Academic journal article Military Review

Great Results through Bad Leaders: The Positive Effects of Toxic Leadership

Academic journal article Military Review

Great Results through Bad Leaders: The Positive Effects of Toxic Leadership

Article excerpt

I tell you, therefore, as officers, that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.

--Lt. Gen. Sir William Slim, KCB, CB, DSO, MC

Transformational leadership is great, and toxic leadership is terrible; it is that simple, right? Historical examples abound of leaders who put service and sacrifice above all else, and the contrasting leaders who destroy their subordinates' morale in the pursuit of self-advancing goals. For every Dick Winters, there is a Herbert Sobel; for every Sam Damon, a Courtney Massengale. (1) There is a tendency in both popular literature and professional military discussion to categorize our leaders into polar extremes due to the consequences that flow from their actions: transformational leaders produce positive results to be emulated--in contrast to toxic leaders who destroy units and should be excised for the good of the organization. Almost excluded from consideration, however, are those circumstances under which an organization can emerge from toxic leadership not only intact but also stronger as a result. This essay seeks to posit the question: Can toxic leadership ever be a good thing? In addressing this question, this essay will utilize a case study of an Australian army engineer company's experience to demonstrate the circumstances under which toxic leadership can enhance organizational performance.

Toxic Leadership in Context

The toxic leader concept has been debated with increasing frequency in both military circles and private business in the twenty-first century. While proponents of the concept generally agree that a toxic leader displays destructive leadership, there is less consensus on the specific impacts of a toxic leader's behavior. (2) Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer points to the conclusions of U.S. Army War College faculty and student assessments to define toxic leader impacts, stating that "visible shortterm mission accomplishment" is prioritized, often without consideration to "staff or troop morale and/or climate." (3) The implication in this comment is that the climate fostered in the pursuit of short-term achievements will ultimately undermine long-term organizational health. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership, more specifically addresses the definition of toxic leadership, describing it as "a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance." (4) Based on this latter definition, the military professional may question that if mission performance is not affected, can the leadership truly be toxic? Within the context of Ulmer's assertion that short-term mission accomplishment is indeed possible under toxic leadership, this essay will examine toxic leadership in the specific context of those behaviors the leader exhibits. The organizational consequences that may flow from these behaviors will therefore constitute the basis for assessment of the efficacy of toxic leadership in particular circumstances.

The leader attributes examined in this case study are based on the key elements of toxic leader syndrome framed in the 2004 Military Review article "Toxic Leadership" by George Reed: "an apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates," "a personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate," and "a conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest." (5) The instances of toxic leadership discussed in the following sections occur within the framework of these elements.

Case Study: Toxic Leadership in the Operational Support Squadron, 12th Combat Engineer Regiment

With the annual rotation of personnel associated with the 2010 posting cycle, the operational support squadron of the Australian army's 12th Combat Engineer Regiment welcomed a new squadron commander, Maj. …

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