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Minnesota, toxic leadership, and Milgram

1 Robert Levine

National Public Radio did a story yesterday that’s been picked up on Facebook by a number of Minnesota Orchestra musicians. I found it interesting in part because it also related directly to William Deresiewicz’s West Point address I quoted from yesterday. Today’s story was about “toxic leadership”:

Top commanders in the U.S. Army have announced publicly that they have a problem: They have too many “toxic leaders” — the kind of bosses who make their employees miserable. Many corporations share a similar problem, but in the Army’s case, destructive leadership can potentially have life or death consequences. So, some Army researchers are wondering if toxic officers have contributed to soldiers’ mental health problems.

…In 2003, the secretary of the Army asked researchers at the Army War College in Pennsylvania to study a question:

“Given an institutional objective to establish and maintain effective command climate,” Secretary Thomas White Jr. wrote, “how can the Army effectively assess leaders to prevent those with destructive leadership styles?”

“The first thing that struck me was, what a good question,” says retired Col. George Reed, who was director of Command and Leadership Studies at the War College. “It was not a question that we had wrestled with before.”

Reed and a colleague interviewed dozens of officers who were attending the War College. He says most of them told stories about recent encounters with leaders whom they said were toxic. He says the soldiers were talking about something worse than incompetent bosses: They said toxic leaders were abusive and self-aggrandizing, arrogant and petty, and “unconcerned about, or oblivious to, staff or troop morale.”

Toxic leaders were also good at snowing their superiors — so they kept getting promoted. Reed says after Military Review published his article about the study, he was flooded with emails from other soldiers who complained about the toxic leaders they knew.

…Lt. Gen. David Perkins, who commands the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, says he knows how toxic leadership can hurt soldiers — and the Army.

“If we don’t do something about toxic leadership, I mean in the end, not to be too dramatic, but it does have life or death consequences. And quite honestly, we owe it to the American public,” Perkins says.

…”I can just tell you from experience … that if you have toxic leadership, people will get sort of what we call the ‘foxhole mentality.’ They’ll just hunker down and no one is taking what we call prudent risk.” Perkins led the first U.S. Army troops into downtown Baghdad after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. “They’re not being innovative, they’re not being creative. And some people who are toxic leaders, they might be able to get some short-term results and get an immediate mission at hand done. But in the process, they are destroying the organization and destroying their people.”

Perkins says the first step to figuring out what to do about toxic leaders was to define the problem. So in 2012, the Army revised its leadership bible, Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, to detail what toxic leadership means for the first time.

The manual now states:

  • “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.”

Where this intersected with Deresiecz’s West Point address from yesterday was here:

About the 10th time I read that passage [from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness], I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department—who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what. Like the manager—and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her—why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

What “toxic leadership” really sounds like to me is a form of psychopathy - a lack of empathy, conscience, and morality. “Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back,” in Deresiewicz’s words. And I would agree that this sounds a lot like the leadership of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, although no one would accuse them of “not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done.” MOA leadership have, in fact, acted very boldly and with vision, albeit a profoundly perverted vision. The fact that what they have done hasn’t worked, has involved a lot of unethical behavior does not negate that.

The really interesting question that the War on the Northern Front raises for our field is far broader than what happens when people with an apparent total lack of empathy, conscience, and morality end up running orchestras. The interesting question is why good people - and most orchestra boards consist largely of good people - let people who are behaving like psychopaths get away with it. And that’s the subject for the next post.

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  1. Andrew Balio Comment by Andrew Balio
    January 11, 2019 at 10:35 PM

    This is an absolutely spot-on entry. We have much to gain by looking outside our insular world of music to see our problems played out in other arenas.This example from the military, also reliant on expertise and discipline, shows how even their structure can crumble without good-faith leadership. We are not alone and there is nothing new about mismanagement. Toxic workplaces are not unusual in orchestras where tails wag dogs and carts are put before horses.The insanity of Corporate America has seeped in to our sphere we are seeing it’s worst side exhibited in Minnesota. They are like corporate raiders who treat musicians as replaceable machines.