I was one of the first women to serve in combat arms units in the 1980s, with service in Germany and Korea. I had the opportunity to build and lead great teams, and to learn from commanders from the brigade level up through four-star headquarters. I saw far too many examples of counterproductive (or toxic) leadership. Thankfully, I experienced even more examples of positive leadership in my 22-year Army career.
As a military professional, I read articles, sat through classes and discussed counterproductive leadership. Field Manual 6-22: Developing Leaders defines counterproductive leadership as “the demonstration of leader behaviors that violate one or more of the Army’s core leader competencies or Army Values, preventing a climate conducive to mission accomplishment. Counterproductive leadership has long-term negative effects on individuals and units, impeding mission accomplishment and negating combat advantages.”
Before outlining effective coping strategies, I need to explain my definition of counterproductive leadership. A counterproductive leader may display the following behaviors that destroy trust relationships, which are essential to building cohesive teams:
• They bully or demean subordinates or peers who disagree with them.
• They are narcissists who do not see or care about the impact of their decisions or actions so long as the unit gets results and accomplishes the mission.
• They refuse to listen to the recommendations of their subordinates, then cast blame when “their” plan falls apart.
Soldiers sometimes conflate a tough, standards-based leader with being toxic or counterproductive. A leader who displays these behaviors is not counterproductive. They set and enforce exacting standards for themselves and the unit. They embody the Army Values and make unpopular decisions by choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. They do their best to meet the intent of their higher-level commander, even if that commander is a counterproductive leader.
When it comes to counterproductive leadership at both the individual and organizational levels, my experience is that counterproductive leadership directed at an individual is less common, but more difficult to operate under when the subordinate feels ignored or targeted.
If you are on the receiving end of counterproductive leadership, you should consider requesting a move to another position before you receive an evaluation.
Keep a Record
You also should keep a journal with the date, time, situation and actions taken by the counterproductive leader. Keep all emotion out of this journal and just present the facts. If you use this journal to support an inspector general complaint or ask a senior leader to help you, having kept all emotions out of your journal will give you the credibility you need to pursue a favorable outcome. This is the trickiest situation because it is personal. The best you can do is limit solo interactions to the extent possible. If there is a leader in the organization who you trust, explain your situation and unemotionally provide examples of why you feel you are being targeted, and ask them to be a buffer.
Be aware that although you may address this situation properly and professionally, it may not turn out exactly as you had hoped. I did this as a young captain while serving in a combat arms brigade operations section. I enlisted the help of a field grade officer who the counterproductive leader admired. I depended on this trusted colleague to help me get projects approved to ensure mission accomplishment. My colleague voiced his approval of my ideas at decision briefings and staff meetings. I knew that the counterproductive leader would dismiss an idea if he knew that it was mine. However, he supported my ideas if my trusted colleague presented them as his own. My friend was uncomfortable taking credit for my ideas, but this was often the only way to accomplish our mission.
Up the Chain
Unfortunately, the counterproductive leader’s behavior did not change, and I felt obligated to speak with the brigade commander. Although the brigade commander directly addressed the most egregious offenses, he told me I was too valuable to the organization for him to let me leave. I then had the difficult decision of deciding to accept that decision or go to the inspector general. For reasons I will not discuss here, I chose to stay in the brigade. I was not able to change the behavior of the counterproductive leader, but my actions did result in him treating me with greater professionalism.
You might wonder what I did to garner such intense ire and harassment. The answer is that I was a woman in the operations shop of a combat brigade. The counterproductive leader viewed me as unnecessary competition for positions and promotion with the men in the unit. He told me that he could not give me a glowing efficiency report because he felt strongly that women were incapable of serving as effective commanders. He went on to tell me that he had to give the best evaluations to men with families, and that I could build a successful career outside the Army with my husband’s support.
This same leader would always introduce me as his “Barbie doll captain.” You might wonder how he got away with that, and the answer is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Army struggled with discrimination against women and minorities. The good news is that in the past 45 years, protections are embedded in the Army’s culture and regulatory guidance. The specifics will be different, but they still exist. The challenge is to do the best you can to attempt to identify the negative or illegal actions and work within the system to correct them.
The damage that a counterproductive leader has on an organization is sometimes easier to accept than personal attacks on an individual soldier or leader. However, I recommend that you follow the same actions to deal with a negative or hostile command climate. Keep a journal that is fact-based, provides dates and times and individuals present, and avoids any emotion. Find an advocate in your unit who is supportive of your efforts and share your concerns with the chain of command. If you have viable solutions, write those out in a separate document and only provide them if asked.
Lastly, you might ask why you should put yourself at risk to address counterproductive leadership. I find inspiration in the famous Hillel quote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Maj. Ruth VanDyke, U.S. Army retired, served 22 years on active duty in the chemical and acquisition corps. She earned her commission through ROTC in the late 1970s. She is the co-author of the historical fiction series Guardians of Peace.