COMMENTARY: Toxic Followership: Who, what is it?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Michael Boswell
  • 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander
While leadership is crucial to the Air Force's present and future successes, I also believe that effective followership is equally important. In recent years, the theory of toxic leadership has permeated academia as well as the military establishment, so much so that leaders are now being relieved of command based on this emerging concept.

I would argue that an equally problematic issue comes in the form of toxic followership. Though not unique to the business world, the notion of toxic leadership is one that is gaining momentum in the military. Renowned author and analyst Gillian Flynn notes that a toxic manager is one "who bullies, threatens, yells ... the manager whose mood swings determines the climate of the office on any given workday." She further suggests that these leaders possess, "poor interpersonal skills, unfortunate office practices."

In many instances, managers and leaders are interchangeable in any organization. As such the definition of toxic manager, as mentioned above, is pertinent to this discussion. While this article is not designed to focus on toxic leaders, I would argue that a toxic leader can also be a toxic follower. The common strand that exists is the establishment of a poisonous climate. A toxic leader impacts morale and works upward as well as downward. Toxic followers can be more dangerous because they affect all levels of rank structure. Not only do they spout venom amongst followers and peers, but also adversely impact the leader which they have sworn to follow through the enlistment oath or oath of office.

The best description of a toxic follower is the alienated follower. This type of subordinate is "critical and independent in their thinking, but fulfill their roles passively." Furthermore, these individuals "distance themselves from the organization and ownership of its mission. Often cynical, they tend to sink gradually into disgruntled acquiescence."

To date there is little to no practical data on toxic followership. Merriam-Webster describes the idea of toxic as, "extremely harsh, malicious or harmful." Webster further defines follower as, "someone who supports and is guided by another person or a group." The combination of these two concepts defines a toxic follower. In my experience, I propose that a toxic follower is highly functioning, a critical thinker, self-absorbed, manipulative and disruptive to the organizational greater goals. Their agenda is to push what they deem to be in the best interest of the organization at the cost of good order discipline. These individuals seek an audience and use others to undermine leadership as well as validate their toxic views. The greatest tool at their disposal is group-think and band-wagon discussions.

It is important to note that constructive criticism discussed tactfully can help curb toxic followership. Effective followers can disagree with their leadership and still be a positive contributor to the organization and its mission.

Our goal day-to-day must be to fulfill our role as effective followers. Author and researcher Dr. Robert E. Kelly defines an exemplary or effective follower as, "proactive, independent and able to think critically, effective followers are also respectful of the leader's authority. They practice self-leadership, take responsibility, are committed and seek feedback to continuously improve their performance."  It must be understood that a toxic leader is not an excuse for toxic followership.

While a toxic leader can create an environment ripe for toxic followership, it is still one's individual responsibility to be the most effective follower possible. It is the intent of the follower that truly makes them toxic. Many military members will walk the fine line between being effective to potentially toxic. The overall goal is to self-identify and exhibit traits of an effective follower.

If you display the attributes of a toxic follower, how can you reverse the tendency? There are three fundamental characteristics that I believe are synonymous with effective followers. They are loyalty, humility and drive.

Loyalty to your leadership is not bootlicking or groveling, but to the contrary a deep understanding of one's specific role and responsibility of supporting the mission. An example is how you speak about your leadership to others. Be positive when talking about your leadership. If you disagree with a decision, it is still your responsibility to motivate subordinates to meet the leader's objective. If those objectives are illegal, immoral or unethical, then one does not have to follow.

The next attribute of an effective follower is humility. Gen. Frank Gorenc, United State Air Forces in Europe commander, once said, "Everyone will have an opinion of how to lead better than you. When it's their opportunity, they can lead how they would like." My interpretation of this point is that followers will fundamentally have opinions of what is best for the organization whether it is in the groups best interest or not. I would further assert that a lack of humility is at the heart of toxic followership.

Merriam-Webster notes that humility is the "quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people." A person who believes and potentially vocalizes that they are more capable of leading compared to their leadership is not humble. It is important to understand that leadership at any level is challenging. Arguably, the higher the position, the more demanding and challenging it becomes. As such, there are times when a leader may have access to information that is privileged communication. They may not be able to discuss the proverbial "why" associated with a decision. A follower must trust their leader and accomplish the objective. That certainly does not relinquish the leader from their responsibility to receive counsel or discuss with the experts. Once they have received sage advice, a subordinate must accept that it is that leader's decision and not theirs. This acceptance and the execution of those orders is what make a follower truly effective.

My final quality of an effective followership is drive. These are individuals that are self-motivated and have a robust desire to help the mission succeed. A driven subordinate will look for opportunities to make their organization better and is proactive in nature. Their attitude is one that is "can-do" rather than "we can't." These subordinates have mastered the art of leading their boss in a positive way. They execute the leaders' vision as their own regardless of how they feel about a decision.

In closing, effective leadership, as well as followership, is the cornerstone for the Air Force's successes. If we are to continue to be the most effective and efficient fighting force the world has ever seen, we must each take an inventory of how we follow those appointed above us. Toxic followers are in every organization, and we must address their effects as is being done with toxic leaders. Toxic followership can be narrowed down to one immutable characteristic, a lack of professional humility toward one's leader or the establishment. So the question remains, what type of follower are you?

Multiple resources contributed to this article to include Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and academic articles from, Military Review and Special thanks to Mr. Christopher Shades and Chief Master Sgt. Martin Lara for assisting with the development of this new concept.