by Maj. Michael Boswell
100th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander
5/29/2015 - RAF MILDENHALL, England -- 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
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
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
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
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
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 GovLeader.org,
Military Review and Leaderwholeads.com. Special thanks to Mr.
Christopher Shades and Chief Master Sgt. Martin Lara for assisting with
the development of this new concept.