Toxic Leadership Ethical Issues



Behavior exhibited by leaders typically shapes organizational climate. The latter, delineated as communal perceptions concerning behaviors, practices, and procedures that get administrative recognition is, in turn, instrumental in determining the performance of employees and other affiliates. This implies that positive leaders create and foster an equally positive organizational climate for the benefit of all parties involved. Conversely toxic leaders, characterized as high-ranking individuals that depict dysfunctional and destructive attributes, create a similarly negative organizational climate. Toxic leadership harms people and ultimately the organization in question by negating autonomy, innovative expression, and general morale. This research paper explores how toxic army leaders lapse into dubious ethical conduct, thus painting the profession of arms and the army in a negative light. By examining one of the most predominant ethical issues plaguing the military, that is, sexual misconduct, the assessment makes it possible to discern critical moral lessons for senior army leaders and overseers of the Arms profession, among other things. 

Sexual Misconduct in the Military

One of the most predominant ethical challenges facing the military is sexual misconduct. According to statistics cited by Sadler et al. (2017), allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of sex-related transgression against high-ranking army leaders increased in 2016 to 2017. More of these cases were also authenticated than in 2015. The data-holding memo released by the Army Inspector General further showed that retaliation was the most recurrent charge filed against senior military officers in active duty, whether in Military Reserves, the National Guard or Senior Executive Service. There were nearly fifty of these reported and substantiated cases. Although the total number of the cases might seem small, they represent the more grave misconduct issues faced by the army. The cases also stress the fact that offenses are taking place in higher levels of leadership and are not solely rooted in the newer enlistees. It is important to note that, sexual misconduct in the army is not simply restricted to the severe felonies like rape and sexual assault, but also encompasses improper workplace affairs and harassments. The Pentagon has also identified professional reprisals as thorny elements lacking easy solutions. Although the army and other factions of the military have made concerted efforts to bolster education and training on this issue across board, while developing new programs seeking to stem sexual misconduct, the problem still persists. 

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Root Cause of Sexual Misconduct in the Military

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), approximately 51% of all male victims who report incidents of sexual misconduct state that the instigator occupies a higher rank than they do. Only an estimated 26% of this cluster of victims report that their abuser is on the same level. The DOD also shows that about 62% of affected females cite their abusers as senior-ranking officers, with 23% being on the same command chain. A key takeaway from these statistics is that there is a problem with leaders. Although not definitive, the root cause, for this problem could be that the military system is troubled by rampant abuse of authority, intrinsic personal prejudice, and most probably significantly low regard for victims. As denoted by Allen (2015), the masculine superlative is ingrained in the military fabric, whereby individuals are essentially conditioned to believe that it is not sufficient to simply be a man, but one must prove to be more manly than soldiers in others squads or platoons. This ideal ties into the aspect of male dominance in the profession and the widespread gender stereotype that women do not fit into the masculine warrior ethos. As a result, the military culture is occasionally antagonistic to feminine identity, with such hostility displayed through disrespectful treatment of those that do not embrace the archetypal masculine image. 

In a culture that tolerates such crude norms without stringent repercussions for perpetrators, especially supervisors and other high-ranking individuals, the sexual harassment and other misbehavior is likely to continue. Additionally, victims of sexual abuse are less likely to lodge formal complaints if they fear that their leaders will retaliate or that no action will be taken against them. These concerns have been legitimized by research demonstrating that victims who report often experience such consequences. Concurrently, instigators or prospective instigators do not get deterred from their offensive actions when military governance framework continues to run a system that rarely detects these acts and if it does, fails to hold them responsible. Understanding these fundamental factors that perpetuate power dominance and sexual violence is critical to informing the military and DOD preventive strategies. Further research is also necessary to broaden the currently limited scope of understanding of roles played by military leaders in either elevating or reducing risk of service members’ susceptibility to work-related sexual maltreatment. 

Impact of Sexual Misconduct on the Arms Profession

Sexual misbehavior cases have considerable negative effect not just on military’s image, but potentially on performance as well. For instance, as highlighted by Reed (2015), sexual misconduct corrodes discipline and proper order in military institutions, yet these aspects are vital to smooth functioning of constituent systems. In addition, this vice constitutes a devastating breach of trust, particularly when leaders infringe on subordinates’ rights and wellbeing. Sexual misconduct accentuates the toxicity of leadership thus negatively affecting the organizational climate. 

Given that leaders inspire their followers by depicting control and composure, toxic leaders that show the incapacity to put their sexual impulses in check lose the respect of their adherents. Moreover, such improper tendencies show an inescapable lack of regard for subordinates’ welfare. This not only fragments interpersonal relations, but also proves that the leaders are willing and capable of using others for their selfish interests. In the event that some sexual misconduct accusations are disputable, military units may be split into factions that support either the accused or the victim. In such situations, the social cohesion and purpose-based association amongst unit members is severely degraded, yet it is such unity that facilitates military success.

The effect of sexual harassment or assault can also leave deeply rooted psychological impact on victims thus limiting their overall productivity. Taken collectively, this negative impact of sexual misconduct on victims’ physical and mental health deprives the military of potent service members, while discouraging others from volunteering for service in various armed forces. 

Use of Ethical Lenses  

Military leadership uses multiple viewpoints to examine an ethical problem. These three perspectives meant to select the most ethical option include rules, outcomes, and virtue. During the phase “Evaluate Your Options,” service members examine and think about multiple courses of action that would help resolve the issue and apply moral reasoning using the said lenses. For instance, in examining the sexual misconduct problem through the rule lens, individuals should take into account the Army principles or rights entrenched in the Constitution. There are army rules against service members fraternizing. In addition, there are explicit provisions on proper treatment of each other irrespective of rank. Therefore, all soldiers and other military professionals must strive to uphold all aspects of the codes of ethics that govern their respective areas of specialization. Regarding the outcomes lens, it is imperative for the military to apply its disciplinary actions without discrimination, after comprehensive investigations prove that the sexual misconduct allegations leveled against the suspected perpetrator are genuine and beyond legal reproach. This would ensure that the instigator gets befitting punitive measures, while justice is served for the victim. Such strict adherence to proper Course of Action (CoA) would ensure that sexual offenses perpetrators and potential ones do not engage in such misbehavior. Most importantly, such a CoA would benefit the greatest proportion of affected individuals, especially if an influential leader is disciplined without fear or favor. The final lens of virtue advocates for ethical solutions characterized values like justice, courage, and empathy in the fight against sexual transgressions. 

Solution to Toxic Leadership that fosters Sexual Misconduct

For the solution to be applicable, the first step should be recognition of sexual misconduct as principally a leadership and cultural problem. This should pave way for the DOD to take into account the fundamental role played by leaders in prevention of sexual assault, while using them as the focal point for development and implementation of response measures. Leaders on all military rankings should be held individually accountable for unit and organizational climate in which sexual misbehavior is allowed to thrive. Further, the manner in which they respond to reports of assault or harassment ought to be intently monitored by an autonomous, external military oversight body or agency, in order to make sure that leaders do not ignore or minimize such complaints. Also part of the solution would be removal of military commanders that challenge a sexual misconduct claim prior to completion of the proposed independent investigation. Leaders should put concerted efforts into ensuring that there are no explicit or implicit reprisals from the accused against the victims following official reporting of incidents. The DOD should provide leaders with the necessary support and resources to transform the unit and organization culture climate on behaviors and attitudes associated with sexual aggravation. At the same time, these senior leaders must be punished if they are deemed responsible for perpetuating a climate conducive for continued cases of sexual misconduct. Finally, the DOD should use findings from behavioral and social empirical research to formulate evidence-based educational and training programs targeting individual moral and character development. 


In summation, toxic leaders that fail to meet their obligations to respond properly to reported cases of sexual misconduct or prevent incidence of the same are complicit in the continuity of the deleterious vice. It is, therefore, the responsibility of leaders to embrace ethical practice in order to counter such moral degradation in the Arms profession. It is only these curators of the profession that develop and execute the changes necessary to deal with the military’s ethical challenges like sexual misconduct. This is because they are best poised to understand the military culture thus being well equipped to establish balance between competence and welfare expectations of all the individuals that serve the country voluntarily. Effective monitoring systems and programs targeting development of ethical organizational climates from the highest to the lowest ranks, will not only diminish toxic leadership and its effects, but also make the army and other military areas the trusted professions that they should be.


Appendix 1

The “Ethical Triangle

Figure 1 The “Ethical Triangle”

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  1. Reed, G. E. (2015). Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military. Lincoln: Potomac Books.
  2. Allen, C. (2015). Ethics and Army Leadership Climate Matters. Parameters, 45(1), 69-83.
  3. Sadler, et al. (2017). The Relationship Between US Military Officer Leadership Behaviors and Risk of Sexual Assault of Reserve, National Guard, and Active Component Servicewomen in Nondeployed Locations. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 147-157. 
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