#109 Toxicity Revisited

I first became aware of the concept of 'toxic" leadership a few years ago in light of the circumstances surrounding my platoon. The first time I can recall hearing the phrase, it was used to describe my former battalion commander. Sometime last year, I was sent a document from one of my readers and I again brought the issue up in post #52 entitled "The Toxic Unknown". In light of some other recent events though, it seems to merit attention yet again.

Earlier this week, the Army Times ran a story about the commander of a brigade in Germany who has been relieved of his duties. You can find the link here:


After I read that story, and in light of the legal proceedings going on with 5/2 Stryker at Ft. Lewis (Google COL Harry Tunnell for more information), I began to do some further research on the idea of toxic leadership. As part of that, I came across a paper written in 2005 by COL Denise Williams, who was then a student at the U.S. Army War College. You can find the link to her paper here:


So where do we stand? What is toxic leadership, where does it come from, and more importantly, what do these two stories indicate that future leader development training needs to look like?

According to the introduction to COL Williams paper:

"Toxic leaders can be characterized as leaders who take part in destructive behaviors and show signs of dysfunctional personal characteristics. To count as toxic, these behaviors and qualities of character must inflict some reasonably serious and enduring harm on their followers and their organizations. The intent to harm others or to enhance self at the expense of others distinguishes seriously toxic leaders from the careless or unintentional toxic leaders."

The tough part about that paragraph is that most of us will fit cleanly inside that definition depending on who we ask. There are always people who will claim that the manner and method by which one person leads and organization versus another is doing some form of damage to either their subordinates or the organization itself. This puts a premium on having some form of feedback mechanism in place to truly hear what those above and below us in the organization perceive about us.

The paper then goes on to list 18 common traits that toxic leaders often possess and 18 different toxic leadership types and offers a quick paragraph that describes each in a little bit more detail. I highly suggest to anyone who is now, or has a desire to be termed a leader, download this paper and carefully consider which of the 18 characteristics apply the most to them, and which of the leadership styles they are most comfortable with and the effect it has on their organization. Having said that, if you are like me, you will find yourself in many of the traits listed. Since the paper concentrates on the negative effects of toxic leadership, there isn't much mention of what the opposite traits or behaviors would look like - a critical consideration in leader development. I need to know, understand, and gain insight into those parts of me that are harmful to others and the organization, but I also have just as much need to identify those traits that I possess that have a positive effect on them as well.

For me, though, the articles about COL Zachar, and COL Tunnell raise a different series of questions. First, how did both men find themselves at this place? How is it that they have both served (and one would expect, served very well) the Army for so many years and then suddenly find themselves having their professional credentials questioned and ultimately, in COL Zachar's case being removed from command? What happened? Second, what role does the institution itself play in their current struggles? Is the Army and its' culture responsible for creating some of this? And finally, what does it say about the future of leadership in the Army if leaders like these are becoming the focus of the organization? I have been around the Army for over 20 years, and I don't believe that I have ever seen 2 senior leaders questioned in such a short period of time. Is the Army sending a message to other leaders that it's changing its' expectation of what successful leadership looks like, and using the challenges of these two (and I suspect others) to do it?

It may be easiest to answer the question about why and how toxic leadership exists first. According to COL Williams paper:

"Perhaps the most obvious reason, albeit, disturbing, is that toxic leaders seem to get the job done, at least in the short-term. I submit that whether it is because of of their superiors or because of their followers, it is always in spite of their toxicity. At the low-end of the toxicity spectrum: absentee, incompetent, and codependent leaders, the toxic leader's followers will carry him through. They have to. That is what military people do. However, at this end of the scale, the toxic behavior is probably not as tolerated by superiors because these are not traits the Army values in a leader. The harsher toxic who bear traits the Army values such as rigid, controlling, enforcing and confident, but take them to the extreme will find more success. Their superiors are either oblivious to the toxic behavior, or more likely, are so satisfied with the results in terms of mission accomplishment that they choose to overlook the human cost of getting the job done."

This is a very important paragraph because it clearly puts the instinct and ethic of the organization, and its' people, at odds with a leaders requirement to prize the people and to care for them across many different spectrum's: moral, physical, emotional, professional etc. The structure itself imparts part of the toxic development of the people. When the institution values certain traits over others people act to take on those characteristics in order to be successful in the organization. The problem is that doing so moves them further and further away from their more actualized selves and begins to create characters. As I have written about before, there is the leader as they really are, and then there is the leader who is role-playing in order to fit a predetermined idea of what success looks like in the organization. When we prize the created character over the real person, we eventually lose sight of who the real person is at all. Over the years, we have all worked for people who we knew to be one way at work and almost completely opposite in their off time. One of those two sides is more their 'true' self than the other. But if the organization doesn't value the 'truer' self, then you can guarantee that a character is about to be created.

An understanding of the above, should naturally raise the question, what can we do about it? If the institution is partially responsible for creating the environment that raises a toxic leader, then it will take the institution to remove that value set and replace it with something else that more closely accomplishes the mission without destroying the people in the organization. I think this is beginning to happen in many places, but without an absolute concerted and sustained effort at the very top, it will take a long time to root out all the destructive practices that occur because of differing understandings of the Army's ethic and what traits it values among its' members. Were the Army to suddenly place empathy, for instance, as it's top behavioral characteristic for successful leadership, it would still take years for people to overcome the hierarchical structure that enhances ego, self-worth, and power-by-position. In Maslow's terms, the Army does pretty well at level 1, but seems to live in levels 2 and 3 right now. Ten years of conflict have led us to understand that we must move toward higher levels of self-actualization in order to succeed in an extremely complex environment, but how exactly do we do that? In order to achieve the ideal of leadership, there would have to be a major shift in thinking to develop people who live at the actualized levels, 4 and 5.

But what about the people themselves? What role do they play in their own success or failure? When do they move to those higher levels that allow them to see more clearly the effect they have on their subordinates? In effect, if I am a product of my Army environment, and by all definitions have been successful at adapting and changing myself to meet it's demands, am I to be blamed when it suddenly changes direction? When do I take responsibility for myself? And what mechanisms do we have in place to assist me to do that? More critical than that however, will be the ability at the very top to recognize those who already possess these newly prized traits and put them in positions where they can have a greater effect on the organization as a whole. Can we suddenly take a Sergeant or a Major who does not appear to be the ideal using the current model and elevate them to places where they can demonstrate their type of leadership and become a new generation of role model that fits our new understanding of the requirements? How do you suddenly prize empathy over aggression?

When people ask me how I got to this place, I often tell them that I have been "through the looking glass". I went into the 'Black Hearts' ordeal with one set of understandings and came out of it with another. I now see the organization more differently than before. In many ways, I was exactly like COL Zachar and COL Tunnell. I believed in my understanding of the Army and that I knew better than others how to get things done. I did what I knew how to do using the tools the Army had provided me and used them to the best of my ability. At times, success came easily. The model provided was simple and the hierarchy always let me know exactly where I stood on the totem pole. But having gone through having my preconceived ideas about leadership, position, title, and judgment questioned, I now understand things differently. And the problem is that if you haven't had that happen, then it can be extremely challenging to try to help you understand that. That is a lot of the purpose behind my writing. I have been where many have not. And I realize how close the lines between success and failure, between dynamic and dysfunctional, and between self aware and self delusional really are.

As I read the 18 traits found in toxic leaders the other day, I started to worry that I was a complete failure because I could see parts of myself in all of them. It's tough to have 18 ways to fail and then realize that at one time or another you have used all 18! The truth though, is that after considering it for awhile, it is all a matter of degree. Arrogance and a strong sense of self are good traits - unless they are used to hurt others or blind you to seeing when you have made a mistake. A collaborative nature is a good thing - unless you never get anywhere because all you're doing is collaborating. Each of the traits listed are there for only one reason. In the extreme, anything is bad. Too much passivity is just as poisonous as too much aggression. Too much empathy is just as poisonous as too much arrogance. The question then is where do each of us fall on that scale? Do we have a way to recognize when we have drifted too far off center towards either one extreme or the other? If so, then we can auto-correct. If not, then we will ultimately fail both our Soldiers and the mission.

Self-awareness is the number one requirement for being a successful leader. We must have a healthy sense of who we are and why we are that way without succumbing to a delusional picture that is nothing more than caricature. This blog exists for 2 simple reasons: To help me to continue to see myself clearly, and to offer others the lessons that I have learned.

There will always be toxic leaders in the Army, in industry, and in the world. What we must do is become aware of the conditions that create them and then work to change those conditions. The future of an all-volunteer Army, and the magnificence of our profession of service just might depend upon it.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. This goes along with what SEcretary Gates discussed during his West Point briefing. Subordinates and peers needs a stronger voice in the evaluation process. While talking with two retired CSM's, they noticed a gradual decline in leader develop. They both stated that over the recent years the Army created combat leaders, but lost the interpersonal piece that we developed during peace time training and ability to remain long enough in a position for complete development.

  2. One of my favorite topics and a pink elephant for the Army..."toxic leadership" is like "respect", "tact", "commitment", "responsibility", "loyalty", "duty", etc etc...words you can actually see and hear...words played out with actions and verbals ....

    I would give anything for a toxic leader to stand up in fornt of a group of Soldiers and say "I am a toxic leader" (ala Alcoholics Anonymous..."My name is John Doe and I am an alcoholic")....

    as Fen notes, this requires a high level of honest and critical self-awareness...which is much more difficult than we humans can normally handle....(too painful sometimes to look in a mirror)....

    I have been beating the self-awarness drum for awhile, and will continue....because it is the first step in leader development....

    2 more reads on toxic leadership:

    Reed, George. (2004). Toxic leadership. Military Review, July-Aug, pp. 67-71.

    Reed, George., & Olsen, Richard. (2010). Toxic leadership: Part deux. Military Review, Nov-Dec, pp. 58-64.

    nicely done Fen!