Understanding TOXIC And COUNTERPRODUCTIVE Leadership

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At the Law Office of Jocelyn Stewart, we routinely represent military leaders accused of misconduct ranging from sexual harassment claims to fraud and everything in between.  In recent years, a new type of allegation has grown in frequency and seriousness for our more senior clients, with some new and confusing terms.

The term “toxic leadership” appeared in 2009 after the Army conducted surveys on leadership trends. The term gained official acceptance, appearing in some training and doctrine material and even becoming a field of study at military schools. For those who want to really explore into the subject of “toxic leadership,” the Center for Army Leadership (CAL) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas has published several studies and reports on the topic.

For the Army, there are several official “typologies” or categories of behaviors linked to a “toxic” leadership. These are “micromanaging” (overly controlling behaviors such as restricting pertinent information and results in under-utilization of resources), “mean-spirited/aggressive” (inexcusable behaviors that are often illegal including intimidation, physical abuse, and sexual harassment) and “rigid/poor decision-making” (closed-mindedness, ignoring important information, sticking to a failing plan, and inability to adapt). In other words, the Army determined that a “toxic leader” is someone who is over-controlling, who inhibits innovative thinking, or who generally creates a negative work environment.

The term “toxic leadership” is still used by other services, but recently the Army has introduced a new term related to the same idea: “counterproductive leadership.” The new term is officially defined in Army (AR) Regulation 600-100. That regulation considers “toxic” a sub-category of “counterproductive” leadership and also uses the phrase “destructive leadership style.”

The Army’s thinking behind the switch to “counterproductive leadership” was the need to re-orient focus of the term. The word “toxic” was deemed inappropriate because it seemed to label the person instead of thebehavior and suggested that the defect was permanent (like a personality flaw), rather than something that could be corrected (like a leadership approach). The other reason is that the Army moved away from “toxic” was because it only covered the typologies mentioned above and excluded a lot of other things that most people probably would call “toxic” behaviors out of a leader.  “Counterproductive” is a much broader concept, covering everything that contributes to a negative environment. (Ironically, the originally study in 2009 included a broader range of behaviors for “toxic” leadership that got whittled down by CAL in their effort to define the term. Now, that full range of behaviors is included in “counterproductive” leadership.). This distinction between “toxic leadership” and “counterproductive leadership” is currently unique to the Army, but other services may follow. Outside of the technical definitions, “toxic” essentially means bad leadership that hurts the military organization one way or another.

For these reasons and others, complaints about leadership have historically been resolved developmentally, through training and mentoring, not through adverse action.  The worst that would happen to someone who was accused of being a bad leader would be the leader was removed from a particular leadership position, didn’t get promoted, or perhaps saw their career end early.

Today, that is no longer true. What once was handled quietly in a teaching and development context is now treated as misconduct. And, like barracks inspections for drugs or contraband, higher headquarters are actively trying to seek out those who commit this “misconduct.” Command climate surveys that once led only to mentoring or counseling now result in command investigations. Military leaders who are accused of “toxic” or “counterproductive” leadership are seen today as misconduct-committers, not just leaders in need of development. They face adverse administrative measures or potentially even legal action under the UCMJ. To make matters worse, investigation into “toxic leadership” are routinely launched on the basis of negative complaints, sometimes just by a few subordinates with their own particular views of a leader.

There seems to be a movement among some senior leaders who are aware of the power wielded by subordinates: don’t make waves or else you will be ousted and worse, kicked out of the ranks altogether. The leaders who try to fix the culture in their organizations end up facing disciplinary measures when subordinates know how to use complaints as a weapon against correction and standards.

The definitions and terms that have been adopted in doctrine surrounding definitions of toxic and counterproductive leadership are broad and have the potential to take out key leaders who do not deserve it. Given the broad range of conduct and actions that might be considered “toxic” or “counterproductive” leadership, it can be challenging for those accused of such behavior to defend themselves. There are several challenges connected to defending against such allegations, which focus largely on the lack of frequency required to constitute an offense. Under the extremely general examples, nearly anyone could be considered to have committed “counterproductive” leadership behavior on a given day. In a system that does not question its doctrine, there stand a few proud professionals ready to challenge the core of coined terms and jargon. We are seasoned professionals with years of experience who are standing by to help in this area. If you need expertise in this area, look no further than the Law Office of Jocelyn Stewart

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