Administration and Leadership, Columns

Be Wary of a Toxic Leadership Style

Issue 11 and Volume 39.

You’re sitting in your office overlooking the nice view out the window and you’re feeling pretty confident. Everything seems to be running well—but how do you know?

You never leave your office to have a better understanding of how your organization is running. Sure, you might have an open-door policy, but you’re kidding yourself if you think this gives you an insight to what’s happening. The only people who use the open-door policy are those who have an agenda for their own issues—not the organization’s.

If this is how you operate, you might be a toxic leader. Unlike the Boy Scouts of America mantra of leaving the campground better than you found it, a toxic leader is someone who leaves the organization worse than they found it. The longer they serve in the top leadership role, the further the organization erodes.

Usually they surround themselves with others who placate them and confirm everything is fine. But like the fairytale from Hans Christian Andersen where the emperor has no clothes, they’re afraid to say anything or are out of touch, since they also never leave their office.

The term “toxic leader” was first introduced by Marcia Whicker in her book, Toxic Leaders: When organizations go bad, where she describes the various toxic leadership styles that leave organizations in shambles.

In the book Bad Leadership: What it is, how it happens and why it matters, Barbara Kellerman suggests toxic leadership can be broken down into seven different categories: incompetent, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular and evil.

For example, the incompetent leader is someone who doesn’t have the skill sets to create positive change in the organization. They’re more or less a caretaker until the next manager comes into the organization. A rigid leader, on the other hand, is unyielding to accept new ideas or new information.

Toxic leaders also abuse the disciplinary system to punish those they don’t like or disagree with—many times with the intent of getting rid of them. Some will even fire
an employee.

If you have more than 20% turnover in your organization in a year, either through resignations, terminations or retirements, chances are you’re a toxic leader.

Learning from the Army
The United States Army attempts to identify toxic leaders since their actions have long-term ramifications to those they command. One of the criteria they look for are officers who micromanage, are mean-spirited or display poor decision-making.

The Army conducted studies of soldiers who committed suicide in Iraq. Their initial thinking was that they had something going on in their personal life, such as relationship issues, financial problems or other stressful manifestations of being in combat.

But interviews showed that many of these soldiers had toxic officers or leaders who pushed them over the edge. Some officers in Iraq would “smoke” their subordinates by giving them the worst duties or generally make their life miserable. Some officers would take turns to see which one could outdo the other.

The Army has begun addressing the issue of toxic leadership by first defining it in Army Doctrine Publication 6-22. A pilot program has also been started to do 360-degree evaluations that allow subordinates to rate the officers, and it’s due to expand this year. Already, some officers have been fired for being toxic leaders.

EMS leaders are no different when it comes to leadership expectations. How you perform as a leader in your EMS organization can determine how well your organization runs, your turnover rate, the mental health of your employees and their general performance.

Fixing Your Style
The best way for a toxic leader to change is to be willing. Self-examination is important if you wish to change. If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, it’s time to accept you need to change your leadership style.

You can also look to other EMS leaders as mentors or coaches, but you’ll need to be willing to accept constructive criticism and use it in a positive way.

Leaders also need to be willing to accept anonymous 360-degree evaluations from their subordinates. If the majority comes back favorable and one or two is negative, you don’t have a problem. But if the vast majority comes back negative, it’s time to look at changing your leadership style.

Researching the successful leadership traits of other successful leaders throughout history can also help. What made them successful at leading people? There are plenty of books written on this subject or on the individual leaders themselves.

If you’re a toxic leader, stop looking out that window at the nice view. It’s covered with rose-colored glass! jems