Toxic Leaders

NPR had a story on this yesterday, about leaders in the military whose abusive behavior is a contributing factor in soldiers’ suicides.  Not the only factor, but a common factor among military men and women experiencing other stressors, like alcoholism, troubled primary relationships, and depression.  It’s about time we talked about adult bullies.

I was just talking to a friend about toxic leadership.  This is the type of leader infamous in movies, immortalized in story: the sadistic drill sergeant, the bitter orphanage director, the evil stepmother.  We all know this guy, hellbent on making us miserable because he gets a chubby doing so.  We know this woman, the one who enjoys the thrilling frisson of belittling her subordinates.

The objective is work of some kind, whether it’s in the classroom or the battlefield or the cubicle desert.  We’ve got this pile of work and some people have been promoted or designated or rewarded or honored with the task of directing it.  The toxic leader makes demands, doesn’t direct, doesn’t prioritize; she saves the worst tasks or the most unreasonable expectations for the objects of her derision.  The toxic leader does not take into account whether his staff or subjects have been properly trained and sure as damn doesn’t care whether they’re inspired.  The toxic leader knows only his own power and wields it like the puny erection he’s made of it; so proud of what it can do, unaware it looks silly, pathetic, laughable.  For all its napoleonic diminutiveness, it still can wreak havoc in these tiny fiefdoms, in a worker’s day, in a child’s science class.

A good leader: most of us know her too.  She admits to the daunting tasks of the day/week/month, he assures us of our ability to accomplish said tasks, promises to help when needed, and follows through on the promises.  The Good Leader (worth caps because it’s rare and special) pays attention and praises liberally, for it’s praise, not threats, that will make us go beyond what we think we can do.  The Good Leader inspires, by example, by reason, by character.  The Good Leader gets great results and gives credit to us, and inspires us to give credit back to her for good guidance and support.  The Good Leader gives us a chance to feel great about the work we do, whether it’s cleaning toilets, chopping onions, or reviewing actuarial tables.  The Good Leader does not need to berate, demean or ridicule in order to feel confident, competent, or worthy of his position. 

Too often it’s we, the subordinates, the students, the privates, whose performance is judged and graded  Too rarely is our performance said to be at least in part a reflection of the leader.  Much too rarely are the leaders given a grade by people whom they lead.  I think it’s time these bullies faced their failing grades and got credit for the damage they do.