7 do's and don'ts of surviving toxic leadership in the military

The buzz word that seems to never leave the tips of the Big Military’s tongue is “toxic leadership.” It can be defined as the behavior of a leader who puts their own well-being first while destroying the well-being of everyone underneath them — the type of person who would stand on the neck of their troops if it meant a single “attaboy” from their own superiors.

Do not get this twisted. Toxic leadership is not “Sergeant said something mean to me one time!” It is not “Sergeant had to punish me when I messed up!” And it is not “Sergeant made me do military things!” Toxic leadership is like bad art. You can’t quite nail down how to perfectly define it, but when you see it — you know.

7. Do praise the good leaders

During my time in the Army, I’ve had the pleasure of serving under some damn fine officers and NCOs (a few of which I know read my articles years after I got my own DD-214 blanket.) Every single one of the good ones understand that respect is a two-way street. And every single one took strong stands against the toxic leadership that is “the scoliosis of the backbone of the Army.”

If you want to see the good leaders, shine a light on them. They’re out there. This is best and most effective means to cleaning the toxicity out of the military. 

170th In Brigade ball

And you’ll never forget the lessons the damn good ones taught you. (Author is on the far left. Image via Facebook)

6. Don’t give up hope

If you do find yourself under the boot of one of those slimy bastards, continue the fight. If you want to count the days until your blanket, that’s fine. If you want to put an end to that crap to help your brothers and sisters-in-arms, that’s better.

No one should ever hate their time in the military. We’re a family closer than most blood families.

Police call

Good leaders aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty with their troops. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jeremy Laboy)

5. Do respectfully and professionally communicate with them

The first sentence of the U.S. Army and Air Force Non-commissioned officer creed is: No one is more professional than I. The Marines have “I am the backbone of the Marine Corps” and  is a sentiment shared by every branch. These are the words they swore to live by. If they are worth a damn, they prove it every day.

Find out if what they’re doing is truly toxic or if there’s just a bigger picture at play. Even if you don’t owe it to them, owe it to the rank they wear.

Shared iPhone

Never forget, your superiors are still human. They may make mistakes, but they will still have human moments with you. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Aaron S. Patterson)

4. Don’t disrespect their position or rank

That being said, even if every fiber of your being is saying they don’t deserve their rank, you can’t lose your military bearing. Keep the formalities. Stand at attention or parade rest. Refer to them by their rank and don’t use expletives in reference to them.

It’s much harder for your concerns to be taken seriously if you come across as complaining to their peers.

muddy parade rest

If you lose your bearing, you lose the fight against toxicity. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade)

3. Do Command Climate Surveys

The most mind-numbing briefings and paperwork lower enlisted seem to do is a Command Climate Survey. They seem to get filled with a bunch of fluff that won’t change things — or fluff that can’t be changed. But what actually gets the hosts of the surveys to sit on the edge of their seats is signs of actual toxic leadership.

They won’t bother listening to gripes and complaints. However, if you point out specific events and provide actual solutions: they do listen.

command climate survey

Command Climate Surveys really are the most effective means, even if it doesn’t seem feel it. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class James Vazquez)

2. Don’t put them on blast

Keep your bearing. If you know the reason they’re not at morning formation isn’t because they’re “at Dental,” you don’t need to shout it out in front of the platoon. And whatever you do, don’t put a photo out of context on social media.

Use the open door policy to their superior. Explain the situation in a more controlled environment that won’t put a target on your back.

Social Media Dog

That, and blasting them on Social Media is an offense under UCMJ of online misconduct (Dog used to not single anyone out.) (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Devin N. Boyer)

1. Do strive to be better than them

To avoid sounding like one of those knitted pillows on Grandma’s couch, everything is a learning experience. It’s easy to look at the good leaders and follow their footsteps. But it’s much more critical to look at a toxic leader and say “When I’m that rank, I will never be like them.”

Watch them burn, hold your head up high and march forward. Right now, you’re the leader your unit needs.

Patton quote

These words stuck with me and can be found on the walls of the 7th Army NCO Academy. Never forget them.
(Image via AZ Quotes)

When in doubt, make sure they receive this link: How to not be a dirtbag CGO

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