Toxic Leadership Has a Negative Effect on the Military Workplace

Toxic Leadership Has a Negative Effect on the Military Workplace

Get started on your Homeland Security Degree at American Military University.

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Everyone who has served in the military has experienced different leadership styles, which can be characterized as either toxic or effective. Leadership in the enlisted ranks of the Coast Guard comes relatively early in a career.

For example, it is not uncommon for someone with only three or four years of experience in the E-5 grade to be placed in an Officer of the Day leadership role at one of the many small boat Coast Guard stations. The responsibilities for this role include representing the command when they are not on duty, such as in the evenings or on weekends.

Toxic Leadership Impacts Unit Morale and Causes Loss of Good Servicemembers

As in any organization, toxic leadership has an adverse impact on a unit’s morale as well as on subordinates and other leaders. A toxic leader creates higher levels of stress because subordinates have a sense of “walking on eggshells” at work to avoid mistakes. There is also an inherent mistrust between leaders and subordinates.

In a toxic leadership environment, service personnel do their work out of obligation and fear of reprisal rather than out of internal motivation or a sense of team accomplishment. As a result, toxic leaders often lose qualified servicemembers when their enlistment ends. This loss is especially true for leaders who create a toxic work environment by failing to lead by example and by setting unrealistic expectations and deadlines.

Also, a toxic leader may lack compassion for the challenges a subordinate faces on the job or at home. Often, that is because the leader is inexperienced in providing leadership.

Leaders who quickly blame a subordinate when a project goes wrong or who uses team successes to make themselves look good create a toxic environment for the entire unit.

Newly enlisted and junior servicemembers are particularly affected by toxic leaders. These servicemembers may not know about the resources that are available to them when toxic leadership reaches such a level that it needs to be addressed by the command.

Effective Leaders Motivate and Inspire Subordinates

During my Coast Guard career, I have been fortunate to work with some excellent leaders who most likely learned how to lead effectively from having experienced toxic leadership themselves. Their bad experience enabled them to form leadership skills that motivate and inspire others.

Effective leaders create a work culture in which all members strive to do their best and go beyond expectations out of an inherent commitment to their unit. Also, effective leaders empower subordinates by including them in the decision-making process and recognizing their value. Such leaders create realistic goals, measure team progress toward those goals and reward their subordinates when the goals are accomplished.

These leaders also work alongside their subordinates on difficult and demanding projects. More importantly, they help subordinates recognize their own value in the workplace. They display empathy on challenging assignments and recognize and support individual skill sets.

Good Leaders Have Charisma and Well-Developed Communication Skills

Effective leaders have charismatic personalities and well-developed communication skills. They are recognized as a helpful resource for everyone on the team and foster a desire in their subordinates to work collaboratively.

All organizations have both toxic and effective leaders. The Coast Guard has taken steps to strengthen its leadership skills through required in-class training for enlisted advancements and additional training opportunities for officers.

For example, one of the Coast Guard’s innovative steps is the adoption of a 360-degree performance evaluation, which includes collecting data from subordinates’ surveys to identify leadership strengths and areas for improvement.

Leadership through daily activities enables the Coast Guard to remain a premier maritime service. Leadership within the military continues to evolve as attention has been drawn to philosophies that foster high achievement in subordinates while maintaining increased job satisfaction.

About the Author

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been with the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security, contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has also received commendations from the Coast Guard. Presently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions.