The Toxicity of the Spiteful Leader
Mark is a tenured sergeant. He is seen by his peers and followers to be an up comer who will be at the top of the candidate pool for the next promotional exam. During an operational meeting, he questions his captain about a new policy, citing operational issues, and identifies potential litigation issues.
Several people seemed surprised by his reaction. Subsequent to the meeting, he is asked why he would attack a captain’s pet project. Mark was surprised by this response to his questioning the policy. He did not intend to upset anyone and immediately begins to track down the captain to explain that his only objective was to seek out the best possible outcome.
The captain reassures Mark that everything is fine. Shortly thereafter, Mark takes the lieutenant exam, administered by the same captain, and is later advised that he is not one of the many selections that were made. Upon feedback by many peers, his responses to the interview seemed to out par his competitors.
A few months pass. Mark’s specialty position has been absorbed by another team and he is rotated back to patrol. A peer tells Mark that he’s got a bullseye on his back for what he did to the captain.
Mark is distraught as he attempts to remedy what he soon believes to be a futile situation. Mark’s never been in trouble, and more importantly, never experienced work stress caused by a superior until now. He finds himself wondering what to do and how to rebound.
Managers help people see themselves as they are; Leaders help people to see themselves better than they are.”
— Jim Rohn
Why We Should Pay Attention to Toxic Behaviors
While this scenario is fictional, there have been litigated civil cases that closely resemble the circumstances above. The example illustrates the difficulties of personnel differences within the workplace, and more importantly one of many toxic issues that can negatively impact organizations.
The story portrays a spiteful captain, which is a dangerous leadership formula for any organization (Watt, Javidi, & Normore, 2016). While spite is one specific toxic behavior organizations face, there are many others that manifest themselves in the workplace. More importantly, if leaders are asked to intentionally lead organizations, they have an obligation to lead; not exert power.
Research recognizes the drawback of placing an individual in a leadership position of power who does not understand how leadership and power can be used for the greater good. Instead, that individual winds up abusing the position of power, with little to no accountability to those who follow (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999; Zaleznik, 2006).
The damages of a toxic leader can be felt throughout an organization creating several unhealthy subcultures in the workplace. Issues such as power groups, groupthink, and indecency to others quell organizational competency, creativity, and passion (Maner & Mead, 2010).
But just what is toxicity and how can we spot it within our organization, and most notably, can we see it coming?
The US Army (2017) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance … To be classified as toxic, the counterproductive behaviors must be recurrent and have a deleterious impact on the organization’s performance or the welfare of subordinates” (p. 8).
Contributing Factors to Toxicity
The US military has extensively researched and identified issues that impede the leadership progress for organizations, teams, and the individual. Of one particular note found in the Army’s profession and leadership policy is the idea of counterproductive leadership; highlighting several ways in which toxicity can be seen in the workplace. Counterproductive leadership can be defined as:
Counterproductive leadership can take different forms, from incompetence to abusiveness, all of which have detrimental impacts on individuals, the unit, and the accomplishment of the mission. Counterproductive leadership behaviors can span a range of behaviors to include bullying, distorting information, refusing to listen to subordinates, abusing authority, retaliating, blaming others, poor self-control (loses temper), withholding encouragement, dishonesty, unfairness, unjustness, showing little or no respect, talking down to others, behaving erratically, and taking credit for others’ work (US Army, 2017, p.8)
Effects of Toxic Leadership in the Workplace
The toxic behaviors of leaders cast a wide net of organizational dysfunction leaving many employees with little hope (Lipman-Blumen, 2005). Due to the number of consequences that toxic behavior can have on organizations, it is important for all leaders within an organization to stay on high alert, and prune toxicity frequently. Unfortunately, toxic leaders tend to be inwardly motivated and violate the legitimate interests of an organization (Goldman, 2006; Maner & Mead, 2010). If left unchecked, they can become a part of the organization’s leadership culture, manifesting itself over and over.
As toxic leaders advance and are rewarded for their achievements, others within the organization are incentivized to adopt the practices of toxic people in a means of attaining power and promotion (Aubrey, 2012). Worst of all, even though it seems that these types of people seek to promote themselves at the expense of their subordinates, the lasting ramifications of this type of behavior is detrimental to the communities’ police serve (Steele, 2011).
Toxic leadership creates many pathways for organizational failure, including, but not limited to:
- The damage to diversity of thought, thereby creating groupthink and a culture of yes men and women which impedes the ability for teams to have candor with one another.
- Values relationships over performance. Employees begin to ask themselves questions like ‘if the score is determined before the game is played, what incentive is there to play the game?’ When this happens, power clubs (aka good ole’ boys) surface, complicating the performance of people as they see the route to get ahead is through relationships rather than hard work. While we note the importance of relationships however it is important to balance between work product.
A Case for Change: Mitigating Toxicity
First, and foremost, followers expect their leaders to lead. Leaders are in love with their constituents, their customers, and the mission they serve (Kouzes & Posner, 2010). This begins with the act of properly motivating people into action, influencing others to take initiative, and rallying around a common purpose. It requires that we commit to others development and goodwill, often brought out in connecting with them. Connection and relationship-building bring out the best in people, making them more resilient (Stallard, Pankau, & Stallard, 2015). It requires that we are stewards of our people and the police patch that rests on our shoulder.
This can only happen using the positive side of leadership and establish an esprit de corps that rallies our people for success.
Pettiness, spite, and vengeance are emotional reactions considered to be beneath the dignity of a leader (Phillips, 1997). Everyone gets upset. It is part of the human condition. But for leaders, they must find a way to take that raw emotion and use it to re-align people. Personal indifferences should not allow the organization the inability to make its best move. If leaders are compelled to fall victim to counterproductive leadership, then they will end up getting what they get, and nothing more.
Aubrey, D. (2012). The effect of toxic leadership. United States Army War College. Retrieved from, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army-usawc/aubrey_toxic_leadership.pdf
Goldman, A. (2006). High toxicity leadership: borderline personality disorder and the dysfunctional organization. Journal of Managerial Psychology 21,(:733-746, Retrieved from, https://www.uky.edu/Classes/PSY/430-001/Goldman%20toxic%20leadershiparticle.pdf
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2010). The truth about leadership: the no-fads, hear of the matter facts you need to know. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lerner, J. & Tetlock, P.E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 255-275.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). Toxic leadership: when grand illusions masquerade as noble visions. Leader to Leader 2005(36):29-36
Maner, J. K., & Mead, N. L. (2010). The essential tension between leadership and power: When leaders sacrifice group goals for the sake of self-interest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 482-497.
Phillips, D. T. (1997). Lincoln on leadership. New York, NY: Warner Books.
Rohn, J. (n.d.). Quote on leadership. Retrieved from, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/496774-managers-help-people-see-themselves-as-they-are-leaders-help
Steele, J.P. (2011). Antecedents and consequences of toxic leadership in the U.S. Army: a two year review and recommend solutions. Center for Army Leadership. Retrieved from, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235161397_Antecedents_and_Consequences_of_Toxic_Leadership_in_the_U_S_Army_A_Two_Year_Review_and_Recommended_Solutions
United States Army (2017). Army profession and leadership policy. Regulation 600-10. Department of the Army. Retrieved from, http://data.cape.army.mil/web/repository/doctrine/ar600-100.pdf
Watt, R., Javidi, M., & Normore, A.H. (2016). Increasing darkness: Combining toxic leadership
and volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). In A.H. Normore and Jeffrey S. Brooks (Eds.), The dark side of leadership: Identifying and overcoming unethical practice in organizations (196-206). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.
Zaleznik, A. (2006). Learning leadership: The abuse of power in organizations. Beard Books.
– Brian Ellis, Sacramento Police Department
– Mitch Javidi, National Command and Staff College
– Anthony H. Normore, International Academy of Public Safety
Brian Ellis is a 20-year veteran of the Sacramento Police Department. Lieutenant Ellis has worked in a number of specialized assignments including with the Problem Oriented Policing Unit, Parole Intervention and Career Criminal Apprehension Teams, Narcotics and Robbery/Burglary divisions. He is currently the SWAT commander and oversees the Metro Division’s Special Operations section. Brian earned his undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from California State, Sacramento and has a MS in Organizational Leadership from National University. Brian is a life-long student of leadership, and passionate about helping others. He has written articles for several publications, including Law Enforcement Today, Peace Officers Research Association of California, Police One, The Oxford University Press, The Journal of California Law Enforcement; and has contributed to chapters in IGI Global Publishing textbooks. Please follow him on Twitter @BrianEllis10.
Mitch Javidi, Ph.D, Founder & Chancellor, The National Command & Staff College
Professor, NC State University (Ret.), Honorary member, US Army Special Operations Command
Mitch is an envisioneer with over 30 years of practical and hands-on experience in diverse industries including Academia, Military, Law Enforcement, Government, and Technology. As a globally recognized leader, he is the founder of the National Command & Staff College, the International Academy of Public Safety, the Institute for Credible Leadership development, the Criminal Justice Commission for Credible Leadership Development and the MAGNUS Officers Leadership.
He has trained at the Joint Special Operations Command “JSOC” and the US Army Special Operations Command “USASOC.” He was awarded the honorary member of the United States Army Special Operations Command in 1999 and honorary Sheriff by the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2016. He served as a tenured Associate Professor at NC State University for 16 years before taking an early retirement but continues to serve as an Adjunct professor without pay (by choice) at both NC State and Illinois State Universities. He is a member of the “Academy of Outstanding Teachers and Scholars” at NC State University and the Distinguished 2004 Alumni of the University of Oklahoma.
Mitch is a published scholar with over 890 conference presentations worldwide. His most recent books are entitled “Deliberate Leadership: Achieving Success Through Personal Styles,” “Handbook of Research on Effective Communication, Leadership, and Conflict Resolution”, and “Moral Compass for the Law Enforcement Professionals”. His coauthored article entitled “Human Factors: Police Leaders Improving Safety While Developing Meaningful Public Trust” coauthored with Dr. Anthony Normore and Lt. Darius Bone was recently published by the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Mitch was the recipient of prestigious “Person of the Year” award by the National Society of Accountants ~ Senator William Victor “Bill” Roth, Jr. “Roth IRA” received the award in the following year.
Anthony H. Normore, Ph.D is President of National Command and Staff College, and Chairman of the Criminal Justice Commission for Credible Leadership Development at the International Academy of Public Safety. A professor emeritus of educational leadership, and department chair of Graduate Education at California State University Dominguez Hills in greater metropolitan Los Angeles, Tony is the author of 25+ books, 150+ book chapters, reviews, and 75 peer-reviewed articles in numerous professional leadership journals. He has published for FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Police Chief Magazine, CPOA’s California Law Enforcement Journal, and Law Enforcement Today, and presented at 300+ professional conferences. He is the 2013 American Educational Research Association recipient of the Bridge People Award and 2015 Donald Willower Award of Excellence in Research at Penn State University.