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A Dynamic Targeting Solution to Respond to Destructive Leaders

  • Published
  • By LtCol Vincent Bos, Royal Netherlands Air Force


As most leadership literature has focused on the characteristics of ‘good’ or effective leadership, leaders are often perceived as heroic saviors of organizations in crisis.[1] A ‘good’ leader is seen as someone who is inspirational, has integrity, sets a good example, and is supportive and encouraging, which leads to thriving organizations.[2] Yet, there are also numerous examples of leaders who display polar opposite traits, steering their organizations into a state of stagnation or decline. Defining the specific traits of this “destructive leadership” can be more challenging as it is arguably a manifestation of multiple toxic leadership styles. Those who practice it generally display a lack of concern for the well-being of their subordinates, have a personality that negatively affects organizational climate, and are motivated primarily by self-interest.[3] Although the complexity of defining destructive leadership often makes responding properly more difficult, this undesirable leadership style is so negative for organizations and their stakeholders that a framework must be developed to deal with it.[4] By applying a military kill chain model used in dynamic targeting (DT), we can develop the proper response to such destructive leadership. When applied correctly, this model can help identify the root cause or problem, lead toward a viable approach to deal with it, and assess its effectiveness on the organization.  

Sharing the rigidity of deliberate targeting, the traditional leadership process is poorly suited for dealing with the complex problem of destructive leadership. In deliberate targeting, known targets are allocated to individual air component units through Air Tasking Orders (ATO).[5] Leaders often use a similar pre-planned process for many tasks within their organization. To accomplish the unit's vision, mission, and/or purpose, the leader implements a deliberate strategy for success by assigning talented people to contribute to these common goals.[6] While this process works well for many problems, it is not suitable for tackling the problem of destructive leadership. It is difficult for decision-makers within an organization to anticipate it as the intoxication process that breeds it often starts small and spreads slowly.[7]

By applying the process that the Joint Force uses to deal with unplanned or anticipated targets that emerge in the operational environment, leaders can tackle the unique challenges of removing destructive leadership. First, during a pre-planned ATO cycle, leaders must recognize that the environment can change. Therefore, they must always be prepared to reallocate forces to different targets. Once they decide to go after different targets, they initiate the F2T2EA process, which stands for “Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess.” The first three steps are usually intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) heavy, while the “Target” and “Engage” steps are typically labor-, force-, and decision-making intensive. Meanwhile, the assessment is a continuous process to determine if the ends, ways, and means of this targeting process resulted in progress toward accomplishing the common goal or the overall objective.[8] These steps can be easily applied to the problem of destructive leadership as seen in Figure 1 below.


Fig. 1.         Visual Depiction of F2T2EA Application to Destructive Leadership


To regain and sustain a healthy organizational culture in the most efficient and effective manner, it is important for organizations to continually be on the lookout for the problem and maintain the willingness to reallocate resources to combat it.  Organizational intoxication grows more severe the longer it is left unchecked, thereby increasing the difficulty of removing the resulting infection. Even though time is a critical factor, most organizations unfortunately tend to postpone action.[9]

Dealing with a problem effectively, however, first requires you to be aware of it. The Find, Fix, and Track stages of the DT cycle are, therefore, key to locating destructive leadership, which thrives in the “toxic triangle” of an abusive or toxic leader, a conducive environment, and susceptible followers.[10] DT’s Find phase involves the collection of intelligence in order to find potential targets that can be nominated for further development.[11] For destructive leadership, this would entail collecting data that could identify symptoms of a toxic triangle. Not only are organizational transparency and proper feedback systems crucial to this phase, but individuals must know what these symptoms look like.[12] While there are many different types of abusive or toxic leadership, we can use the symptom of exploitive leadership as an illustrative example.  This leadership style furthers the leader’s self-interest and targets the followers but not in an inherently hostile or aggressive manner. Followers typically observe or experience a leader who demonstrates genuine egoistical behaviors, takes credit for the work of others, exerts unwarranted pressure, undermines the development of others, and manipulates people.[13] Typical symptoms of a conducive environment include a lack of internal checks and balances on leaders, unclear ethical norms, weak oversight and governance, and scarce intervention mechanisms for those being abused.[14] Susceptible followers are grouped into two categories: conformers and colluders. Conformers are passive bystanders whose vulnerability is based on unmet basic needs, negative self-evaluation, and/or psychological immaturity. Conversely, colluders actively participate in the leader’s destruction due to their own ambitions and selfishness, and/or shared world views.[15]  These discernible traits and behaviors can be collected if the proper feedback systems are in place and those reading the data are trained to look for them.

Once symptoms of destructive leadership have been identified, it is important to move on to the Fix phase. In military operations, this phase is the process of positively identifying an emerging situation worthy of engagement with enough fidelity to permit action.[16] When applied to destructive leadership, this entails identifying which elements of the “toxic triangle” are possibly causing or enabling it. It is essential to achieve enough fidelity on causality so its presence and resulting effects can be acknowledged.[17] Without proper analysis, consecutive phases could potentially address the symptoms rather than the root cause, thereby allowing the toxicity to fester.

Once causality has been determined, it is important to monitor during the process. During the Tracking phase of dynamic targeting, the location of the confirmed target is continuously tracked and prioritized according to the overall objectives.[18] When applied to the toxic triangle, this can be interpreted as continuously keeping track of the identified causal elements to ensure that the assumed solutions remain valid. This will help avoid applying the incorrect course of action if the parameters have shifted. Once the Find, Fix, and Track phases are complete, an organization should have detected the presence of toxicity in the workplace, identified its root causes, and developed a viable solution to deal with it.

Having framed the problem, the next phase focuses on addressing it, which is akin to dynamic targeting’s Target and Engage phases.  During the Target phase, you determine the desired effect and targeting solution against the identified target and obtain engagement approval. Once approval is given, the weapon systems take action against their target in the Engage phase.[19] When applied to the toxic triangle, the Targeting phase is obtaining a thorough understanding of the dimension and impact of the problem to ascertain which effects are required to eradicate the problem.[20] Then, adequate measures can be formulated. While there are many instruments available to combat toxicity, some could be focused on the selection and development of leaders, empowering and strengthening subordinates, and improving the structure of the organization. With each identified cause having a tailored approach, they would be combined into a proposal for approval.[21] In the Engage phase, the leadership would assign responsibility and accountability for the implementation and execution of the measure throughout the organization. It is important for the responsibility and accountability to be spread across the organization as this forces it to self-reflect and move beyond its comfort zone, as change does not happen in that space.[22]

However, if this were the extent of the process, the organization would likely end up dealing with the initial symptoms instead of the root cause of the problem. This is why dynamic targeting, a process designed for continuously changing situations, has an Assessment Phase that entails estimating the target's physical or functional status and the effectiveness of the activities that occurred during the first five phases. This iterative process is designed to see if the ends, ways, and means of DT have resulted in progress toward accomplishing a task, creating an effect, or achieving an objective.[23] As eradicating destructive leadership can be an entrenched and elusive problem, an assessment phase is critical to creating a sustainable and effective solution.[24] It is important to distinguish between the physical and functional status of the root cause of toxicity. While the physical status may entail a destructive leader being removed from the organization and replaced by a constructive successor, a change in the functional status could consist of improved ethical and moral leadership traits after implementing effective feedback and assessment tools based on competency models, focusing on positive attributes associated with constructive leaders.[25] By measuring both statuses,  it is possible to obtain an initial assessment of the actions’ effectiveness.

The iterative process of DT is important for tackling the toxic triangle because its variables interact in complex ways.[26] Therefore, it is imperative that a holistic approach that considers short-term and long-term effectiveness be used. For example, in the aforementioned case of a leader’s removal, if the systems that supported and encouraged the individual’s destructive leadership style are left in place, they could lead to renewed toxicity later. Therefore, an organization might have to go as far as implementing a new organizational model or steering towards a different organizational culture.[27] In larger organizations, this may require substantial time due to their complexity, multiple layers of hierarchy, and increased employee resistance to change. While tweaking existing processes or policies may be implemented quickly, significant shifts in values, behaviors, or operational models may take longer to fully embed in the organization.[28] Without a continuous assessment of the progress, there is a high probability that the measures taken will miss the mark, wasting time, effort, and resources.

Difficult to define, toxic leadership is a nebulous problem that requires a dynamic approach. Applying the F2T2EA method of dynamic targeting will provide organizations with an agile framework that is both broad enough to handle a wide variety of problems and specific enough to be put into practice. Of course, organizations must acknowledge the presence and drawbacks of destructive leadership and be willing to solve this issue.[29] Once proper resources are allocated, the Find, Fix, and Track phases will identify the causality with high fidelity and then monitor the situation to ensure that the initial assumptions remain true. During the subsequent Target and Engage phases, a tailored, viable solution can be developed in which all different parts of the organization are responsible and accountable for its implementation. Given the varying levels of complexity of toxic leadership, it might take time for the results or effectiveness of the implemented measures to become apparent. As such, the iterative Assessment phase will ensure that the outcome is enduring and sustainable.

Continuously confronted with unplanned and unanticipated situations in the operational environment, militaries excel in finding creative ways to stay lethal, survivable, and effective. However, militaries do not actively account for toxic leadership in their strategy despite the negative impact it has on the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness.  Therefore, it is imperative that decision-makers defeat this entrenched problem; the proper application of F2T2EA will allow them to do.


LtCol Vincent Bos, Royal Netherlands Air Force



[1.] Colin Slattery, “The Dark Side of Leadership: Troubling Times at The Top,” (Semann & Slattery, November 2009), 2, .

[2.] Wallace A Burns, “A Descriptive Literature Review of Harmful Leadership Styles: Definitions, Commonalities, Measurements, Negative Impacts, and Ways to Improve These Harmful Leadership Styles,” Creighton Journal of Interdisciplinary Leadership 3, no. 1 (August 8, 2017): 34-39,

[3.] Burns, “A Descriptive Literature Review," 39.

[4.] Colin Slattery, “The Dark Side of Leadership,” 10.

[5.] U.S. Department of the Air Force, US Air Force Doctrine for Targeting, AFDP 3-60 (Maxwell AFB: LeMay Doctrine Center, 2021), 19-23,

[6.]  “The Roles of Mission, Vision, and Values,” in Principles of Management, University of Minnesota, October 27, 2015,

[7.] Merja Hoppe, “The Problem with Toxic Leadership and how to Detox Organizations,” (Zurich, 2021), 1-7,

[8.] Joint Targeting School Student Guide, (Dam Neck, VA: Joint Targeting School, 2017), 152-161,

[9.] Hoppe, “The Problem with Toxic Leadership,” 6.

[10.] Annette Templeton, “Are You Enabling Destructive Leadership?,” Trium, August 12, 2020,

[11.] U.S. Department of the Air Force, US Air Force Doctrine for Targeting, 28.

[12.] Hoppe, “The Problem with Toxic Leadership,” a7.

[13.] Ellen A. Schmid, Armin Pircher Verdorfer, and Claudia V. Peus, “Different Shades—Different Effects? Consequences of Different Types of Destructive Leadership,” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (2018): 3-5,

[14.] Templeton, “Are You Enabling Destructive Leadership?,” 2.

[15.] Robert Kaiser, "The Toxic Triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments," The Leadership Quarterly, no. 18 (June 2007): 182-186,

[16.] U.S. Department of the Air Force, US Air Force Doctrine for Targeting, 28.

[17] Burns, “A Descriptive Literature Review," 50-51.

[18.] U.S. Department of the Air Force,, US Air Force Doctrine for Targeting, 29.

[19.] U.S. Department of the Air Force,, US Air Force Doctrine for Targeting, 29-30.

[20.] Burns, “A Descriptive Literature Review," 46-49.

[21.] Kaiser, "The Toxic Triangle," 189-190.

[22.] Hoppe, “The Problem with Toxic Leadership,” 6.

[23.] U.S. Department of the Air Force, US Air Force Doctrine for Targeting, 30.

[24.] Schmid et al., “Different Shades—Different Effects," 3.

[25.] Kaiser, "The Toxic Triangle," 189-190.

[26.] Kaiser, "The Toxic Triangle," 179-182.

[27.] Hoppe, “The Problem with Toxic Leadership,” 5-8.

[28.] Eric Klein, “What is Resistance-Free Change?: Why 75% of Change Efforts Fail & How You Can Succeed Dharma Consulting, 2008, 7-12,[1].pdf.

[29.] Joshua Leonard, "The Dissolution of Effective Leadership: A Multiple-Case Study Analysis of Destructive Leadership," (bachelor's thesis, University of Tennessee, 2014), 40-41,

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