Roy E. Alston, PhD & George E. Reed, PhD
In her book Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad, Marcia Whicker describes toxic leaders as “maladjusted, malcontent, and often malevolent, even malicious. They glory in turf protection, fighting, and controlling rather than uplifting followers.” A toxic police leader is maladjusted to the police context that values service to others over self; malcontented possibly because of a perceived slight experienced at some point in their career; often malevolent stemming from a pervasive disregard for the welfare of their subordinates; and surreptitiously malicious toward superiors who represent authority, while observably malicious toward peers and subordinates who are viewed as potential competitors. Toxic leaders specialize in demoralizing and humiliating subordinates in public.
We might well ask why world-class police organizations would put up with such behavior. One alibi stems from their ability to kiss up the chain of command while kicking down. Toxic police leaders always seem to have well-prepared presentations ready for their superiors and are ever ready to accept tasks without regard for the impact on their subordinates. Because they lead using fear, subordinates respond quickly to their direction. But they comply without commitment.
Toxic leaders are seen by many their subordinates and others in the police organization as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible and petty. Word among police officers spreads fast and they’ll go out of their way to avoid the toxic leader.
A chief-level officer in a large police agency once asked, “How do you know a leader in your organization is toxic?” We suggested that he observe how the patrol bid fills in. The last supervisors to get officers to voluntarily sign up for their sectors are often the ones being avoided by police officers because they display toxic tendencies. Patrol officers are not likely to voluntarily select the sector of a supervisor that displays these characteristics:
- An apparent lack of concern for the well being of subordinates.
- A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate.
- A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest.
It is not one specific behavior that deems one toxic; it is the cumulative effect of de-motivational behavior on unit morale and climate over time that tells the tale.
When asked whether they have toxic leaders in their organizations police officers from many different police organizations and at varying levels respond with a resounding affirmative. After repeating that question in dozens of seminars we have anecdotal information that suggests toxic leaders are ubiquitous in police organizations.
It can be demoralizing when toxic leaders continue to get promoted to levels of increasing responsibility. In a recent coaching course for newly promoted police supervisors, a police sergeant stated, “We all know who the bad leaders are, but the police department sticks that person away in a bureau out of sight where the bad leader can spend all his time studying for the next promotion exam. The bad leader scores high on the promotion exam, gets promoted and is released back on the troops to exact revenge. Once they screw up again and/or destroy the careers of good, hard-working officers, they are placed back into a bureau to study for the next promotion exam.”
This newly promoted police supervisor’s statements must have resonated with the other 40 newly promoted police supervisors from varying police agencies in the room because everyone was shaking their heads in agreement and raising their hands for the chance to tell their toxic leader story.
Assignment changes and promotion provide the avenue that toxic police leaders use to go from one place to another within the police organization spreading their poison. Police officers who have to work with or for a toxic leader are relegated to waiting them out because it is only a matter of time before the toxic leader is removed, placed into another assignment or promoted.
This can have devastating effects on police officers and police organizational culture. Toxic leaders leave in their wake an environment devoid of purpose, motivation, and commitment. In short, toxic police leaders deny police organizations and individual police officers true leadership.
Some suggest that exposing toxic police leaders for what they are would go a long way to solving the problem. Unfortunately, tools like multi-rater leader assessments, climate assessments and employee surveys are not commonly used in police organizations. The argument stems from a questionable belief that these “business tools” do not work or translate well to police organizations.
A tool like a 360-degree feedback instrument would provide some insight into toxic police leadership, but according to Dr. Howard Prince, Brigadier General U. S. Army (Ret.) and Director of the LBJ School’s Center for Ethical Leadership, there is not a validated 360-degree feedback tool available specifically for law enforcement. Perhaps toxic leadership is so prevalent in police organizations because the organizational culture enables and sustains it.
In their book Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power, Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Hollaway suggest that toxic leaders can only thrive in toxic cultures. Promoting and moving toxic leaders around the organization might be an inappropriate organizational response that serves to enable them.
Another troubling explanation for the existence of toxic police leadership is the possibility that toxic behavior is tolerated, if not encouraged, by leaders at the top of police organizations. Police executives lose credibility when they claim to be advocates of healthy police cultures yet fail to take action against toxic police leaders. Leaders at the top of the organization often mistake short-term mission accomplishment for good leadership. It is possible to run even a good organization into the ground if attention is not paid to the long-term health and welfare of its members.
Leaders who serve at the executive level in police organizations may be the only ones that have the power and authority to counter toxic leadership. Subordinates are not generally in position to address the problem of toxic leaders because toxic leaders are characteristically unconcerned about them and immune to influence from below. Lynne F. McClure, author of Risky Business: Managing Violence in the Workplace, explains why toxicity goes without remedy: “The biggest single reason is because [the behavior is] tolerated.” McClure, an expert on managing high-risk behaviors, believes that if an organization has toxic managers, it is because the culture enables it—knowingly or unknowingly—through nothing more than apathy.
Police organizations can take steps to minimize the number of toxic leaders in their organizations by fostering a shared vision of what good leadership is and is not. Possible antidotes to toxic leadership include:
- Put a label to the problem (toxic leadership) and talk about it openly.
- Develop and select with an eye to leadership style, not simply technical skills and short-term effectiveness.
- Hold supervisors responsible for the leadership style of their subordinates.
- Implement climate assessments and 360-degree multi-faceted evaluations as developmental tools.
- Have the hard discussions with subordinates who display toxic tendencies and promptly address behaviors that are not in keeping with the values of the organization.