the issue of toxic leaders head on, refusing to mince words or couch principles in dated, esoteric terms.

Our audience is the young officer entering a military faced with incredible challenges, both internal and external. I don't see these young leaders finding relevant material from an Amazon search string of "combat leadership". To be sure, many principles are timeless, but one of the more relevant books, "Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level" is dated circa 2001. We have new challenges of force drawdowns, PTSD at elevated levels, and hyper-focus on politically-correct issues that are rarely addressed properly, and if they are dealt with you'll b lucky to see it in a journal article that requires some dedicated research to find.

I'm in the process of finishing up a self-critical piece of sorts I've been writing to document the rise, fall, and rebirth of a toxic leader that I watched occur over the span of eight years. When I wrap it up I'll look to turn it into a blog or journal entry, but following that, then what? How can we get material like that distributed through the force to the point that it changes the mindset of junior leaders at the elemental level?

I'd like to embark on a project with other willing professionals to compile a collection of essays that wrestle with the issue of combat/military leadership in the post OIF/OEF era.

We all recognize that we'll have our share of asymmetric threats to face in the future. Toxic leaders within our ranks should not be on of them.

jcurtis---very well put and I highly respect your comments---AND you are so right.

I will take your thoughts one step further and apply it to civilians who work with BCTs in the training world.

I have been facilitating and mentoring over 48 BCT staffs (from BNs to the Brigade levels) in MDMP, targeting and MDMP/modified MDMP since 2004 until I left the facilitating world in late July.

I have over 30 years of actual field experience in intel/CI/interrogation experience and bridged Vietnam over Desert Storm to having mentored a BCT in Diyala in Iraq to working the desert as the only civilian to have carried a formal NTC Ops Group call sign---but was not accepted by retired toxic officers (on my training team) who were angry that somehow I could speak quietly with officers of all levels up to the USAFE commander with ease and for long periods and nudge them to make staff process changes.

I left the Force after two retired LTC/COLs joined the mission command training team--both by the way toxic leaders who actively pushed back on the form of mission command training we were delivering ---we pushed direct conversations and over the shoulder mentoring via rapport as a way of mentoring staffs into mission command doctrine. We would pass on knowledge and allow the unit officers/commanders to appear in front of their staffs to be the ones making the changes which in turn drove unit team building.

I often would use the word "problems in the Force" much as you indicate in your article---both of these former officers were so toxic ingrained that they would actually get angry with the word "problem"---the Force has no "problems" was a standard refrain. They are definitely not "self critical" ---but they really could get critical of others.

Couple then civilians training mission command who have never deployed, never served, and have "modified" their resumes in order to get hired and one wonders by mission command is failing.

Keeping writing as what you speak about is critical for the coming generation in the current Force.

This article is actually interesting in a number of ways---but currently if one follows the conversation or more recently a distinct lack of conversation on the topic of mission command the article becomes quite interesting.

I have spent the better part of the last two years working in a mission command program where we initially had success in getting unit staffs at all levels (BN to Bdes) to open up and discuss in a fear free manner exactly this topic but cloaked in the doctrine of mission command---ie team building, trust or lack thereof, commander micromanagement, dialogue and collaboration in a fear free environment.

During the last year I would blog here in SWJ on the topics of Trust and MC and out of these discussions a good friend of mine who is currently deployed with the 2CR in AFG once told me---it is all about changing the current command culture---a culture that has allowed the above mentioned BCT commander to develop and exist--it is just not this COL mentioned in the article but a majority of LTCs/COLs who have been developed during the last ten years who are all toxic to a degree (one can count on one hand those current LTC/COLs who are true leaders)---either more or less but nevertheless toxic as that has been the current culture that they have grown up in.

My friend indicated that in order to change that culture it is similar to feeding a bear marshmallows with your mouth---or poking that bear in the chest---currently that bear does not allow it to happen and those that do try to change the environment "get killed" ie sidelined, ignored, not listened to and or their career takes a hit and they simply leave the service.

We expanded the MC program by hiring new individuals---with the program director believing that mission command could only be taught by retired commanders---so we expanded by hiring two retired officers a LTC and a COL---what was not known to us was that both were in fact toxic leaders ---now try to push mission command with emphasis on team building, trust, collaboration and open dialogue with two retired officers who in their command years practiced just the opposite and where it is so engrained that it is difficult for each of them to engage in staff discussions on trust, fear free dialogue, micromanagement,and collaboration. There is a old staff (among younger officers) saying ----some officers think they are visionaries but in reality they have no vision.

Hate to say it but my friend was so right then and still is right---before one can talk about changing toxic leaders the culture must change---meaning we must grow a complete new group of officers at the LT/CPT/MAJ levels who are committed (second nature to them) to team building, trust, open dialogue in a fear free environment and collaboration before we can
even think of trying to filter out/change identified toxic leaders. It is to the point that this group must drift out on their own and be replaced with the younger generation before we can see any progress.

I have come to the conclusion that in fact mission command is failing/has actually failed as the bear did not like being feed marshmallows (ADP 6.0).

The coming deep RIF in personnel will only re-enforce the bears' attitude.

Outlaw 09:

You may be interested in the book Command Culture:Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II by Jorg Muth. He covers exactly this topic I thought very well. From what I gather reading SWJ, nothing has improved much.

http://www.amazon.com/Command-Culture-Education-1901-1940-Consequences/d...

I think your comment is extremely insightful by the way.

Carl----thanks for the tip, and will read it.

As another example --the article that both the retired LTC and civilian wrote concerning MC will be released in Military Review and speaks to trust and mission command tied to training. Written by a toxic retiree and a civilian who has never deployed, never work extensively with officers/staffs at any level---but nevertheless they feel capable of writing about trust for officers and staffs.

When you read the article (28 pages) one gets an excellent example of the failure of our officer and staff training institutions----after reading the article a number of questions arise---what are you trying to say, could it be fashioned in a shorter way---what is seriously missing is the ability to speak truth to power on the subject of officer/staff relations, trust issues, micromanagement and failure to dialogue in a free fear manner. We in our military articles that we release to the Force somehow think sheer page volume and numbers of quotes mean academic excellence---again goes to the concept that many think they are visionaries when in fact they have not a single vision.

We have in our training facilities created echo chambers where a number of military and civilian trainer/facilitators do nothing but collect thata boy certificates, pats on the back and get their egos stroked by comments from training critiques they then in turn place in LinkedIn resumes of themselves. These personnel really do enjoy hearing themselves talk-self impressionists surviving in an echo chamber.

I tended to be different in that I poked the bear in the chest by seeing how officers/staffs ingested what I was passing on and how they in turn integrated that into their operations and their staff relationships. That is suspect in the current Force.

I tended to viewed myself as a transferor of knowledge as a SF combat veteran of three wars-Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq and over 30 years of actual true worldwide offensive CI/interrogation work---that experience taught me that if one cannot speak truth to power then why is one in the training business.

This Force is quick to see the frauds and highly respects those that transfer knowledge in a quiet fashion. But hey that strikes fear in the bear as the bear is not use to having truth spoken in an open and direct fashion--that is not how our officer evaluation system is geared nor rated.

I have seen what changes can do both in training and in the culture---when I joined the NTC COG at his request (now a retired one star who I still highly respect) in Fort Irwin in 2006 (had served as a civilian interrogator with his BCT in Diyala in 2005/2006) we together changed the then existing Army deployment training scenario to reflect as accurately as we could Iraq (Diyala province) and in fact made changes to every rotation as the changes occurred in Iraq---41 BCT rotations taught me to listen, observe, and mentor in a quiet fashion personal fashion (rapport, rapport, rapport)---something I will never forget as a personal experience.

Robert hit on something in his comment that rings so true and is reinforced by a recent study conducted by the Army with officers and NCOs---the percentage of those that would in fact follow their leader into combat was far lower than anticipated after ten years of war---it even caught the eyes of those that conducted the study.

As this Force goes into the coming years there are two cornerstones that if not looked at intently 1) Trust/open dialogue which allows for speaking truth to power, and 2) will you follow your leader into combat ---and are not addressed will damage the Force far deeper than any budget cuts could. It is interesting that both the JCoS and the ACoS are pushing that change but the bear is ignoring them as it knows they will be leaving soon.

I have been recently amazed how German multinational companies here in Berlin pickup on elements of mission command and immediately implement them into their management teams. The corporate world can be far more brutal and hectic that the military culture, but they are after results and will reward for those results and understand that teams are the only way forward in the coming years if one wants continuous innovation and critical business thinking.

I have never looked back on recently leaving the culture of the bear and in fact my life is far calmer and quieter than it has been in the last tens of war and training---and hey I am in Berlin the center of Europe---what more does one want.

I started my SF career in Det A, Berlin Bde in 1967 and came back to Berlin as a 67 year old so in fact sometimes what goes around does in fact come back around.

Outlaw 09:

I've read that after Vietnam a group of officers transformed the Army. They saw what it had become and were determined to make it very much better, and they did. You have seen and lived it. Can the same thing happen again? Can current group of officers do that, or have they been so badly corrupted by the system, the ones who stay in anyway, that they are incapable of it?

I ask because if we don't reform ourselves, somebody else will do it for us and we won't like it. I worry that we are like the Prussians of the late 18th century, very highly reputed but complacent, and in reality weak. They didn't know it because their force had truly been tested in decades. Then the armies of the French came and they found out.

Carl---I would agree with you that the changers of the 90s might not be able to change the current culture.

I have said often in the last two years and written about it in the Tom Ricks blog ---we currently have a three class officer management system in the Force.

The lower management is composed of officers up to CPTs, the middle management are officers from MAJs to one stars and the upper management is composed of two and higher stars.

I would go as far as to state that a majority of the current middle management is toxic and the PME system they have grown up in has been defective---and as Robert states making the boss happy has become in fact the stated goal in defining success for this group of officers.

How can then the upper management change the culture when in fact they owe their "success" to the culture that currently exists? They cannot and the culture continues unchanged---thus the result is the leaving of large numbers of capable lower management officers who actually see that nothing will change.

The culture will give a number of other reasons for their leaving---ie multiple deployments, wives want a career, PME training defective, reduced command opportunities etc-----at its' core though they are leaving as they see the culture not changing in the coming years.

IMO---I really do not see the culture changing for at least the next ten years---ie a complete generational change in the officer corp must occur especially in the middle and upper management levels and the lower level must be retrained to fully understand trust, dialogue and collaboration as a second nature reflex---as they move into the middle management then they can mentor and influence the lower level as they develop.

Only then will the culture change.

For the Army, under the senior rater profile dominated system, "made my boss happy" will always be #1 path to success. Often one can be extremely toxic with peers and subordinates while still making the boss happy.

David Hackworth recommended a simple input by peers and subordinates to balance this out. Do a 360 review and simply put the percentage of subordinates and peers who said "yes" to this single question. "Would you follow this leader in combat"?

Robert,
Interesting you bring up the COL Hackworth reference. As a former Marine officer, I remember this subject came up a couple of times in my decade+ time in the Marines with my fellow officers. The general consensus always seemed to be that most officers were highly allergic to such an idea. Personally, I always liked it. My thought to my fellow officers who were against such ideas was “what are you afraid of”? Shouldn’t a leader be confident in his charge and not be concerned what his peers and subordinates might have to say about him/her? Maybe I think too logically? Or maybe I am too naïve?

What bothers me about this article is that it doesn't address what to do with a guy who is by nature a jerk, especially a cunning jerk. The things suggested are worthwhile and will work with a guy who has natural leadership ability and a fundamentally sound character, but I don't think they will work with the shrewd dissembler.

Great article by Joe.

I fell victim to often overlooking my own flaws in interpersonal relationships because there were positive outcomes. It is easy to believe the hype as I did. I was a too smart for his own good disgruntled staff captain leaving active duty for the civilian world. I think this transition and moving into the National Guard saved me from toxicity.

A few lessons I learned that nest well with this article:

1. Everyday/Interaction is an opportunity to lead: you may develop your most valuable team mate through the smallest of measures. Real leaders are never too busy to spend time with a team member, soldier, fellow leader. Make time to listen and lead taught to me by a very successful corporate VP and former Army Reserve Specialist. He helped me spot my weaknesses in transition

2. Leadership is a transaction, it's about give and take, you have to meet your team on their level in order for them to rise to your personal goals for the team.

3. There is always someone who is smarter, stronger, or wittier. Find this person because you can learn from and co-opt for organizational success: You may be the best platoon leader/staff officer/ company commander in the force, but there is someone who is better in some dimension. I went to work in manufacturing in a rural area and was quick to dismiss folks based on prejudices developed in the military based on appearance and behavior, initially losing the trust of the people on my team I needed most.

This is a great comment. I think your paragraph 3 is apropos to many of us who left the military.

Overall, I think (with few exceptions) all members of good teams have gifts to bring to the table. The key for the leader is laying aside ego (and fear of giving up control) and giving everyone a stake in an outcome.

Ego and fear release can be trained (or stifled) based on reviews of successes and failures (see main essay) and what circumstances created them.

The article points to the most important thing we can do to develop leaders is to focus on character development through mentoring. The focus should be on developing a better man, not someone who is focused on having the best metrics, yet our evaluation system is focused on the tangibles in an attempt to minimize bias and level the playing field. It doesn't work but I haven't seen proposals for a better system. For the most part we reward those who play the game and all too often those good at the game are the last ones you want leading your kids into battle.

" . . . the last ones you want leading your kids into battle."

My military service is behind me. However, I have three sons who may soon serve. You just touched upon my primary concern.

I told some friends, after the recent flurry of "the flight of the best and brightest discussions," I am more concerned retaining the officers who are most capable of leading our young people in the fight than I am about the capable officers who need constant affirmation in the form of choice assignments. They are not always the same people.

Many of us worked with "top block" officers who (yes, this is subjective) may have been more concerned about their spot on the senior rater's profile than they were about their mission and soldiers.

Toxicity becomes rampant as soon as one starts to believe the hype on how good they are.

Humility goes a long way to prevention. The candid self awareness through reflection Joe talks about in his final paragraph is a control measure to going off the reservation.

I don't know of a single person who can't readily name off a leader they served with, around, or for that they consider toxic or the poster child of leadership toxicity.

I think Joe is correct in the counseling aspect - some become toxic because no one ever sat them down and pointed out their flaws to them. This allowed those flaws to fester unaddressed like an infection over time. Eventually the infection brings down the organziation.