Take Action To Transform Toxic Leadership

Gold Fish

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. ~ John Quincy Adams

I recently read an article by Maya Orbach called, Watching out for toxic leadership in your organization.  After my initial thought of “Toxic leadership is an oxymoron because true Leaders are not toxic,” I was taken back to the first time I encountered the impact of a toxic “leader”.  Like the article, I went to a military experience.

I spent the 1990s – all ten years – in the U. S. Navy.  Beginning in bootcamp, the concept of following orders and attention to detail is drilled into new recruits for a reason – safety.  On a ship, or in any type of conflict or high danger situation, an individual’s attention to detail and ability to follow orders could mean the difference between life and death.  It’s usually taken for granted that the person giving those orders knows what s/he is doing because s/he has the knowledge, skills, and experience to be there – right?  Well, as we all know, these traits are not always accompanied by the ability to connect and communicate with people on a positive level.  What we often see are simply ineffective or bad leaders, not toxic.  Which brings me to my story.

My last position in the Navy was at the Service School Command, Great Lakes in the legal office as a legal investigator.  The responsibility of this office was to investigate and process any student for any infractions to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  I was known as the “Discipline Petty Officer”.  If anyone, student or staff, was investigated for doing something wrong, they eventually saw me.

One day, a student’s file crossed my desk after he had returned from being UA (Unauthorized Absence).  This file was about an inch thick, meaning this student had been in trouble quite a few times.  As I proceeded through the investigation phase of the process to determine the specifics, I asked the student WHY he had gone UA so many times.  I must have made an impression on him at some point because he shared his story.

While at SSC, his estranged father had reached out to him and was trying to reconnect.  When the student went to his supervisor, a Chief Petty Officer, to see if he could have, a few days to spend with his father, he was treated with disdain and disrespect.  The Chief’s response was something like, “Do you REALLY think your father wants to reconnect with YOU?!”

The student told me it took all his will not to reach across the desk and punch the Chief.

Now I knew this Chief by reputation from a previous Command.  Needless to say, his reputation was not very good.  And yet somehow, he had managed to get promoted.  But because this Chief was still at SSC, the student didn’t stick around very well.  He ended up going UA at least two more times while I was there.  The last time he stayed away for 31 days – grounds for discharge from the military.

When he returned, I made up my mind to try to help him.  I met with him weekly to “check in”.  I also went to our senior enlisted supervisor, the Command Master Chief, to see what could be done about the Chief’s behavior toward the student.  I was basically told that there was nothing to be done.  That said, I put my focus on helping the student weather the process long enough to be discharged so he could move on with his life.  And he did.

I’m sharing this story for a reason.  Even after more than 15 years, this is still a vivid memory for me because of the toxic nature and impact of the Chief’s behavior.  The blatant disrespect for another person was bad enough.  But lack of accountability from senior leadership for this behavior made the situation even worse.  This student may have been a fine Navy leader someday. However, he left the Navy because of a toxic leader who was allowed to continue on in a position of authority.

My point is that it isn’t enough to be able to identify toxic leaders.   Organizations need to take action.  Actions such as,

  • Enforce accountability and consequences for toxic behavior – Leaders need to be held accountable for fostering an environment where employees at all levels feel their potential is maximized. This means going beyond 360 assessments and employee surveys and doing something to help leaders change toxic behaviors, or remove him/her from the leadership position if necessary.
  • Take responsibility to develop the right leaders – Dr. Marla Gottschalk, in her article, How Not to Choose a Manager, shares some very good tips for helping to identify who is right for leadership, such as don’t “assume they want the job,” and don’t “believe it’s the only path to compensate top talent.”
  • Provide the development necessary for leadership success – Provide leaders with the tools they need to LEAD.  A leader’s “toolbox” should contain a variety of resources from multiple mediums:
    • Education-based: courses, books, lectures, seminars.
    • Experience-based: rotational programs, action learning, practice.
    • Relationship & feedback – based: mentoring, coaching, feedback.

I’ve seen the impact of toxic leadership in corporate life as well.  High attrition and low morale are the least of the impacts.  I’ve seen people suffer health issues and heard first-hand stories of breakdowns and heart attacks.  Some people who have had enough just simply walk out.  And I’ve also see the difference made when a toxic leader realized what he was doing and made a conscious effort to change.  Today he shares his story with young leaders and is an inspiration to these leaders as they embrace their potential for future leadership.  Not all toxic leaders are “born” that way.  Sometimes s/he is just a product of their “upbringing” and doesn’t know any other way to be.

But as I was recently told, change will happen.  It may take 10 years, but it will happen.  New leaders are being developed with a focus on leading the “whole person”, the body, head, heart, and soul.  As the late Stephen Covey said,

“Unleashing the potential of this age will require a fundamental break from the control paradigm.  It will require leaders to embrace … the whole-person paradigm.”[1]

These are the leaders of tomorrow who know how to connect with people at all levels.  True leaders who, in the best definition I’ve seen because of its simplicity, others CHOOSE to follow.

What is our part in this?   Be honest, let your voice be heard, and inspire the true leaders among us so they can continue to inspire others.  What else do you think you could do?

Images courtesy of Flickr.