Hollywood’s stereotypical drill sergeant, who relies on mental humiliation and physical punishment to browbeat his troops into submission, may be getting an extreme makeover.
And this change isn’t just for the big screen.
According to a recent news report on NPR’s All Things Considered – “Army Takes on its Own Toxic Leaders” – toxic leadership is being blamed for the rise in suicide/attempted suicide and other forms of mental illness among enlisted soldiers. Wisely, the Army is taking an aggressive and public stand to identify, retrain, or get rid of the worst offenders.
Just how pervasive is this problem? A survey of 22,000 troops in 2009 and 2010 revealed that up to 20% of leaders were considered to be toxic – defined as “abusive, self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and petty” and “unconcerned about, or oblivious to, staff or troop morale.”
How much damage do these types of leaders inflict? According to Lt. General David Perkins, commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, “I can just tell you from experience … that if you have toxic leadership, people will get sort of what we call the ‘foxhole mentality.’ They’ll just hunker down and no one is taking what we call prudent risk. They’re not being innovative, they’re not being creative. And some people who are toxic leaders, they might be able to get some short-term results and get an immediate mission at hand done. But in the process, they are destroying the organization and destroying their people.”
In fact, recent neurological studies have shown that the limbic system assesses the environment five times per second to determine if the environment is threatening or rewarding. Any perceived threat diminishes cognitive performance substantially, thereby reducing creative thinking.
We couldn’t agree more. And, of course, toxic leaders are in all types of organizations – corporate, government, nonprofit, religious, and political. Perhaps the real question is why do we tolerate, create and sometimes even prefer toxic leaders?
In her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them, Jean Lipman-Blumen asserts that toxic leaders often manifest as strong, authority figures, fulfilling some of our basic needs for stability and security. Our natural desire for order, accountability, and structure can blind us to the destruction they are causing. And, as the Army’s survey revealed, toxic leaders are unusually good at “snowing” their own superiors – often until it’s too late and irrevocable damage has been done.
Think about your organization. Are there leaders who consistently exhibit destructive or dysfunctional behavior toward their subordinates and peers? And no, we’re not talking about the occasional bad day or the “tough but fair” boss. Rather, we’re referring to a pervasive pattern of fear-inflicting behavior that has people “running for cover” rather than standing on the front lines and giving it their all. If the answer is yes – or even, “I’m not sure” – then it’s time to take an honest and open look at your organization’s culture. Because toxic leaders slowly poison organizations. And, unlike soldiers, your people (usually your best people) can – and will—leave.