The Cost of BAD Leadership

NPR just published a great article about the impact of “toxic leadership,” something that I think we all would agree is a problem, and not just in the military. (Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders)

Aside from the horrifying findings of the research (toxic leaders playing a role in the suicide of our soldiers), the article paints a vivid picture of a very special type of leader, one that I have encountered in many places. The article speaks to a new definition printed in the Army’s leadership bible (Army Doctrine Publication) that most, in and out of the military, can relate. What’s interesting is that the Army went to significant pains to describe what leadership isn’t. In doing so, they’ve painted a vivid picture of what most of us have encountered somewhere in our career and hopefully use that experience to learn what not to do similarly to the Army’s efforts with their definition of “Toxic Leadership.” (Army Doctrine Publication 6-22)

The Army’s definition, while wordy (like most military regulations) can best be summed up in its first line:

“Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.”

Have you ever run across someone like that who was in a managerial role? Someone who saw their employees, and likely their peers as a means to an end, typically an end that was completely self-centered in nature? If not, consider yourself fortunate.

So what is the cost of BAD leadership? In corporate America, we might see bad leadership tied to suicide but I personally think the suicide being committed most often is committed by our corporations rather than the employees subjected to it and what’s worse, it’s usually a slow suicide.

The cost of bad leadership can be measured in results, but more importantly the costs can be best measured in terms of results compared to said effort. Far too many organizations turn a blind eye to bad leadership because the bad leaders get results. How many times have you heard (or maybe even thought to yourself) “we can’t get rid of him; he gets results.” Maybe the thought should be “what is he costing us in terms of results we could be achieving?” These managers often do deliver results in the short-term but at a significantly higher cost than necessary. In many cases, those costs go far beyond hard dollars which is why they are sometimes easy to overlook. The real costs are frequently soft dollars that are harder to measure but carry much more impact.

Setting aside the emotion laced conversation of suicide, simply replace that with voluntary resignation or complete disengagement (quitting without leaving). Bad leadership negatively impacts the investment made in every new hire (military or corporate) by limiting the potential return (outputs) from that investment and significantly impacting the life cycle of the asset itself (separation or quitting without leaving). Longer-term, though suicide may not be a typical result of bad leaders in corporate America, the damage it does or can do to our current employees and future leaders is significant.

What makes bad leaders even more dangerous is that they tend to be very good at convincing those above them that they are good leaders and end up capitalizing on that false perception and get moved to even higher levels of responsibility. Their damage, then, is not localized and much harder to repair once discovered.

So what do you do about “toxic” leaders? I suggest that you treat them as what they are, a toxin. With toxins you usually have two choices, cut it out along with the damaged tissue (other infected leaders) or isolate the toxin by surrounding it with positive leadership and mitigate the negative impact. Most importantly, you have to deal with toxic leaders or like a real toxin in our bodies, the damage spreads and the longer it remains, the faster and deeper it spreads and dealing with the issue becomes more difficult.

So the question of the day is, do you have any toxic leaders?

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