Saturday, 22 December 2012

The toxicity of command

The Military Review has a superb article about the impact that narcissism has on leadership, specifically the toxicity it can engender in teams. As in the private sector, so called "toxic" leadership is startlingly common in the Army
The Army recently released a study reporting that 80 percent of the officers and NCOs polled had observed toxic leaders in action and that 20 percent had worked for a toxic leader. This problem is not new. Within the past few years, the Army has relieved two brigade commanders and a general for alleged toxic—and arguably narcissistic and abusive—behavior. A division commander who served in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom was “asked” to retire following an investigation of his leadership style and toxic command climate.
I would be surprised if a similar study in any representative public or private organisation wouldn't throw up similar results, in fact I would imagine it'd be higher in the public sector, where there are fewer structured processes for leadership development and promotion can be earned due to "time served" rather than development of skills. That is based on limited knowledge of military promotions however, so I'm happy to be corrected on it.

The article posits a number of key characteristics of narcissistic leaders:
  • Being a poor listener
  • Being overly sensitive to criticism.
    Taking advantage of others to achieve one’s own goals
  • Lacking empathy or disregarding the feelings of others
  • Having excessive feelings of self-importance (arrogance)
  • Exaggerating achievements or talents
    Needing constant attention and admiration
    Reacting to criticism with rage, shame, or humiliation
  • Being preoccupied with success or power
Narcissistic individuals also tend to be egotistical, manipulative, self-seeking and exploitative. Narcissists do not accept suggestions from others. Doing so might make them appear weak, which conflicts with their need for self-enhancement. Some narcissists have such an inflated self-confidence that they do not believe that others have anything useful to say to them. They also take more credit than they deserve, often at the expense of taking credit for the contributions of co-workers and subordinates.

Conversely, they avoid taking responsibility for shortcomings and failures. Narcissistic individuals often are influential in group settings because they have such conviction in the worth of their ideas that others tend to believe them and follow.

Many of these are of course classic indicators of sociopaths, which is hardly surprising. Sociopaths can and often are extremely charming and pleasant in the right circumstances, which can enable them to achieve promotion and a rise in power, warning signs are often missed because there is a lack of consistency and they are able to cover the negative behaviours effectively.

Narcissism and toxic leadership spread in the private sector for the same reason that it has in the military, to some extent at least. The hard charging, demanding attitude can be perceived as passion and a desire for perfection. This is in part because there are genuinely passionate leaders who behave in very similar ways. The difference between a passionate and a narcissistic leader is that one brings his team with them and the other works for their own success at the expense of their subordinates. Consequently the narcissistic leader will achieve success for an indeterminate period of time and train those below them that such behaviours are acceptable, perpetuating a cycle of toxic leadership.

The difference between these individuals is often relatively small. In my experience it can usually be judged by the degree to which the individual micromanages the processes they oversee. A narcissistic leader will want to be involved in everything, since failure will reflect poorly on them and their prospects, it is also an opportunity to exercise power over subordinate individuals. A passionate leader will involve themselves little beyond a briefing, problem solving (at the request of a subordinate) and the wrapping up phase of a project when seniority is required to deliver to the client. Interestingly both individuals will react in an extremely similar fashion in the event of a failure, although the passionate leader is more likely to seek opportunities to grow off the back of failure, whereas the narcissist will seek to punish.

The solution proposed is to shift the emphasis of how leaders are selected and promoted towards emotional intelligence, a sage idea and one which again is as relevant to a civilian organisation as a military one:
Narcissistic leaders lack emotional intelligence because narcissists primarily focus on themselves.
Emotional intelligence means being focused on “the other” (a peer, subordinate, colleague, etc.). Leadership is fundamentally about leading and interacting with humans, not machines and processes. It is a series of arbitrary choices and decisions. As such, to exercise leadership on the human terrain, emotional intelligence is paramount. Certainly when leaders become more senior (at the operational and strategic levels), they need to manage and lead larger organizations and deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty. However, these different complexities and contextual variables do not negate or minimize the human dimension of leadership. In fact, they only highlight its critical nature.
Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves succinctly and practically describe what emotional intelligence looks like in the work place:
  • A rare talent to read the emotions of others.
  • The ability to adjust to different situations and build relationships with almost anyone.
  • The uncanny ability to spot and address the elephant in the room.
  • Does a good job of acknowledging other people’s feelings when communicating difficult news.
  • Personal knowledge of people to better understand their perspectives and work well with them.
  • The ability to absorb the nontechnical, human side of meetings and become a student of people and their feelings.
A fascinating piece, and a necessary read for anyone interested in how organisations are led and how to make that leadership successful.


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