Toxic leadership. Sadly, this term has recently become vogue in the lexicon of the Defense Department to describe leaders possessing unfavorable leadership characteristics and whose actions eventually rot an organization from the inside out. Examples of these leaders drape across the weekly headlines and sound bites of newspapers, radio and television.
“Leaders” who become drunk and disorderly on foreign delegations, mistreat and bully their staff, and turn a blind eye to condone clear infractions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice are examples of failed leaders. Most of us fall far from the criteria defining toxic, but I have a feeling that the pathway to poor leadership is more insidious and sometimes difficult to detect over a period of years. The following three simple steps may help keep you off the front page of the Washington Post.
Be competent. Leadership is difficult under even the best of circumstances, but it is nearly impossible if the leader is inept at the core primary function. Some of us have likely suffered under the leadership of someone unable to execute their primary duty, whether it was flying jets, apprehending criminals, balancing a budget or executing contracts. Misery! Take the time to study your core job fundamentals and stay ahead of the latest tactics, techniques and procedures associated with your career field. Show your people how it is done, set the example and lead from the front.
Be available. As a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I had the “honor” of serving under a major that would routinely turn away cadets from his office because he was busy eating lunch. Really? I was rightly shocked at this officer’s decision to dismiss me and my fellow cadets because he needed to fill his stomach. As leaders, we are extremely busy, and it seems every minute in the work day is precious. If necessary, schedule time in your day to be available to the members of the unit. Unless you’re completely swamped or in a private meeting, I personally keep my office door to the hallway open and encourage folks to stop by and let me know what is on their minds.
Be empathetic. As Ian McLaren wrote, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” In the Air Force, we have been engaged in expeditionary war for years. Post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, divorce and depression haunt many of our Airmen. The list of potential traumas does not stop at these examples. Pause and reflect on the past experiences of your people and try to put their lives and struggles into context. Before passing judgment on a superior, peer or subordinate, walk a mile in their shoes. Always uphold military standards, but recognize and appreciate the personal battle they are waging behind the scenes.
We owe it to our people to lead effectively and provide a nontoxic work environment. The Air Force is approaching a crossroads with respect to our identity among the services. Our most valuable asset is our Airmen and this precious resource is in the hands of leaders. It should not be abused.