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Toxic leadership in defense and federal workplaces: sabotaging the mission and innovation

Kenneth R. Williams (Department of Ethics, National Defense University, Washington, District of Colombia, USA)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 29 June 2018

Issue publication date: 2 July 2018




Military officers and government officials have a duty to serve selflessly, without personal bias or favoritism, demonstrating effectiveness and the efficient use of resources for the safety, security and thriving of the people. However, some abuse subordinates for personal or professional gain. The purpose of this paper is to discuss toxic leadership, its cost, effects and impact and provides recommendations for prevention and intervention.


Based on survey research of a convenience sample of military and federal government students at the National Defense University, the paper does not allow for generalizability, but presents patterns and trends in descriptive statistics.


The sample of 186 reported an average of 2.9 toxic leaders in an average of 18.3 years of service. Student observations of the most toxic leader they served identified high prevalence of all toxic behaviors with the most prevalent being a lack of self-awareness, a negative interpersonal style, suspicion of others, passive hostility, defensiveness, refusal to allow dissent and shaming and blaming. The frequency and degree of impact on targets, witnesses, and teams of toxic leadership were significant, especially in avoidance, worry, and decreased contribution, motivation and productivity.

Practical implications

These results indicate that toxic leadership degrades military performance and readiness and government efficiency. Organizations can effectively address toxic leadership through purposeful, cultural reinforcement and leader development, increasing efficiency and reducing waste.


Although civilian and public research exists, this is the first and only such research in the military and federal government and lays a foundation for further study of these organizations.



Disclaimer: the views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the US Government. The author expresses appreciation to Dr B.J. Miller, Ryan Jungdahl and Tom Dimieri for their statistical support for this survey and report.


Williams, K.R. (2018), "Toxic leadership in defense and federal workplaces: sabotaging the mission and innovation", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 179-198.



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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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