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How to prevent leadership from turning toxic

Apr. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By NEIL A. LEVINE   |   Comments
Neil A. Levine teaches strategic leadership at the National Defense University on a two-year faculty appointment from the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has over 25 years of federal service working in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill.
Neil A. Levine teaches strategic leadership at the National Defense University on a two-year faculty appointment from the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has over 25 years of federal service working in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. ()

In scanning the headlines, it doesn’t take long before one comes across the latest fall from grace of a leading corporate executive, a flameout by a government leader or politician or the military response to another case of so-called “toxic leadership” -- leadership failures that can scar employees, discourage performance, and undermine confidence in our public and private institutions.

Is there a way to make future leaders aware of the warning signs of situations that might turn toxic? Can we equip them with survival skills and strategies for dealing with these challenges? Better still, can our public and private organizations adapt evaluation systems to provide “early warning” and remediation or removal from leadership disasters waiting to happen?

At the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, a semester long course in ‘Strategic Leadership” spotlights these issues and others as it prepares military, civilian and corporate leaders to operate successfully at the highest level of their institutions.

The Strategic Leadership course starts from a simple premise that the leadership skills that have brought success as one climbs the leadership ladder are not necessarily the same skills one need to lead complex organizations. In politically charged inter-agency deliberations, multilateral negotiations, complex emergencies and crises, the skillset is different – broader, deeper and not always easy to wield.

Former Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall said it best,

It became clear to me at the age of 58 I would have to learn new tricks that were not taught in the military manuals or on the battlefield. In this position, I am a political soldier and will have to put my training in rapping out orders and making snap decisions on the back burner, and have to learn the arts of persuasion and guile. I must become an expert in a whole new set of skills.

A series of 30 lessons covers several dimensions of leadership for life in the “VUCA world” – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Seminar-style discussions among 16 military, civilian, international military and industry students use case studies, films, exercises and simulated negotiations to work through topics as diverse as Interpersonal Skills, Creative and Critical Thinking, Ethical Challenges and Leading Change in Large Organizations. Guest speakers from former Admiral and Katrina response leader, Thad Allen, to current uniformed flag officers, Agency heads and corporate executives offer up their real-world scenarios for student consideration.

The thorniest of these topics involve those leaders who have lost their way, either through ethical lapses or to what has been referred to as the “Bathsheba Syndrome” – the multiple factors that lead otherwise successful – and ethical -- leaders to become more and more disconnected from the people and their mission . Or the narcissistic leader, whose own self-image and ego-feeding can become the compass for the entire organization. Using case studies, students examine the reasons behind celebrated falls from grace and how prior experience, organizational culture, “mental models,” and systems of accountability – or the lack thereof – contribute to the leadership environment.

Toughest of all is wrestling with what to do with the toxic or ethically flawed leader. For the students preparing for their next assignment, the question may soon be how and whether “to speak truth to power” or how to develop strategies to shield their peers and subordinates; how to seek formal recourse, or if the case demands, how to plan a graceful exit. As new cases emerge, students and faculty are increasingly challenged to ask if we can’t do better. How might we adapt current evaluation systems to recognize the warning signs that lead to ethics problems or toxic behavior? Can we do a better job of weeding out problem cases before they rise to top leadership positions?

Signs of progress include recognition of leadership of the seriousness of the problem. For example, Army studies of toxic leadership have led to recommendations for greater use of 360 feedback for evaluation purposes and paying greater attention to command climate surveys. But critics contend that when the results of the feedback go only to the subject and not to their superiors, they have little effect on behavior. Larding on more ethics training may help but also misses the mark as the celebrated ethical lapses don’t stem from not knowing the rules, but rather, by acting as if the rules don’t apply.

A multi-pronged approach would include:

■ Making leadership assessment a condition of advancement so that negative findings would result in weeding out bad leaders.

■ Mentoring, particularly peer mentoring, among seasoned and trusted colleagues who have both the stature and similar experience to generate the trust needed to provide the needed perspective – and tough guidance -- in a safe space.

■ Holding leaders accountable in ways that truly apply consequences for toxic behavior. It starts when a leader opts to surround himself or herself with people who can bring up an “inconvenient truth” or ask the uncomfortable question, one that may reverse an unwise or unethical course of action. We need to prepare future leaders to play this role as well.

■ Starting at the top. Rewarding good examples and taking action against poor leaders at the executive level would instill confidence inside and outside of the organization.

The good news is that tomorrow’s leaders who come to the Eisenhower School are engaging these topics now. They are learning to recognize the warning signs in themselves as well as getting the tools to avoid toxic spills down the road.

The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. government, USAID or the National Defense University.

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