The Dark Side of Leadership, the Paradoxical Ascension of Toxic Leaders

Recent abuses of authority in both military and civilian organisations have revived interest in what is described as “the dark side of leadership” - toxic leaders. Also described as destructive, dysfunctional and abusive, toxic leadership poses a serious threat to organisational health and the organisational costs of a toxic leader can be enormous. The paradox is that toxic leaders are repetitively promoted rather than uprooted.

Recent research has found that toxic leaders decrease Army’s effectiveness and that having a toxic boss results in a 48 per cent decrease in work effort and 38 per cent decrease in work quality. Leadership expert Dr George Reed writes that “the false perception of the toxic leaders’ high performance is unmasked by hidden costs in the organisation or by the “carcasses of those who work for them”. It has been estimated that a typical organisation has $3,400 in lost productivity for every $10,000 of payroll due to “disengaged employees”— one of the primary symptoms of dysfunctional toxic leaders.

So how is it that across organisations we are seeing the ascension of, rather than the demise of toxic leaders?

Military environments have been found to be particularly conducive for the ascension of toxic leaders. A survey of US Army leadership found that more than 80 per cent of Army officers, non-commissioned officers, and civilians surveyed had directly observed a toxic leader in the previous year and another 20 per cent of the respondents said that they had worked directly for one. The military’s overall focus on meeting mission requirements results in the flourishing of toxic leadership. An Army Infantry Officer writing for online publication The Military Leader blames the common ascension of toxic leaders on a task-saturated culture within the military sector. A “successful leader” is the leader who achieves the mission, however he writes that “too often, immediately behind the curtain of a “successful” leader is an egocentric environment of micromanagement and mistrust that overworks its members and fails to personally and professionally develop them”. Padilla et al (2007) argue that toxic leadership is a function of elements in three domains – Leaders, Followers and Environments. They call this ‘The toxic triangle’.

Within the existing literature, recurring descriptions of a toxic leader include the following characteristics: Narcissistic, Abusive supervision, Authoritarian, Unpredictable, Self-promoting and Mentally ill. Reed’s analysis of toxic leaders in the US Army identifies three key characteristics of the toxic leader syndrome:

1) An apparent lack of concern for the well–being of subordinates;

2) A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organisational climate;

3) A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self–interest.

As for followers, two types of followers tend to play a role in the support of toxic leadership: Conformers and colluders. Followers who are conformers, as most are trained to be within military contexts, passively allow bad leaders to assume power. Conformers comply with destructive leaders out of fear, they often have an external locus of control which makes them easier for a toxic leader to manipulate.

The third domain in the toxic triangle is the environmental context that envelops leaders, followers, and their interactions. Conducive environments contribute to the emergence of toxic leadership. Most organisational structures are complicit with toxic leadership dynamics – but military organisational structures are especially so.

Padilla et al suggests that the following four environmental factors are central for the flourishing of toxic leadership: instability, perceived threat, cultural values, and absence of checks and balances and institutionalisation. Cultural values refers to the fact that toxic leaders are likely to emerge in cultures that endorse the avoidance of uncertainty, collectivism (as opposed to individualism), and high power distance. All three of these elements are typically endorsed within military organisational culture – resulting in an environment ripe for the reign of the toxic leader.

Our work identifying current workforce issues has consistently found that organisations which sanction and foster collectivism, high power distance and the illusion of certainty present with systemic toxicity. The next post in this series on toxic leadership will discuss strategies to detoxify leadership.

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