If a leader, at any level of an organizational hierarchy, enters a meeting and there is a collective recoil by attendees and a tangible gloominess fills the room, then that organization has a leadership issue to address. Further, if it is an atmosphere where employees endure the meeting rather than participate, counting the seconds until they can leave, remaining intentionally silent when told they can “speak freely” as there will be no “retaliation” for opinions, that organization has a crisis. The fact that employees must be told by leadership that they can speak freely and will not be punished for their thoughts is a profoundly disturbing indication of previous leadership practices on its face, especially if workplace chatter, including at the executive level, roundly criticizes leadership decisions, policies, and behaviors, prior to and in the aftermath of these meetings. Indeed, some measures of leadership failure are “staff withdrawal, personnel turnover and lowered commitment”[i] to the organization.
Why would an employee not feel free to speak? Likely, they have been exposed to abusive supervisory practices that are inconsistent with the assertion that an employee can have divergent opinions without repercussion. In a law enforcement context, the type of leadership which creates this environment is particularly alarming, as it results from, and in, unethical and immoral behaviors from agency leadership—the antithesis of behaviors society expects from law enforcement.
Many abusive leaders take the form of, or exhibit behaviors which are consistent with “corporate psychopaths,”[ii] although narcissistic leaders exhibit many of the same qualities and characteristics.[iii] The following dynamics are associated with these types of abusive leaders:
- Can appear charming and confident, gaining power and position through superficial skills. These later give way to expose incompetent, destructive, and dysfunctional leadership.[iv]
- The leader is consistently perceived as emotionally shallow and observant people are left with a feeling that the leader is posturing and insincere—a sense that the person is without substance, playing a role, and otherwise superficial.[v]
- Associated more with controlling their image than strong work performance.[vi] This can be observed as punishing anyone who may make the leader look or feel inadequate, such as questioning policies, decisions, behaviors, or merely exceptional performance.
- The leader uses a leadership position to serve their own ambitions/needs.[vii]
- “A perception by employees of arbitrary decision making, intimidation, fear and retribution, underpinned by a culture of bullying”[viii]—where bullying is both interpersonal, (such as humiliation, isolation, verbal abuse, exaggerated criticism, etc.) and the result of corrupting legitimate processes (discipline outside of policy, deliberately mischaracterizing behaviors to leverage formal sanctions, and promotions based on allegiance rather than performance).
- Surround themselves with obedient followers (usually too weak or too ambitious to challenge the leader[ix]) who help create a culture where no one speaks up or believes that bringing attention to poor behaviors/policy will be heard. Rather, the belief is that bringing attention to poor behaviors will result in retaliation. This culture can only be sustained when the obedient followers engage in unethical behaviors on the leader’s behalf—as collaborator’s to abuse rather than survivors of it.
Unfortunately, one study found that, second only to the financial sector, this type of leadership personality is drawn to work in government.[x] Law enforcement is an essential government function and can often fall prey to those who possess these damaging leadership qualities. Research has identified a positive correlation between psychopathic qualities and emergence in leadership positions and a negative one for leadership effectiveness.[xi] The implications this has for organizational well-being and employee well-being is alarming. Indeed, one need only look at turnover rates or the rate of employees’ stated desire to leave within an organization to get a metric of employee satisfaction and internal culture.
The bigger issue for law enforcement is the ethical considerations. The toxic leader can be characterized by exhibiting dubious ethical behaviors designed to preserve positional authority. Societal trust is incrementally undermined from having executive leadership that engages in deliberately unethical practices. It casts doubt on every aspect of those leaders’ integrities and demonstrates to more junior members of the department that honest, ethical, forthright, and transparent behaviors exist merely on a theoretical plane. Decision making gives way to a sliding scale; one dependent solely on who holds and wishes to maintain positional power. This should be a terrifying prospect for a law enforcement agency and the community it serves. Unfortunately, abuses that go unaddressed become more overt as those in power feel that they can engage in unethical behaviors with impunity.[xii] Does that sound familiar to some of the criticisms currently being levied against law enforcement? The poor policing behaviors which go unaddressed or unpunished might lead to more of the same? Or even more overtly abusive acts?
Compounding many jurisdictions' ability to address poorly managed departments is the fact that the governing bodies are also dysfunctional and ill equipped to address emerging issues within public safety. When staff turnover at the upper levels of local government leaves departments depleted of leadership and talent, it is a harbinger of increased dysfunction within the law enforcement component of that locality. Unfortunately, the few people who can make a difference often do not have the courage to speak up - and most citizens are not engaged or impacted enough to exert pressure for change. The problem, however, is that toxic environments have real health consequences for employees. There is a human cost that goes unnoticed yet impacts countless members of the community aside from impacted employees and their families resulting in poor problem-solving outcomes in the community.[xiii]
One gauge in determining the health of an agency, as mentioned earlier, is turnover. Other indicators are poor morale, increased use of sick leave, decreased employee engagement (both internally and externally), and decline of organizational performance and reputation.[xiv] Healthy leadership would look at the causes of these symptoms and work to correct them. Unhealthy leadership never accepts culpability or responsibility for poor outcomes and that they might be the problem. Instead, they actively look to assign blame and responsibility to others. Some indications that an organization needs a leadership change are:
- When employees are reported “to be cynical about the organization and its leadership”—which in one study was exhibited “after 3 years of the psychopathic CEO being in place.”[xv]
- When a chief executive attempts to fire or fires well-respected members of the organization “just to make a statement” or as punishment for challenging the CEO[xvi] and in order “To control or dominate they will cultivate in- and out-groups, foment distrust within or among groups (divide and conquer), or punish scapegoats to ward off others.”[xvii]
- When leadership routinely reframes prior conversations when confronted with an untruth or inconsistency, changing the story or reinterpreting fact patterns to conform with their desired outcome.[xviii]
- When a leader shows poor behavioral control and seems to have a Jekyll and Hyde personality[xix] - such that the person can be “short-tempered or hotheaded and tend to respond to frustration, failure, discipline, and criticism with sudden violence, threats or verbal abuse” one moment and then acts as if nothing untoward has happened the next.[xx]
- When there is repeated unethical and unfavorable treatment experienced by employees—as well as a belief that supervision applies discipline unfairly.[xxi]
These are examples which point to a “pattern and practice” of abusive behaviors which will predictably result in poor organizational health. If allowed to continue unabated—especially where a psychopathic leader is adept at concealing the extent of their abuses—the organization will fail despite trying to control the narratives. Isolating employees from other departments and organizational remedies for abusive behaviors through fear, intimidation, and corruptly weaponizing the disciplinary process creates an environment where remaining silent is preferable to a verbal onslaught, change of duties, or discipline—as all are perceived as threats to one’s survival via employment.[xxii] Practices that would not stand scrutiny in a normally functioning organization are no longer outrageous—as abuse becomes an expectation rather than an aberration, and people resign themselves to it from a distorted perception of normalcy, or as a coping or survival mechanism. The similarities of these damaging organizational behaviors to those of domestic abuse dynamics provide a useful frame of reference, as the two environments result in almost identical perceptual distortions of acceptable behaviors, one familial and one corporate. Just as a domestic abuser will cultivate the impression of an idyllic family life and play the victim and assign blame to other family members when that picture is questioned—the dysfunctional police leader will lash out when cracks in the veneer of their perfect career develop. Although in a policing context, the community will suffer along with the employees.
This is especially true when those with high levels of psychopathic leadership traits are skilled at insulating themselves from discovery by manipulatively cultivating high regard from their bosses and are successful at creating an aversive atmosphere in others—where people avoid dealing with the abusive person, allowing their behaviors to continue unhindered. Importantly, these practices further isolate impacted employees and contributes to the feeling that complaints of abuses will not be heard. In every organization, but most especially in law enforcement, this type of leadership should be rooted out. Unethical behaviors routinely promoted by or facilitated by law enforcement personnel should, on their face, make a person unfit for the profession. At the very least, it will drive out anyone with integrity for alternative employment options, damage those forced to stay for the paycheck, and negatively impact the community. When these behaviors come from those at the highest levels of leadership, it has even more disturbing implications for the agency and the community because:
People once appointed to executive positions are exceedingly difficult to remove. After all, the people who made the judgement to appoint the person must reverse support for the person. Additionally, given the predictable response of the corporate psychopath, their removal is highly likely to deteriorate into threats, intimidation and litigation, highly aggressive posturing, manipulation and even sabotage.[xxiii]
In a time of heightened scrutiny by the public—a public which expects ethical behaviors from those in law enforcement—corrupt or abusive activities on the part of police leadership has alarming implications for police conduct and engagement with the community. Worse, modeling unethical behaviors and rewarding allegiance over morality can have long-term, negative consequences—as leadership positions become filled by those who the leader has promoted for demonstrating a moral flexibility. Law enforcement is challenging enough without the introduction of internal stressors—stressors which often take a much higher toll on officers than external ones.
A climate survey is a tool which could help discern the type of leadership within an agency, as “perceptions of unfair and disinterested supervision increase significantly in the presence of Corporate Psychopaths.”[ Once uncovered, the corporate psychopath or otherwise toxic leader should be removed and those that actively supported and carried out that leader’s agenda evaluated for suitability in law enforcement, as “corporate psychopaths can’t be trusted, and there is little likelihood that they can be reformed,”[xxv] and morally flexible opportunists do not inspire confidence for future ethical decision making. A law enforcement organization would be negligent if it did not remove these destructive personalities as quickly as possible—as abusive supervision creates an increased likelihood of poor community engagement and poor treatment of community members.[xxvi]
About the Author
Lieutenant Brian N. O’Donnell is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a 25-year veteran of law enforcement with the Charlottesville Police Department in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has a B.A. in economics from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from Liberty University. He is a 2016 graduate of the University of Virginia’s National Criminal Justice Command College and earned the Advanced Specialist designation by the Force Science Institute in 2018. He has researched, developed, and provided training to local, state, and federal law enforcement partners, as well as to attorneys and educators. O’Donnell became an IADLEST National Certified Instructor in 2020.
Lieutenant O’Donnell has worked in patrol, as a SWAT member, as a detective with a regional narcotics task force, and as a full-time task force officer with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. He has been a supervisor as a patrol Sergeant, Patrol Shift Commander, and as the Commander of the Strategic Policing Bureau.
[i] Boddy, C. R., & Taplin, R. (2016). The influence of corporate psychopaths on job satisfaction and its determinants. International Journal of Manpower, 37(6), 965-988. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijm-12-2015-0199
[ii] Henning, J. B., Wygant, D. B., & Barnes, P. W. (2014). Mapping the darkness and finding the light: DSM-5 and assessment of the “Corporate psychopath”. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(1), 144-148. https://doi.org/10.1111/iops.12123
[v] Hare, R. (2016, June 9). This charming psychopath: How to spot social predators before they attack. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/articles/199401/charming-psychopath
[vi] Milosevic, I., Maric, S., & Lončar, D. (2019). Defeating the toxic boss: The nature of toxic leadership and the role of followers. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 27(2), 117-137. https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051819833374
[vii] Hellmich, D., & Hellmich, L. (2019). Narcissistic leadership: When serving self eclipses serving mission. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2019(185), 53-63. doi:10.1002/cc.20338
[ix] Ouimet, G. (2010). Dynamics of narcissistic leadership in organizations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25(7), 713-726. doi:10.1108/02683941011075265
[xi] Landay, K., Harms, P. D., & Credé, M. (2019). Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 183-196. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000357
[xvi] McCullough, J. (2019, December 9). The psychopathic CEO. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackmccullough/2019/12/09/the-psychopathic-ceo/?sh=66294722791e
[xvii] Hanson, L., & Baker, D. L. (2017). “Corporate Psychopaths” in Public Agencies? Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, 21-41.
[xviii] Stillman, J. (2015, December 11). 11 signs you're working with a psychopath. Inc.com. https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/11-signs-you-re-working-with-a-psychopath.html
[xix] McCullough, J. (2019, December 9). The psychopathic CEO. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackmccullough/2019/12/09/the-psychopathic-ceo/?sh=66294722791e
[xx] Hare, R. (2016, June 9). This charming psychopath: How to spot social predators before they attack. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/articles/199401/charming-psychopath
[xxii] Brown, A. O., Couser, G. P., Morrison, D. E., & Agarwal, G. (2021). The stressful, hostile, and toxic workplace: An advanced understanding of a common clinical complaint. Psychiatric Annals, 51(2), 70-75. https://doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20210107-01
[xxv] Hartley, D. (2016, September 23). 5 ways of the corporate psychopath. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/machiavellians-gulling-the-rubes/201609/5-ways-the-corporate-psychopath
[xxvi] Sun, I. Y., Wu, Y., Van Craen, M., & Hsu, K. K. (2018). Internal procedural justice, moral alignment, and external procedural justice in democratic policing. Police Quarterly, 21(3), 387-412. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098611118772270