Leadership Has Changed from Toxic to Counterproductive
What the Semantic Change Means for Legal Advisors
Since 2003, when then-Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White first asked officers at the U.S. Army War College to determine how the Army could identify commanders with “destructive leadership styles,”1 the Army has attempted to define, identify, and eliminate toxic leadership. In an effort to identify and define the problem, the Army conducted studies, distributed command climate surveys, wrote articles, appointed investigations, and relieved commanders. A decade later, top commanders publicly admitted that the Army had a problem: too many “toxic leaders.”2 In 2012, the Army even added the term “toxic leadership” to its core doctrinal publication, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22, Army Leadership, as “one form of negative leadership.”3
Yet, in the latest version of ADP 6-22, the Army replaced the term “toxic leadership” with the term “counterproductive leadership,” briefly noting that “the term toxic has been used when describing leaders who have engaged in what the Army now refers to as counterproductive leadership behaviors.”4 Nowhere in the new version of the doctrinal publication does the term “toxic leadership” appear. You may be wondering: What is the definition of toxic leadership? What is the definition of counterproductive leadership? Is the recent change in nomenclature semantic or substantive? Finally, what does the change mean for judge advocates tasked as legal advisors for command investigations into allegations of behavior formerly called “toxic leadership”?
This article tackles these questions by 1) defining toxic leadership and counterproductive leadership in the Army legal context, and comparing and contrasting the Army’s old and new definitions; 2) offering ten takeaways for Army lawyers who advise or review leadership-related investigations to help orient investigating officers to the problem; and 3) providing additional steps that Army leaders can take to eliminate toxic and counterproductive leadership.
The former version of ADP 6-22, which minimized the extent of negative leadership by asserting that it only surfaces “occasionally,” defined “toxic leadership” in the following way:
Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, 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- 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. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.5
Army lawyers generally viewed this definition as creating a two-part test. To be deemed a toxic leader in the Army, two things must occur: 1) a leader must exhibit toxic attitudes, motivations, and behaviors, and 2) those toxic attitudes, motivations, and behaviors must result in adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.6 From a legal standpoint, an Army leader would only be considered toxic if they both displayed toxic characteristics or traits and those characteristics or traits led to negative effects on personnel, unit morale, or the mission. A leader would, theoretically, not be deemed toxic if their toxic traits did not negatively affect others, or if unit members suffered negative consequences from decisions made in good faith.
The rest of the definition listed an amalgam of toxic traits and consequences—such as lack of concern for others and the climate of the organization; inflated sense of self-worth; and using dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others. Despite all of this, the 2012 publication still lacked definitional clarity. As Colonel George E. Reed aptly put it, “toxic leadership, like leadership in general, is more easily described than defined.”7 Yet, paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart’s oft-quoted concurrence, Soldiers knew it when they saw it.8 Surveys found that a majority of Soldiers considered leaving because of treatment by a supervisor;9 more than eighty percent of Soldiers witnessed toxic leadership; and twenty percent of Soldiers had toxic leaders.10
After 2012, the military community partnered with the academic community and found that toxic leadership had a devastating array of negative consequences for Soldiers. Researchers found that toxic leadership triggered alcohol abuse and undermined unit civility and individual commitment.11 Another study found that the kinds of behaviors, then known as toxic leadership, doubled female Service members risk of sexual assault in the military at non-deployed locations.12 Other researchers found that “suicidal behavior can be triggered by . . . toxic command climate.”13 Researchers also found that perception of toxic leadership engendered organizational cynicism.14 The problem of toxic leadership proved pervasive and profound, yet remained difficult to define.
The 2019 version of ADP 6-22, which uses the term “counterproductive leadership” instead of “toxic leadership,” defines the term as:
Counterproductive leadership is 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 generally leaves organizations in a worse condition than when the leader arrived and has a long-term effect on morale and readiness. The term toxic has been used when describing leaders who have engaged in what the Army now refers to as counterproductive leadership behaviors. Counterproductive leadership is incompatible with Army leadership doctrine and Army Values. It often violates regulations and can impede mission accomplishment.15
From a doctrinal standpoint, ADP 6-22 nests the new definition of counterproductive leadership with the Army’s core leader competencies and Army Values. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 establishes and describes the Army’s approach to leadership. It establishes a standard set of core leadership competencies and attributes, and describes the values and competencies required of Army leaders. These principles are grounded in historical experience.16 Core leader competencies include: leading others, extending influence, leading by example, building trust, creating a positive environment, preparing self, developing others, stewarding the profession, and getting results.17 The Army Values are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.18
The new definition of counterproductive leadership, like the old definition of toxic leadership, appears to create a two-part test. To be deemed a counterproductive leader, an Army leader seemingly must: 1) exhibit behaviors that violate at least one of the Army’s core leader competencies or Army Values, and 2) those behaviors must prevent a climate conducive to mission accomplishment.19 From a legal standpoint, an Army leader would presumably only be deemed counterproductive if they display counterproductive behaviors and those behaviors stand in the way of a mission-friendly climate. Is counterproductive the new toxic? It seems so.
Understanding what it means to prevent a climate conducive to mission accomplishment requires first posing the following question: what is a climate conducive to mission accomplishment? Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, paragraph 6-20, requires Army leaders to “create the conditions for a positive environment, build trust and cohesion on their team, encourage initiative, demonstrate care for their people, and enhance esprit de corps.”20 Failure by Army leaders to foster these conditions are indicators that leaders are not prompting a positive environment, and thus not fostering a climate conducive to mission accomplishment. Table 6-2 offers investigating officers a set of conditions suitable for assessing failure to create a climate conducive to mission accomplishment.21 For example, an investigating officer could gauge the absence of teamwork, cohesion, cooperation, loyalty, and esprit de corps (items from the first column) by deriving questions from the second column—for example: Does the Army leader encourage people to work together effectively?22 Do they promote teamwork and team achievement?23 Do they draw attention to the consequences of poor coordination?24 Do they integrate new members into the unit quickly?25 Failure to affirmatively answer questions derived from Table 6-2 are all indicative of a leader who has failed to establish a positive environment, and is thus preventing a climate conducive to mission accomplishment.
Other sections of ADP 6-22 shed light on how to gauge when Army leaders are not creating a positive environment or are preventing a climate conducive to mission accomplishment. Paragraph 9-18 states generally that an “organization’s climate springs from its leader’s attitudes, actions, and priorities communicated through choices, policies, and programs,” and requires that leaders assess organizational climate “from the bottom up” through command climate surveys.26 Paragraph 9-19 specifically identifies “successful” climates as having “a clear, widely known purpose; well trained, confident Soldiers and DA Civilians; disciplined, cohesive teams; and trusted, competent leaders,” who “value honest feedback” and adhere to the Army Values. The paragraph ends with a nod to the law, emphasizing that “legal advisors assist the organizational leader with maintaining a positive environment.”27
Yet, the new definition of counterproductive leadership raises more definitional questions than it answers. For example, the comma suggests that the second part of the test is whether the behavior “prevent[s] a climate conducive to mission accomplishment.”28 Such a two-part test is consistent with the previous test for toxic leadership.29 However, it is inconsistent with the last sentence, which states that counterproductive leadership “can impede mission accomplishment.”30 Does the word “can” mean the test may be met if behaviors do not impede mission accomplishment? If this is the case, then is the new test a one-part test, with an optional second part? If not, how will we know it when see it? These semantic questions are unanswered by the other five paragraphs.
The rest of the new definition of counterproductive leadership consists of a paragraph describing some potential negative effects of counterproductive leadership and a non-exclusive list of counterproductive behaviors,31 along with descriptive sub-lists of examples of each.32 The new list of behaviors is much longer than the old list of traits, attempting to refine the definition through greater context. Finally, reasonable minds will disagree on whether the second part’s application should turn on organizational climate or mission accomplishment.
What the Change Means for Legal Advisors
Army lawyers advising or reviewing command investigations involving allegations of counterproductive leadership should offer the following considerations to orient investigating officers:
- The Army’s broader command policy framework remains the same. Although ADP 6-22 terms have changed from toxic leadership to counterproductive leadership, Army Regulation (AR) 600-20, Army Command Policy, has not changed and includes the same requirements for Army leaders to “build a positive command climate.”33
- Counterproductive leadership is more expansive than toxic leadership. Although the change is likely more semantic than substantive, the new list of negative behaviors is expansive and non-exclusive, making negative behavior examples easier to identify but tougher to isolate.34
- Violation of a single core leader competency or Army Value is sufficient. According to the new ADP 6-22, counterproductive leadership behaviors violate “one or more” of the Army’s core leader competencies or Army Values.35
- A single instance of negative behavior is likely insufficient. According to the new ADP 6-22, “infrequent or one-time negative behaviors do not define counterproductive leadership.”36
- Counterproductive leadership combines climate with harm. If the two-part test still applies, then the change is more semantic than substantive. Experts will disagree, however, as to whether the focus of enforcement should be on “climate” or on “mission accomplishment.”37
- Formerly ancillary issues are now also counterproductive behaviors. According to the new ADP 6-22, violations of Army laws and regulations, Equal Employment Opportunity/Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention violations, and other negative actions formerly handled elsewhere now can be investigated as counterproductive behaviors.38
- Preventing counterproductive leadership is partially aspirational. The new definition ends by promoting leadership reliance on “positive behaviors to influence others and achieve results,” as well as commitment to stop “these negative behaviors,” signaling a general shift in aspirations.39
- Preventing counterproductive leadership is everyone’s responsibility. Although studies show “superiors are in the best position to deal with toxicity because they have the positional authority to counter it,”40 ADP 6-22 places responsibility on commanders and leaders, as well as witnesses.41
- The Army’s legal advisor requirements remain the same. Although the description of what is being investigated has changed, AR 15-6 has not. Legal advisors must continue to guide the investigating officer in planning, identifying witnesses, protecting rights, meeting legal requirements, ensuring evidentiary support, and requiring recommendations to follow findings.42
- The Army’s legal review requirements remain the same. Although the description of what is being investigated has changed, again, AR 15-6 has not. Legal reviewers must still continue to require that investigations comply with legal requirements, remediate errors, establish findings by a preponderance of the evidence, and ensure recommendations are consistent with findings.43
Overall, the change in terminology from toxic leadership to counterproductive leadership in 2019 is likely more semantic than substantive. Specifically nesting the new definition in the Army’s core leader competencies and Army Values, enumerating many counterproductive behaviors, and describing how to know when a leader is not creating the right climate does not change the underlying test. Definitional clarity remains elusive. Soldiers will continue to know counterproductive leadership when they see it. Upon reviewing the more inclusive—yet non-exhaustive—list of behaviors reflected in the ADP, Soldiers may recognize more of these behaviors in their ranks; this could potentially lead to increased reporting of counterproductive leadership allegations. Yet, because the second part of the two-part test leaves unclear whether leaders should be judged on the climate they create or harm they cause, investigating counterproductive leadership will not be easy. It is also unclear whether part one of the two-part test is more about recurring or serious behavior. In short, questions applicable to definitional scope and enforcement remain.
That said, the aspirational desire to prevent counterproductive leadership is an important addition—given the pervasiveness of counterproductive leadership44 and the serious harm it has done to Soldiers who have suffered under counterproductive leadership.45 Hopefully, the Army’s renewed focus on such behaviors will result in cultural changes. However, there must be recognition that those at the highest echelons are most able to effect change—even though those at the top are least likely to know destructive behaviors when they see them.46 In short, renaming what used to be called “toxic” to “counterproductive” will only benefit Soldiers if the change in name actually leads to less counterproductive leadership. TAL
1. Colonel George E. Reed, Toxic Leadership, Mil. Rev., July-Aug. 2004, at 67, 67.
2. Daniel Zwerdling, Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders, npr (Jan. 6, 2014, 12:16 PM), http://www.npr.org/2014/01/06/259422776/army-takes-on-its-own-toxic-leaders.
3. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership para. 11 (1 Aug. 2012) (C1, 10 Sept. 2012) [hereinafter 2012 ADP 6-22].
4. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession para. 8-46 (31 July 2019) (C1, 25 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter 2019 ADP 6-22].
5. 2012 ADP 6-22, supra note 3, para. 11.
7. Reed, supra note 1, at 71.
8. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring).
9. Colonel (Retired) George E. Reed & Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Richard A. Olsen, Toxic Leadership: Part Deux, Mil. Rev., Nov.-Dec. 2010, at 58, 61.
10. Lieutenant Colonel Joe Doty & Master Sergeant Jeff Fenlason, Narcissism and Toxic Leaders, Mil. Rev., Jan.-Feb. 2013, at 55, 55.
11. Jessica A. Gallus et al., Intolerable Cruelty: A Multilevel Examination of the Impact of Toxic Leadership on U.S. Military Units and Service Members, 25 Mil. Psych. 588, 588 (2013).
12. Anne G. Sadler et al., The Relationship Between US Military Officer Leadership Behaviors and Risk of Sexual Assault of Reserve, National Guard, and Active Component Servicewomen in Nondeployed Locations, 107 Am. J. Pub. Health 147, 147 (2017).
13. Zwerdling, supra note 2; Gary L. Winn & Ava C. Dykes, Identifying Toxic Leadership and Building Worker Resilience, 64 Pro. Safety J. 38, 39 (2019).
14. James M. Dobbs & James J. Do, The Impact of Perceived Toxic Leadership on Cynicism in Officer Candidates, 45 Armed Forces & Soc’y 3, 3 (2019).
15. 2019 ADP 6-22, supra note 4, para. 8-46.
16. Id. para. 1-82.
17. Id. para. 1-88.
18. Id. para. 1-71.
19. Id. para. 8-46.
20. Id. para. 6-20.
21. Id. tbl.6-2.
26. Id. para. 9-18.
27. Id. para. 9-19 (emphasis added).
28. Id. para. 8-46.
29. 2012 ADP 6-22, supra note 3, para. 11.
30. 2019 ADP 6-22, supra note 4, para. 8-46.
31. Id. para. 8-47 (an example of counterproductive leadership in this example would be an interference with “mission accomplishment, especially in highly complex operational settings.” A non-exhaustive list of counterproductive behaviors include: abusive behaviors, self-serving behaviors, erratic behaviors, leadership incompetence, and corrupt behaviors.).
32. Id. para. 8-49.
33. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 600-20, Army Command Policy para. 1-6(b) (24 July 2020).
34. 2019 ADP 6-22, supra note 4, para. 8-49.
35. Id. para. 8-46.
36. Id. para. 8-48.
37. Id. para. 8-46.
38. Id. para. 8-49.
39. Id. para. 8-50.
40. Mike Rybacki & Chaveso Cook, Switching the Paradigm from Reactive to Proactive: Stopping Toxic Leadership, Joint Forces Q., Issue 82, 3d Quarter 2016, at 33, 38; accord Reed & Olson, supra note 9, at 63.
41. 2019 ADP 6-22, supra note 4, para. 8-50.
42. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 15-6, Procedures for Administrative Investigations and Boards of Officers para. 2-6 (1 Apr. 2016).
43. Id. para. 2-7.
44. See, e.g., Reed & Olsen, supra note 9; Doty & Fenlason, supra note 10, at 55.
45. See, e.g., Gallus et al., supra note 11, at 588; Zwerdling, supra note 2; Sadler et al., supra note 12, at 147; Winn & Dykes, supra note 13, at 39; Dobbs & Do, supra note 14, at 3.
46. Rybacki & Cook, supra note 40, at 38; Reed & Olsen, supra note 9, at 59.