Building a Culture of ExcellenceLeadership Icon


Please note:  This area is under construction and products are being added often.  Please check back regularly for new material.


Male and Female Figures with Thought Bubbles   




Let's talk about: 

Toxic Leadership


What is Toxic Leadership?


Toxic leadership is defined as a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance (Department of the Army, 2017). Toxic leadership can also be referred to by other names such as counter-productive leadership. It is important to note that to be defined as toxic leadership, behaviors must be recurring and have a negative impact on the welfare of subordinates or on the organization as a whole (Department of the Army, 2017).

Why is Prevention Important?


Toxic leadership can be intentional or unintentional. Toxic leaders are skilled at walking the line between being unpleasant and blatantly violating policy. Toxic leaders can negatively impact subordinates’ sleep, appetite, and self-confidence leading to anxiety. Toxic leaders can also cause higher turnover, lack of trust, workplace deviance, and poor public view of the organization.





  • Erratic or unpredictable behavior
  • Poor self-controlStop/No Symbol with Raised Palm
  • Lack of necessary competences on leadership
  • They avoid learning from mistakes
  • Intentionally withholding important or relevant information
  • Using rank to justify questionable decisions
  • Harmfully criticizing subordinate’s work 
  • Limiting interaction and autonomy of subordinates
  • Participating in self-promoting behaviors
  • Taking undue credit for positive outcomes while blaming others for negative outcomes
  • Praising their supervisor’s ideas and initiatives regardless of the actual value to the organization



Prevention Strategies

►  Toxic Leadership Strategies

Other Strategies

Retired ninth Sgt. Maj. of the Army Richard A. Kidd in the Army Leadership Field Manual, "Soldiers learn to be good leaders from good leaders"

  • Advanced education and training for future leadersToxic Leadership Flowchart
  • Screening and monitoring leaders for potential issues
  • Creating a culture that promotes and rewards positive leaders
  • Targeted training and frequent assessment of behavior
  • Providing training over leadership
  • Training leaders to understand the impact of their actions on subordinates
  • Training and education tailored to the specific level of the leader
  • Assessment of toxic pitfalls
  • Continuous self-development


Military man on phone


Training Videos:

 Toxic Leadership Overview

Video Icon Video:  Recognizing and addressing behavioral issues on Toxic Leadership (coming soon!)

Facilitation Guide for Toxic Leadership Behaviors Video:
Use this guide along with the video above

►  Facilitation Guide (coming soon!)

Additional Resources:

►  Toxic Leadership Overview (ppt)
Toxic Leadership Fact Sheet
►  Toxic Leadership Focus Group Questions 
►  Toxic Leadership Quiz



Service Specific Policies

DoD Seal Army Seal Marine Corp Icon Navy Seal Space Force Seal


Civilian Personnel 
►​  DoD Instruction 1438.06


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Toxic behaviors can affect subordinate health and wellbeing. Subordinates under a toxic leader can lose motivation for work, or suffer from sleep and appetite problems. These problems can then lead to frustration, anxiety, and loss of self-confidence. Lack of motivation and diminished health leads to lower productivity and job performance, which in turn could lead to frustration, anxiety, and loss of self-confidence. All of these impacts are cyclical and subordinates may suffer from any or all of them while dealing with a toxic leader. Any of these impacts could cause a subordinate to choose to leave the organization, impacting their personal life and their future professional life.

Toxic leadership impacts unit readiness in multiple ways. On the direct level, members whose health suffers because of the impact of a toxic leader a less prepared and less productive. This could be due to a lack of sleep, lowered motivation, constantly questioning self because confidence is broken, or even being physically ill because of sleep, eating, or anxiety problems. Unit members who become frustrated may unintentionally lash out, which could cause punitive actions, affecting the trust within a group or even the loss of a skill member who had to be removed from the group. The organization as a whole could be impacted if a subordinate chooses to leave the organization as a result of toxic leadership. The organization could lose a skilled and valuable trained asset costing valuable time and money to replace.

Toxic leadership also impacts future Service members, even those who are not directly in the toxic leader's influence. Subordinates that witness toxic leadership that goes unpunished are likely to internalize those behaviors as appropriate. The subordinate is then at risk of becoming a toxic leader, impacting their subordinates in the future. One person's toxic behaviors can affect hundreds or thousands of people throughout the Service.

  • Erratic or unpredictable behaviors
  • Poor self-control
  • Lack necessary competences
  • Avoid learning from mistakes
  • Abuse of power
  • Nepotism/favoritism
  • Overly protective of those who follow them blindly
  • Expectation of unquestioned loyalty
  • Bullying
  • Micromanaging
  • Gossiping
  • Deception/withholding information/exaggerating problems
  • Using fear as a motivating tool
  • Incapable of receiving constructive criticism
  • Driven by finger-pointing
  • Lying or inconsistent expectations
  • Discriminatory actions
  • Self-promoting behaviors at the expense of others

Mentoring and training are the best ways to prevent toxic leaders. If you have noticed a subordinate with toxic behaviors, ensure that they get a quality mentor to assist them with their leadership. The mentor doesn't have to be a direct supervisor, but should be someone who displays ethical decision making and sound judgement. It should also be someone who can effectively mentor, so be sure to ask the person if they're comfortable being a mentor first.

Anti-toxic leadership training is also incredibly important. Do not single a subordinate out for training, but have it with a larger group. Training should include role playing activities with realistic scenarios, self-reflection and/or journaling, and responding hypothetically to case studies. Participants should also practice self-assessment for toxic traits. Visit the resources tab for training help.

You should continue to monitor the subordinate and frequently assess them for further toxic behaviors and decision-making skills. A great tool for this is the Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback tool (MSAF-360) which uses confidential feedback from peers, subordinates, and leaders to assess strengths and provide coaching for weaknesses.

You can report toxic leadership to your Equal Opportunity professional or someone higher in your chain of command. However, in order for action to take place, it will be helpful to have documented instances for an investigation to take place. You can also choose to have a conversation with the toxic leader and explain how you are being impacted. See “How can I react productively to Toxic Leadership?” for more tips.

Training is a great way to prevent toxic leadership from occurring. The more people who know what toxic leadership is and how to respond to it, the less likely it is to exist within the Armed Forces. Training should be done frequently, once or twice a year, to all ranks but especially to those who are new to the organization. Training should focus on the skills of advanced decision making, self-awareness, and mindfulness. Trainings should include role play activities of realistic scenarios, group discussions, self-reflection, and responding hypothetically to case studies. For more information on how to conduct trainings, see the Resources tab.

Self-reflection can help you understand your unique leadership style. You can also ask yourself these questions:

  • When I make decisions, how do I decide between tough choices?
  • Who is impacted by my decisions?
  • How do I help my subordinates succeed and grow?
  • When I take advantage of opportunities for myself, does anyone suffer because of my actions?
  • How do I react to feedback?
  • How do I deliver feedback to others?
  • Do I genuinely know the physical and mental state of my subordinates?
  • When my subordinates come to me for help, do I actually help them or do I make excuses and send them away?

Practicing mindfulness can help prevent toxic leadership. Self-reflection, guided meditation, setting intentions, practicing patience, and finding ways to connect with peers and subordinates are all ways to become more mindful. The goal of mindfulness is to increase your self-awareness and your understanding of how your actions impact those around you.

  1. Attempt to help instead of judge. Some instances of toxic behaviors are gut reactions to external stress or stimuli. Nobody is perfect.
  2. Keep control of your reactions. Don't escalate a situation, it could result in punitive action for you and more toxic behaviors in the future.
  3. Document everything. Whenever you notice a toxic behavior, even if it's not directed at you, document the date and time, where it took place, who was present or might have overheard, and a description of what happened.
  4. Approach the leader with a candid conversation. Voice what you've noticed and how it has impacted you and others around you. If you don't feel comfortable doing it by yourself, ask a trusted neutral party to sit it. This can be the hardest step. If you are wary of punitive repercussions, ask the Equal Opportunity Professional for a mediator or use someone out of your chain of command. The goal of the conversation is to clarify intentions and actions, not to point fingers. Approach it with the mindset that the leader doesn't know how their actions are affecting the unit.

DEOMI has several resources to help conduct training. Navigate to the Resources tab for videos, podcasts, articles, and other helpful information.



Fact Sheet Icon Stack of Books Icon Photos Icon Podcast Icon Video Icon

Click on any icon above to navigate to related content.



Dod Seal Army Seal Marine Corps Seal Navy Seal Air Force Seal Space Force Seal Coast Guard Seal

Click on any Service Seal to navigate to policy documents.


The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute or the Department of Defense of non-U.S. Government sites or the information, products, or services contained therein. Although the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute may or may not use these sites as additional distribution channels for Department of Defense information, it does not exercise editorial control over all of the information that you may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this website.