We can end toxic leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces | Opinion

We can end toxic leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces |  Opinion

Eric Sauvé says that in the past narcissism was sometimes confused with efficiency and arrogance with leadership. Fortunately, times are changing.

Published June 11, 2024Last update 2 hours ago3 minute reading

Canadian soldiers in Latvia
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces from NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia participate in a training exercise. Soldiers should be toughened, but never abused. Photo by Cpl. Lynette Ai Dang /Do not bother

The following is written in response to Soldiers leaving Canadian Forces over ‘toxic leadership’, senior adviser warnswhich appeared on May 28:

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) does not have a monopoly on foolish leaders, sociopaths, tyrants or individuals lacking emotional intelligence. They can be found running large companies, running schools, running major hospitals, and even within the church, anywhere they can rise through the ranks. The CAF is not exempt from this problem of toxic leadership. I would even argue that the CAF, due to its strict and highly regulated nature, provides an environment conducive to toxic leadership.

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How do we define toxic leadership? In my interpretation, a leader becomes toxic when the harmful influence he has on his staff has severe impacts outside the workplace.

A senior officer wrote me this about her superior: she said that her supervisor “manipulates you, lies, humiliates you, abuses his power, verbally attacks you, denigrates you, corrupts your environment with lies about you, harms your career, envies you, has jealous of you to the point of making you lose trust in the chain of command, isolates you and little by little destroys you, generating impacts on all levels: mental, physical, emotional, etc.”

Why are toxic leaders tolerated? Because they achieve results quickly, which reinforces the belief that they are using the right approach. In the short term, the technique works; that is undeniable. However, in the long term, these leaders create immeasurable damage, leaving behind what I call a “trail of destruction”: shattered careers, staff in therapy, completely jaded and cynical individuals, and sometimes shattered lives.

Over time, toxic leaders foster an unhealthy climate within their team, a climate of every man for himself. Colleagues no longer take the time to ask about their colleagues’ mental health because there is no spirit of teamwork. Sometimes there isn’t even a team.

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Toxic leaders are often pushed up because they are effective, even very effective. But with a toxic leader, people walk on eggshells. They strive to do their best, especially at first, because they want to avoid the ground suddenly disappearing beneath their feet without warning. But these leaders don’t just demand excellence; They break their staff to the point of no return. They squeeze the fruit until the seeds and core are crushed. In the end, the entire organization loses.

Instead of seeing effectiveness in toxic leadership, the chain of command should realize that tyrants do not think about common success; They only visualize their own success.

I am aware that much more is demanded of military personnel than of civilians; It is one of the few areas of employment where the ultimate sacrifice can be asked for. I am also aware that troops must be prepared for the brutality of combat, a concept called hardening. I firmly believe in toughening up. It is an essential process to create fighters. Troops are strengthened through training and exercises; The leadership model practiced during these trainings and these exercises is necessarily hard, severe and intense. But it is possible to be very demanding without falling into abuse, denigration and harassment. The line between harsh authority and abuse is thin, but it exists and must always be recognized.

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When I underwent my infantry officer training, I was instilled with this simple phrase: “First the mission, then the troops.” Toxic leaders only apply the first half of this motto. Fortunately, mentalities have changed over time. Today it is “mission first, troops always.”

In the past, narcissism was sometimes confused with efficiency and arrogance with leadership. Fortunately, times are changing. Training is being provided on diversity, harassment, and integration concerns for members of the LGBTQ+ community, for example. Voices are also raised. There is less hesitation in raising concerns to higher levels of command and calling out abuses from toxic leaders.

The more we eliminate these leaders, at all levels, the fewer bad models we offer to junior officers and non-commissioned officers. There is hope.

Eric Sauve He is a former infantry and intelligence officer. He served from 1992 to 2014 and is a defense consultant.

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