Why Do Toxic Leaders Keep Getting Promoted?

Becoming a successful leader should mean more than just getting the mission done. It should also mean taking care of Soldiers and families and making a difference in the lives of those we lead. We don’t talk about it often, but that’s what we intuitively feel. Followers desire leaders who guide the team to accomplish the mission while respecting and inspiring them.

And what’s the common theme among toxic leaders who continue to ascend the ranks? They get the mission done but leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Bosses routinely fail to identify toxic subordinate commanders, but peers and subordinates always feel the impact. Why does this happen? Why do senior raters look down at subordinate leaders and see mission accomplishment but not the negative interactions they use to make it happen?


Arizona National Guard Soldiers from the 158th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade stand in formation on the field at Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium, Dec. 7, 2014 in Tempe, Ariz. The formation, which was part of the Arizona National Guard Muster and Community Expo, was the first time in over a century Arizona Soldiers and Airmen assembled together in mass formation. Photo by Staff Sgt. Brian A. Barbour.

Reacting Instead of Initiating

In a book that I will routinely recommend and reference, Tom Rath in Strengths Based Leadership offers a passage that helps explain why mission accomplishment – by almost any means necessary – is so highly valued when it comes to leader performance:

…even the highest level executives reported that they spend almost all of their time reacting to the needs of day instead of initiating for their future.

One challenge is that our ability to progress in our career is often determined by our effectiveness in responding to near-term needs. When high value is placed on solving these kinds of problems, it creates a culture in which leaders spend little or no time thinking about what could be done because they receive more accolades for simply doing what needs to be done.

Another reason we get caught in perpetual response mode is because it’s easier. Agreeing to take on a small objective – for example, cleaning out your inbox by the end of each day – is much more manageable than embarking on a larger and more proactive goal – like creating a new product or mapping out how to double your business in three to five years. Solving problems and removing barriers comes naturally to many people, while initiating is much harder work.

Think about the military leader’s day. In your experience, would you say that most time is spent initiating effort to grow the organization? Or is most of the day spent reacting to outside requirements and solving immediate crises? I think most would say the latter.

A Task-Saturated Culture

The problem is that most leaders live in a task-saturated environment, which impedes them from analyzing the effects of their actions and discourages them from seeking ways to reach their unit’s, or their own full potential. Time and again, I’ve seen junior officers and NCOs struggle to find the cognitive space, for example, to apply creativity to their training events or develop long-term leader development plans. The endless supply of “5-meter targets” prevents leaders from being the guide their organizations need. And our culture rewards them for it.

Senior raters end up recommending advancement for subordinate leaders who tackle the near-term targets because 1) the tasks are usually coming from the senior chain of command, who has a vested interest in seeing them accomplished, and 2) the effort is visible and easy to measure. “How many on-time evaluations did A Company have?” is a lot easier to assess and evaluate than “Is the A Company Commander inspiring a culture of trust?” And most leaders are more comfortable having a conversation about the timeliness of evaluations than they are about establishing trust in the organization.

When senior raters focus on the flurry of near-term subordinate activity, they risk overlooking the methods by which subordinate leaders achieve the mission. Too often, immediately behind the curtain of a “successful” leader is an egocentric environment of micromanagement and mistrust that overworks its members and fails to personally and professionally develop them.

Causes and Cures?

After stewing on this for a few days, I’m still left with questions. I want to know what you think.

  • Does a focus on near-term tasks lead to bad leadership?
  • Are toxic leaders getting promoted simply because they get the mission done?
  • What areas should senior raters prioritize when evaluating the quality of their subordinates’ leadership environment?
  • What methods can leaders use to build an environment of trust and development despite a full calendar and endless task list? What has worked for you?

I want to hear your perspective, as do other leaders out there. Please a comment below!

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  • Arnel Steve Cachapero

    Yes, Raters do not see how the mission accomplished. They just look at the outputs, and leaders who prioritize inputs are often left-out because they tend to fail deadlines because they look first at the welfare of those who are working with the mission.

  • okan

    Good article with a flavor of idealism. Ok no one likes to be or be led by a toxic leader, but imagine a unit where immediate tasks are being bargained for long term initiatives. I do not see an easy way of developing a future-perfect team without conducting today’s must-do tasks. This is almost akin to the dilemma of the armies—the necessity to transform into a robust future posture while facing the obligation of conducting the here and now missions… Who knows maybe we hate and love “toxic leaders” as they are handy for relieving today’s burden? Or non-toxic leader has some really extra-ordinary traits?

  • Jason Davenhill

    Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox floats the idea of people’s thinking being made up of human thinking and chimpanzee thinking. The chimp believes that everything is measurable and sees the world in a very digital way.

    The military tends to encourage digital chimp thinking hence measurable ‘success’ and even merely talking in abstract cliches is more likely to get someone promoted than the immeasurable fostering of a healthy culture. In hierarchies the reporting officer is likely only to recognize traits he recognizes in himself and promote through a narcissistic belief in his own efficacy. Finally the military tends to select through simple not wicked problems. Leadership tasks involve crossing a ‘chasm’ with 3 pine poles and 2 ammunition boxes etc. At no stage are ‘leaders’ asked to amend the plan in the light of new information or, indeed, bother listening to anyone who might have a ‘left of arc’ imaginative idea.

    That’s why the military starts every war climbing out of trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy. It’s only when real thinkers enter the fray and suggest ‘going around the side’ that progress is made. By then, the toxic leaders will have a cohort of apologists who help explain how they weren’t responsible for what went wrong. 2008 brought a crash in the banking world. No-one noticed the financial cost of mistakes and digital thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 – see Losing Small Wars by Frank Ledgewith.

  • Dom Watkins

    Does a focus on near-term tasks lead to bad leadership?

    No. An inability to correctly recognise and deal with priorities almost certainly does though.

    Are toxic leaders getting promoted simply because they get the mission done?

    I’m wary of the use of the word toxic here. Toxicity requires an intent to run counter to the culture. Describing leaders as toxic should be reserved for when it is truly warranted. In an environment where mission success has primacy above all else, those who ‘get the mission done’ will be rewarded because they have done what the system _intended_ them to do.

    What areas should senior raters prioritize when evaluating the quality of their subordinates’ leadership environment?

    Emotional Intelligence provides five broad attributes here that allow for greater reflection: Self Awareness, Self Regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Relationship Management.

    Evaluating a leader, and the environment they create, on these criteria; forces commanders to examine not just how a subordinate conducts themselves but also how they manage their interactions. Shifting perspective from ‘what did he do?’ to ‘how did he do it?’, seems to be the important step change here. This shift in emphasis also allows the Commander to ask ‘why did he do it?’ and creates space for procedural improvements and subordinate development.

    What methods can leaders use to build an environment of trust and development despite a full calendar and endless task list? What has worked for you?

    So far as is possible, let subordinates determine what is urgent (time sensitive) and what is important (required for results) and balance their tasks accordingly and expect the same of yourself. Once they have done this allow them to _respond_ rather than _react_ by opening honest channels of communication, that amount to more than a one way broadcast.

  • Greg Frazho

    1. Does focusing on near-term tasks lead to bad leadership? It can, inasmuch as we tend to tunnel vision on the aforementioned 5-meter targets as opposed to seeing the entire shooting range. The big picture, to me, is often overlooked or in some cases deliberately discouraged, which is a bad business practice to say the least. 2. Toxic leaders being promoted due to their mission accomplishment? Not necessarily, but people who have a reputation for getting results, almost despite their methodology, will always have better reputations than the day-late-and-a-dollar-short crowd. The mentality being, if you can’t handle a latrine-digging detail and a weekly report, how the hell are you going to handle the movement of an entire battalion, let alone a division? 3. Priorities for senior leaders on junior leaders’ leadership? Mission accomplishment, professionalism, knowledgeability, et al. A good way to gauge how well leadership is involved is by tracking retention, physical fitness and advancement, and not necessarily in that order. If your subordinate’s platoon or company or whatever is lacking in any one of those areas, let alone all three, you have a big problem. 4. Environment of trust? Feedback sessions. One-on-ones between the CO and his/her junior officers. Basically, informal how’s-it-going sessions to assess command climate and morale, two very important components in any organization. Also, a periodic review of the “endless task list”. Some of those things need to be reviewed for relevancy and value-added. If they’re superfluous, in other words there just to make somebody else look important of simply have a job, it probably needs to be diminished or eliminated. That should be an on-going, perpetual thing.

  • Ned Lundsgaard

    Still waiting for ‘The No Asshole Rule’ to be on any of the Chief of Staff/CNO/Commandant’s reading lists.

    • John Adams

      It’s been on my list for years. It was recommended to me when I counseled a subordinate CGO. I’m still not sure he wasn’t subtly messaging, but I’m a better leader for the experience.

  • ReadTheConstitution

    A symptom of economic financialization and the managerial class resultant of the MBA program, IMO. These are cultural issues that go beyond the military.

  • Jon

    I think you hit it on the head. It is about what is quantifiable on an evaluation and being on time with things is one way to that vs. true mission readiness. In my last reserve unit, we were responsible for training USAR and ARNG brigade and battalion headquarters through mission command exercises. Key tasks included MDMP and the Operations Process knowledge and instruction. We did not have any weapons on our TDA. However, we were not measured by the Group and Brigade commanders on how well we could instruct MDMP but on what our weapons qualification numbers were. It was much easier to say XX% were qualified than YY% knew the MDMP. I believe another related issue is at the senior field grade officer level. The senior rater is very removed from many of the officers he/she senior rates. For example, in my last deployment, the 3rd ID CG senior rated every battalion commander as well as every LTC or higher on the Division staff. That makes it hard for that person to really get to know everyone. Thus, quantifiable accomplishments become more important. Toxic leaders also will be those spotlight Rangers that perform well when the boss is around so the boss sees all the “great” things taking place. I am not sure how to change this but I think the 360 reviews are a step in the right direction, especially for Battalion and Brigade commanders.

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  • John-Alan Mackay

    All, I have looked at this post a few times now and thought, yip I can relate to that….and I am in the British Army Reserve. But this evening I was reading a question ( bit of a rant really) posted in a civilian Social media site asking why it is that in my Local Council Managers are so poor at their job? over promoted? Lack knowledge of the department and its requirements? Don’t care for the staff?

    The Social Media site is a closed site for people within the organisatiin involved in changing Workplace Culture (ironic about the…all bosses are…. rant, but hey!ho!)

    As I was reading the piece in my head I kept coming back here to this toxic leaders post and the affinity I felt reading it, and it has left me with a wider question….is it because we are accountable to our people not our Customers?

    In the Military I have served under some quality leaders some poor leaders and at least one toxic leader, but throughout this in Civilian street I was employed in Small Family business were short term results were OK, but what is your mid and long term plan? When do you see these coming to fruition? How are you getting there? What impact will it have on the resources of the Company – Personnel, equipment and finance? These questions were always on the table, and if Staff turnover was high you best be able to prove their performance failures because the manager is the first place to look for failings.

    Now I work for a Local Authority who are getting budgets cut year on year but until recently have been in the same denial that your and my Armed forces have….they can’t touch ME though! At the staff level it is all “but the Union” Junior managers have not been funded to good quality management training, middle managers have been overpromoted (without sufficient scrutiny and often because “they can get the job done”) Senior Managers have ensured they are surrounded by “yes sir” fall guys.
    It is only now there is a new Executive management team (many from private industry) that a reflection of the ground truth has been called for, 120 staff (out of 17,000) have been asked to “go and find the unwritten ground rules” and report back on the reality we come across. The next step is to challenge the feedback and the areas identified as problematic – which so far is poor communication (up and down), and what in the military is identified as toxic leadership (fortunately lives are not at stake in the same way in a local authority from this toxicity).

    My question was is it because we are accountable to our people not our Customers?

    Why ask this? Simple! in the smaller firms I worked for our people were everything to the owners – because our people were focused on the customers, the staff st all levels were happy to share personal experience (good and bad) with a view to all learning and improving from it.
    Even negative experiences were given support and development was provided where required – sometimes of a “short sharp shock” nature.
    In the Local Authority providing anything other than “yes sir”( within some teams) can lead to an internal disciplinary hearing or being promoted away because you are too much bother.

    Large multi nationals and the small family firms I worked for have one thing in common….the Customer pays the wages – No customers – No Jobs.
    The Military and the local authority are government entities – required by the nation and staffed in some areas by people who no longer care about the community they support or their colleagues in Uniform, they also have things in common; central funding, job security, formal appraisal-by the person tasking you to get it done…….

    Why do toxic leaders keep getting promoted….is it because too few commanders are brought from outside our own Units (Regimental Identity in the UK) to give a true reflection of the command, its areas for imrovement and the opportunity to make (or at least begin) this improvement?
    I am working in a training establishment, my new CO arrived and I have found more time to get away from my desk and do personal phys.
    Why? The old CO was an admin guy, liked your paperwork squared away most – new CO? well lets just say straight off active service and an SF background….”paperwork can be done any time; the recruits are on PT now, lets join them”
    We have already returned some staff to their Units and replaced them with young NCOs who constantly ask “but Why ” and who challenge everyones perception -they are good for us…makes us looka t the poicy from adifferent perspective.
    My appraisal will be honest forthright and fair, I do not doubt it. I just hope I can live up to expectations.

    In my view Toxic leaders keep getting promoted because too many people are interested in themselves, they write well on subordinates who make them look good and poorly on those who challenge or ask foe an explanation of rationale.

  • SawIt

    Thankfully I’m not in the Army anymore so I can tell the truth. Some of it is the Masons. In some parts of the Army it’s a scourge of plague proportions. If you haven’t seen it’s effect, you’ve either been kept in the dark or you haven’t been in that long. I had a 1SG who was a Mason. He did some of the most toxic, and downright illegal things, and so MUCH of it that it would take a book to list it all. People would go to IG; the head of IG was a Mason. It would be swept under the rug, names given to the command and those soldiers would be retaliated against without recourse. It was so bad the EO rep (E6 female) told female soldiers to let it go, it wasn’t worth filing a complaint, just get out of the company. Suicide? Screw with a 1-star Generals’ son? Keep a female downrange until they could hear the baby’s heartbeat before sending her back, and then she has a miscarriage? No consequences. I swear that man would have had to literally Kill someone on his own time to even be reprimanded. (Last time I saw him he was a SGM though probably retired now). I’m not saying all Masons are bad; but I’ve known NCO’s who joined just to protect themselves FROM OTHER MASONS because if they had that symbol on their car, people left them alone. If you’re a Mason, you’re Untouchable in certain parts of the Army. You can read all the psypop articles written about it but until the Army Acknowledges that they have one of the worlds biggest, most toxic organizations in the World operating right under their nose without consequences….this is going to continue. And NO ONE is talking about it (until they get out and don’t have to be afraid anymore).

  • Ck

    Another problem is that at a certain rank, everyone is a “high performer” and sadly due to forced distribution of the best ratings, timing can the deciding factor. Three equally performing COLs all getting annual ratings within the three months of each other have the potential to be racked and stacked based on nothing more than who’s OER is due last. Think about it. Every officer should track who all is PCSing to the same location, then make sure they are the last one to sign in thus increasing the probability their senior rarer has ACOM room in his profile. Sad.

    • Just a note

      Your rating window isn’t determined by your date of arrival. Its based on your last eval thru date. Time on leave is included in the 365 day rating window, but its just listed as non-rated time. Keep in mind too that senior raters don’t simply give the ACOM to the last guy they rate. If an officer is a superior performer, he’ll likely receive the ACOM regardless if he’s been there the longest or he’s the newest arrival. This is not to say that some great officers won’t still receive COMs because the senior rater’s profile can’t support an ACOM. Its unfortunate, but let’s give the senior raters a little more credit than believing its all in the timing of in-processing.

  • scott

    I’m the real Iraq war winner so check out https://www.facebook.com/Oblique-weapons-1668384160061114/ on fb.

  • Gary Durst

    Toxicity, or psychopathy?

    There’s an interesting book called “Snakes In Suits, When Psychopaths Go To Work” which examines the idea of psychopathy in workplace leaders, those who are”more selfish, concerned only about themselves with little regard for fairness and equity…who allow the responsibilities of leadership and the perks of power to override their moral sense.”

    You can find the book on Amazon, but there are also PDF copies available on many university websites via Google search. A good summary can be found here:


  • John Manning

    I believe it is less a task and purpose issue and more of a personality issue. If you have worked with a truly “toxic leader,” you probably would not give him/her this label. You would not want to describe the situation so lightly and definitely would not want to give him the credit of “being a leader” regardless of rank or position. If you have worked with such a person, you would probably want to describe him as someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. We are talking about people (not necessarily leaders) who: believe they are better than others, absorbed with power and success, exaggerate achievements and talents, expect continual praise, believe they are special, fail to recognize others, express disdain for others, etc. As an institution, we don’t do a good job of 1) identifying narcissists within the ranks, 2) providing a mechanism for people to report narcissists, and 3) provide rehabilitation for people with this issue. Again, it is a people issue, not necessarily a leader issue and it needs to be identified and resolved long before someone makes it to the grade of O5 or E9.

  • Tim Fitzgerald

    The further you get promoted the harder it is to hide your failings. Toxic leaders are promoted in the military because the military promotes to incompetence and then leaves these people in an environment they can’t cope in. The stress exacerbates their flaws and someone who was previously a mediocre leader becomes toxic as they have a crisis of confidence and they bleed their own problems onto their subordinates in an effort to just ‘Get things done’.

    • Yeah, and the ‘blast ring’ of incompetence increases the higher up you go. More people and systems are affected. How do we identify these traits early? 360 feedback? Have you ever seen leaders who reach down and talk to subordinates about their leader’s behavior prior to writing the evaluation?

      • Tim Fitzgerald

        Probationary periods on promotion? With NCOs they are typically expected to act 1 rank up for up to a year before promotion. It’s very rare you meet an incompetent or toxic Warrant Officer.

        • Steven A

          Warrant officers also aren’t unit commanders or leaders in a general sense. Their toxicity is generally a byproduct of negligence.

          • Tim Fitzgerald

            That’s true. They will mostly spend time as RSMs at some point though which is a leadership position though not as isolated as a CO.

      • Tim Fitzgerald

        For soldiers I’ve reported on I’ve always found the smoking area a good place to hear some honest chat on SNCOs and other officers. Or accepting an invite to the junior ranks mess and having a few beers with the boys opens them up a little bit. Harder for officers because everything is too formal and everyone is too worried about their own professional reputation to openly critique their boss. Having a beer with your Bde commander in the absence of more senior ranks may help though I’ve never had a CO who would be comfortable with that and I know of few officers who would be completely frank in that environment. Maybe an anomalous reporting system from subordinates but this may engender a culture of commanders being too nice.

        While I was at Sandhurst we used to do something called ‘Slate a mate’ after exercises where we would all point out each others flaws. It got fairly heated on occasions and even then politics would come into it – friends sticking up for each other and not critisising others for fear of being taken down a peg themselves. I imagine this would be 10X worse by the time people are Lt Cols.

        I also think being politically savvy becomes more important the higher up the food chain you go. Appointing Generals must be difficult. Who selects them?

        • SawIt

          That Sounds all well and good until you’re (I’m At) a Brigade wide social function where drinking is allowed. A certain 1SG waits until everyone gets a little lit,then proceeds to start chatting up the ranks to see what they’ll say about their leadership and then…Lo’ And Behold, not only is every word they’ve said reported back, they are retaliated against for “disloyalty” and bad-mouthing their “leaders”. More productive would be the anonymous surveys we took after my 1st deployment. If more than a few of the same complaints came up, the BC took action. Things actually did get a little better after that, though I left not long after to PCS. BTW, my company at the time had a 100% Reenlistment rate ….. because SM’s were so desperate to get out of there, they’d have done or signed anything for a transfer. Clues are there if real Leadership looks for them.

    • Bob Bruno

      “The Peter Principle” – Laurence J. Peter

  • Dave Kyle

    Toxic leaders get promoted, sometimes, because of a cultural bias. The Brotherhood doesn’t want to condemn one of its own, for that opens the condemner up to the same judgement. The same bias also blinds raters to obvious character defects and chalks them up to one offs.

    • I’d say there’s also a “he’s still junior” bias. Leaders don’t want to tank someone’s career when they see questionable, immature, or potentially corrosive behavior because “he’s still young and he’ll probably outgrow it.”
      When is the right time in a career to say, “The standard for leadership is excellence and you’re not there. I’m ending this now.”

      • Dave Kyle

        The question for both bias (bias’s?) is whether or not it is particular in mission impact to the military, whether or not it is a bleed over from a wider civilian outlook/culture, and more importantly, is the solution found in the military or is it found in society as a whole (making better parents, perhaps) thus giving military leadership development programs a better raw recruit. Another thought that occurs to me, being in Portland OR, is that some of the most prolific leaders would be considered toxic here. Is a bad leader just not fitted in the correct slot?

  • Chris Blask

    Socrates in Plato’s Republic argues that the focus of every art is the interest of the subject of that art, not the interests of the artist. What is best for the stone, the patient, and so on. Leadership is the art of leading, the focus is on perfecting the best interests of the team.

    A leader should be seen by their team protecting, promoting, and rewarding them. To stand up to what threatens or demeans them. To sell their virtues to those outside the team. To provide tactical and tangible reward that has direct value to them.

    An example in my life was when I took over a failing and demoralized firewall product team at Cisco in 1998. Roundly criticized from within and outside the company, unable to deliver, and scheduled for disbandment. First step was to make clear that all faults were mine and all criticism should point at me, all success was due to the team. In the first few months a goal was achieved and all team members were rewarded with a $1,000 bonus. Examples of success were compiled and arrayed for every audience to see. In 24 months we grew 1400% to $700M in annual sales.

  • Harlan Kefalas

    I must second the idea that the 18-24 month tour for commanders is too short. It is easy to accomplish your units mission and leave a wrecked culture or climate behind. However, I think there needs to be a discussion about the difference between “toxic” and “don’t like his leadership style” or “I don’t like his decisions”. If a leader is developing subordinates and underwriting honest failures, but making decisions I don’t agree with, is that leader toxic? I would argue no. Toxic leadership to me involves character flaws and a deeply transactional leadership style.

    • chryleza

      Excellent question because the author hasn’t defined toxic leadership although the articles does mention culture. The comments allude to some of the aspects defined in toxic leadership. “Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivation, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short-terms and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves” (ADP 6-22, p.3).

  • Justsomeguy

    I think the author is correct in that we do judge based on the ability to react to stimuli but there are lots of reasons for this. It is indeed easier to judge such reactions but also in a wartime or contingency environment the ability to react quickly is truly valuable. Another factor that drives reactive management in the short duration many in the military spend in their jobs. When you are only going to be around for a couple of years and or your rater will leave in half that time, you are not likely to do much strategic thinking. In fact the constant turnover leads to constant reorganization both because the new leader has different preferences and priorities and he has to change something in order to make a mark ans be able t say look what I did.

    • True, there are many drawbacks to moving around and switching leaders so much. What we gain in broadening the leader we lose in organizational disruption and trust building. I remember this culture carrying over to the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, when tactical level leaders developed campaign plans that lasted their tenure in country 12-15 months. It’s as if that was sufficient long-term thinking to achieve effects in the AO.