Surviving toxic leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Lonnie Hammack
  • 21st Mission Support Group deputy commander
As I rapidly approach retirement in three weeks, I think back fondly over the last 31 years. I have worked with and for some of the most amazing people. Of course, they were all different, but some of the common qualities that come to mind are leadership, integrity, passion, dedication, devotion, loyalty, honesty, patriotism, etc. The list goes on and on. I've been very lucky in the jobs I've held, in the locations the Air Force has sent me to and most of all in the people I've worked around.

But just like any other large organization, there are a few "bad apples" in the Air Force. As a squadron commander, I helped some of those find civilian employment. Those were easy compared to dealing with a supervisor that meets the definition of what the military is now calling a "toxic leader."

What is a toxic leader? According to a recent Army War College study entitled "Toxic Leadership in the U. S. Army," toxic leaders are characterized as leaders who take part in destructive behaviors and show signs of dysfunctional personal characteristics. To count as toxic, these behaviors and qualities must inflict some reasonably serious and enduring harm on their followers and their organizations. The intent to harm others or to enhance themself at the expense of others distinguishes seriously toxic leaders from the careless or unintentional toxic leaders.

We've all joked around the coffee machine about General, Colonel or Sergeant so and so, who had a bad temper and sure could yell loud. Does that mean he or she was a toxic leader? Perhaps, or maybe he or she just had anger management issues. The deciding factor is the impact on the followers and on the organization. As I said earlier, I've been very lucky; however, I have not been completely shielded from this. In my experience, anger was a large part of it. The toxic leader uses anger as a control mechanism and control is highly important to them because they operate at the safety level in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A few other attributes I've observed are an immature listening ability, a general distrust of subordinates, paranoia, and in the worse cases, malevolence and maliciousness.

There's plenty of information online for identifying toxic leaders. The harder question is what to do when you find yourself in that situation. Do you just grin, bear it and wait them out? In an interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates earlier this year, he talked about how hard it is to weed out toxic leaders. He suggested that the only real way to identify them is for subordinates to be willing to talk about and document abuses. Gen. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that we use "360-degree evaluations" for unit commanders in all services. These would include evaluations by subordinates, peers and superiors. Of course, toxic leadership doesn't just exist at command levels. A toxic leader could be a lieutenant that is a section chief or a senior NCO that is shop chief.

I certainly don't have all of the answers, but having some experience with this, here are my recommendations. First, protect your subordinates regardless of what it costs you. Don't give in to undue pressure just to get some relief from a toxic boss. Allowing subordinates to suffer undeserved abuse or punishment will be much harder to live with later on than taking the brunt of the abuse yourself. Second, stand your ground and remain professional. Toxic leaders revel in "breaking" their subordinates. It makes them feel more secure. No matter the difference in rank, we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and we owe that to others. Always strive to remain professional even if a toxic leader is heaping abuse at you. And finally, if the damage a toxic leader is causing to your organization and its people is significant, you have a responsibility to let their superior know. This is hard because using the chain of command is sacrosanct to us. We only go around the chain of command in extreme situations. But, if we want to work in an environment where everyone treats others with dignity and respect, then we must be a part of the solution to ending toxic leadership in our Air Force.

The good news is toxic leaders are few in number in our Air Force. The large majority of Air Force leaders are truly outstanding men and women who have the best interests of their followers at heart. As I move on to future endeavors, I'll always look back with pride and admiration at the quality of the people I've served with. Aim high!