Toxic Leadership

My article last month, Ego Management, was about a major obstacle to effective leadership: personality. The principles for effective leadership are simple, but must be focused on all the time.

1.    People
2.    Mission
3.    Communal spirit

Simply put: Organizations exist only to accomplish a mission. Missions can’t be accomplished without people. People thrive in a positive and energized communal spirit. If anything overrides those three principles, then you have a problem. All three must work hand-in-hand. One can’t exist without the others; eliminate one and you’ll fail. The problem: Ego often overrides all three. For many managers, their ego takes precedent over the organizational purpose and certainly the people hired to accomplish the mission.

Personal idiosyncrasies, obsessive compulsive disorders, micromanaging, lack of trust and personal pursuits, too often supersede the organizational mission, the people and the communal spirit. This obviously leads to a toxic climate and mission failure.

Toxic Leadership Example
A sergeant, fifteen years on the department but fairly new to the world of striped sleeves and formal authority, sits and waits in his squad car. He’s strategically parked on a side street approximately a block away from an industrial park. The engine is off and he’s positioned in the dark shadows to avoid the moonlight. Next to him on the passenger seat is a pair of binoculars and a black-hooded sweatshirt. It’s 2:00 am. He stares intently at the screen of his mobile data device hoping to get the information he needs. He’s intent on catching his prey tonight.

The sergeant has eight patrol officers working his shift at this very moment. Not coincidentally, he has the same number of individual boxes on his monitor—the GPS tracking the status of those in his charge. He’s been staring at these boxes for at least 90 minutes—waiting and watching. You see, one of these officers is the prey he’s been silently stalking for the better part of his shift. 

The sergeant's actions above is a prime example of managerial behavior that’s toxic. We’ll refer to this first-line supervisor as Sgt. Slug. His purpose and motivation is as follows: He believes that his officers, too often, spend time parked rather than patrolling (the fact that this may actually happen isn’t the point here). GPS devices provide Slug with the tools he needs to catch police officers doing whatever he believes they’re doing.

On this particular night he’s after “George.” Why George? Well, it isn’t because George has a lack of productivity, is late getting to calls or causes any particular problems. It’s because this is George’s week to be under the microscope. Slug believes the officers’ numbers could be higher. He also thinks George spends too much time on his side business of fixing cars because he seems tired when he comes to work and often talks about how busy he is with auto repair and watching his two kids during the day. With this in mind, the sergeant believes George goes out after roll call, writes a couple of obligatory tickets and then sits in his squad car and sleeps for short periods of time during his shift. However, there’s no evidence or complaints that this is happening. 

So rather than talking to George, Sgt. Slug stalks, parks, watches and waits. And when he believes his computer screen has determined a stationary position of George that’s lasted too long, the clueless supervisor will pounce.

George has been parked for 20 minutes with another officer driving a separate squad car—a “look-out” Slug believes. The sergeant’s M.O. is to exit his squad car, put on the black hoodie, grab his binoculars, skulk through the bushes and, with the spyglasses set to infrared, he’ll try to gather the evidence he so desperately seeks: An officer with his eyes closed—and maybe even a second officer aiding and abetting.

Key Lessons Learned
Although this is only one story about a particular supervisor, I’ve been told similar stories by other officers around the country many times. The stories I will include in future articles will be true stories. Some I’m personally familiar with and others have been told to me and verified by several eye witnesses. I won’t reveal where these illustrations of idiocy have taken place, but I’ll state with certainty that these types of behavior aren’t limited to one department. Unfortunately, variations of this are happening with alarming frequency in thousands of organizations around the country on a daily basis.

For the above example, my questions are simple. Why is Sgt. Slug doing this? Why resort to this type of behavior? Why supervise in this manner? What’s his goal? What will this type of behavior do to the communal spirit on his shift? What will happen to the true purpose of his responsibility (the accomplishment of a mission)? What do his officers think of Sgt. Slug as a leader?
My questions could go on forever. There are so many issues and obvious problems with this type of behavior. But, it’s happening and will continue to happen in organizations nationwide.

Why? The answer goes back to personality. Sgt. Slug would argue that his actions are actually for the good of the organizational mission. Meaning, motionless cops can’t be tolerated because they aren’t doing anything if they’re in a state of non-movement. Tickets need to be written, door knobs checked, nefarious sorts caught, etc.

But let’s say he catches George. Now what? He chews him out, gives him a letter of reprimand, maybe even a couple of suspension days? Yippee! Slug has proved he’s a working supervisor. He’ll keep his officers on their respective toes. No more screwing around. They’ll focus on the mission from now on—and he’s right. They’ll focus on the mission, but it won’t be the organization’s mission anymore. It’ll be a new one: Screw with Sgt. Slug, whenever possible.

On the upside, the new mission will create a stronger and more cohesive team. The downside? The organizational mission will be gone.

The real reason Sgt. Slug does what he does, did what he did and will unfortunately continue to do what he does is due to his own personality. The sergeant truly doesn’t understand that he’s foolish for behaving in such a manner. Sneaking up on his officers has nothing to do with the organizational mission. It discounts employees as individual people with real issues. And the communal spirit is decimated, destroying the team and refocusing their efforts. Because Slug sees the world through his own skewed and warped paradigm he can’t comprehend how dumb and damaging his actions are.

The next questions: Where is his supervisor? What type of command structure allows this type of managerial behavior? What else is happening in this department?

The bottom line: If you really have a problem with sleeping cops then deal with it! Develop a relationship based on trust with George and talk to him. Let him know you care about him as an individual and an integral part of a positive and productive team that’s always laser-focused on accomplishing the real mission. Don’t make the mission blind adherence to idiosyncrasies that only makes sense to one person.

I know that some of you are thinking this advice is common sense. But way too many supervisors either lose or lack any semblance of common sense when it comes to leading. Don’t let your ego get in the way of becoming an effective leader.

More examples next month! If you want to share your own stories, write me at We will share between us and then the readers of Law Officer.

About The Author


Law Officer is the only major law enforcement publication and website owned and operated by law enforcement. This unique facet makes Law Officer much more than just a publishing company but is a true advocate for the profession.

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