Why have toxic leaders? This question is something that helped drive my decision to retire from the service. A lot of people have asked me why I was getting out at 20 years, when I have a very good chance of making Chief and the answer was, “I can’t be the father I want to be and the Chief I would want to be”. I have worked with and for some amazing Chiefs over the years and I have also been around a lot of E-9’s too.
For some context, in the military we tend to call those who are not living up to their rank by their pay grade. This is intended to reveal that they are only in it for the pay check or the job title and not for the people. Chief Master Sergeant is the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force and only 1% of the military earns the highest enlisted paygrade. I am not going to bag on Chiefs for this article, I am just trying to make a point. Why do people get like this?
I see two reasons. One is that their leaders let them. When a person gets into a leadership role, they are faced with a new challenge. Some become compliance junkies and others micromanage. Both strategies can get results in a lot of organisations. These people tend to produce for their boss and keep them out of trouble. However, they also run their people into the ground. Over time, they earn more promotions and true leadership is never fostered, because the boss only sees the results and continues to reward this person. This is why you see so many horrible people in good favour with their bosses. The boss is riding their wave of success and is sheltered from how the people are really being treated.
To remedy this, leaders need to engage more with those on lower levels than their immediate subordinate. We have all seen the senior leaders who get fed loads of sunshine during the staff meetings. We think to ourselves, ‘if they only got out from behind their desk and walked into that area, they would see the truth’. Therefore, get to all of the areas of the work centre and talk to the teams. You will get an immediate idea of how things truly are if you spend some time with those who are harvesting the fruit.
Another reason I have seen, is that the person may have been wronged in the past and wants to get revenge. These are the people who were hazed as a new guy and wants to be sure that everyone in his path also gets the same treatment. He doesn’t want to be the only one. These are the people who refuse to hear the complaints or concerns of their subordinates. These are bosses who refuse to hear a new way of doing things, because they had to endure some hardships and so everyone else should too.
These types of leaders have become known as toxic leaders over the years or, in terms of this audience, Extreme Mavericks. They use people like expendable tools to get what they want and don’t care about the impact. Although, with proper mentoring from the beginning, I believe most of this could be avoided. We as leaders need to ensure those entering new leadership roles are receiving mentoring from a leader who exemplifies the values you are trying to propel. We need to be sure to have some one-on-one time with them to ensure they are developing the correct mindset. I know most of us do not have the time to take away from our other roles, but I would rather “lose” time mentoring, than dealing with the toxic waste from one of these leaders.
I would love to hear some stories about bad bosses and /or how things got better. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.