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Toxic leadership and its impact on mission accomplishment

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --

What is toxic leadership and how does it impact our ability to accomplish the mission? 

To successfully accomplish the mission, we need positive leaders at all levels within an organization. I would venture to guess that when most people think of a toxic leader, they most likely think of someone who’s over the top, egotistical, self-loving and one who threatens, micromanages and never accepts responsibility when an issue is their fault. However, I would suggest frontline supervisors can also be toxic leaders by simply not creating a healthy work environment where all members are empowered to do their jobs and everyone is treated with respect.  

According to Army Doctrine 6—22, “Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization and mission performance.”

This type of leadership undermines subordinates’ will, initiative, and potential. It destroys unit morale. Toxic leaders operate with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest.  They consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves.

This type of leadership does not align with the Air Force’s culture of treating all Airmen with dignity, trust and respect. Today’s challenges depend heavily on an environment of mutual trust and disciplined initiative that only high-quality, positively influencing leaders can provide.

The number of personnel serving in the Air Force today is approximately 55 percent smaller than it was when I enlisted in 1989; however, our operation tempo has not decreased. In fact, our nation probably expects more of us.

In order to maintain our ability to win against a near-peer competitor, we must eliminate toxic leaders from our force. We don’t need leaders who micromanage, ignore ideas of others, undermine peers, or hoard information only to look good to their superiors.

What we do need is leaders who inspire others, are willing to listen, are open to innovation, and provide subordinates with clear mission intent and then let them determine how to best accomplish the mission. This can be done when we create a healthy organization climate where strong bonds of mutual trust exist to facilitate mission accomplishment. 

How does toxic leadership impact mission accomplishment?  Extreme and consistent forms decrease Airmen’s effectiveness. According to a Harvard Business Review published in 2009, toxic leadership results in a 48 percent decrease in work effort and a 38 percent decrease in work quality. 

If allowed to continue, toxic leadership can easily spread throughout our institution as members of an organization and typically take on the personality of their leader. Allowing this type of leadership to breed other toxic leaders could be devastating to our force.

Additionally, toxic leaders affect our ability to retain the best and brightest. For those service members who are undecided about making the military a career, a toxic leader could be the deciding factor that pushes them out the door. 

Lastly, working for a toxic leader adds additional stress to service members that is not necessary and research has shown prolonged stress can lead to heart disease, cancer and other diseases and illnesses. 

 In summary, our Air Force can’t ignore the fact that we have toxic leaders amongst us. We must develop ways to identify and eliminate these leaders before they achieve the rank that allows them to have a much greater influence on our institution as a whole. In the end, if you trust people and treat them with dignity and respect, you can inspire and motivate people to go above and beyond the mission. That’s real leadership.