Command Climate

We covered the story of the 172nd Infantry Brigade’s commander being relieved when it happened. The report on the relief is out now. Turns out, the command climate was “toxic.”

It turns out, I was mostly right. The command climate was such that it was sufficient cause for relief.

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Four out of six battalion commanders and four out of five command sergeants major in the 172nd Infantry Brigade believed that ousted commander Col. Frank Zachar had a “negative leadership style,” according to a U.S. Army Europe report obtained Thursday by Stars and Stripes.

The Dec. 27 report authored by Brig. Gen. Jimmie Jaye Wells, which details an “investigation into the command climate within the 172nd Infantry Brigade,” recommended Zachar be relieved of command, an action that was taken Jan. 3. Zachar’s ousting came at a critical time for the 172nd. The unit, with its 3,500 soldiers in Grafenwöhr and Schweinfurt, Germany, is training for deployment to Afghanistan this summer.

Just how bad was it?

In one instance, Zachar is said to have called a soldier into his office and informed him that he would serve as a “directed telescope” to gather intelligence on what other leaders in the brigade were saying about him.

Zachar allegedly stated: “I thought, coming into this job, that I would evaluate Battalion Commanders and Command Sergeant Majors on their potential, however I have discovered that I will have to evaluate them based on their loyalty to me and my command team.”

On another occasion, Zachar is said to have threatened three commanders. “If we were disloyal … then he was going to take an ice pick and shove it in our left eye,” one person recounted.
I’ve worked in some pretty unhappy units, but this is just ridiculous. How did this guy screen for brigade command?
Every commander has a right to expect a certain level of loyalty from his subordinates. But those subordinates in turn have the right to expect loyalty from their commander. Telling your boss you failed because of your subordinate commanders is weak tea. Sure, a brigade might have one dud battalion, but four out of six? Really?
Lemme tell you a story about loyalty. When I was a recruiter, we had a new station commander. He was struggling. Badly. Nice guy, didn’t know what the heck he was doing, leaned on us in the station to handle our jobs and his. And it showed. Our numbers started to tank. Just like a good manager can lead a mediocre ball team to manufacture runs, a good station commander can lead recruiters to manufacture contracts. Small ball stuff. But our station commander couldn’t. And eventually, our company First Sergeant pulled me aside one day and asked me point blank if the station commander should be relieved.
I asked him in return what kind of NCO he would think I was if I blamed my failures on my boss?

5 thoughts on “Command Climate”

  1. I had an XO like that once. Guy was also short and functionally illiterate, which he tried to cover up by using lots of big words that he couldn’t spell.

  2. Excellent response, Brad. Hopefully Top took as he should have as well.

    I know what it’s like to serve under a substandard leader. I’ve told the story of Ensign Kenneth Knull, my 2nd Div-O on Courtney. He was assigned as Communications Officer and the QM gang was in OC Division for lack of any better place to put them. Knull had no feel for relative motion and had a very hard time taking on maneuvering board problems. I predicted he would later kill some one, and, alas, that prediction proved too true when he was Officer of the Deck on Belknap and didn’t fudge a course and speed to take station on the JFK. He killed one man on JFK, 5 on Belknap, and injured 36 on both ships. He was also arrogant. He couldn’t tell the difference between arrogance and firmness, alas. He ran the QMC off. He’d had enough between the post Vietnam problems of the Navy, and idiots like Knull. He treated me like the son he didn’t have and I had a hard time not resenting his loss. Fortunately, I only had to endure another 5 months before Courtney was history. Belknap regretted the day he left Courtney, however.

    1. You can’t shake your history. It has been 36 years since the Belknap/Kenedy collision and Ken Knull’s name comes up. I was an officer on the Belknap from 72 until 75. I left 4 months before the accident. Lt(jg) Knull was not the best ship handler but I could not understand how he became so confused that a collision became inevitable. Base course and speed was the default option when you totally lost the picture. Unfortunately the CIC officer was not respected and the account I heard had Knull ignoring his recommendations. If he had listened we would not be talking about this today. My guess is that Knull thinks about this every day.

  3. It’s my opinion that people like Zachar rise to positions near the top because those more senior keep them around because their abusive leadership styles “get results.” They don’t get the great results that great (but rare) leaders get, but they get better results than do the nice-but-ineffective leaders. Their seniors only see the results, not the abuse, poor leadership and bad command climates that produce those results, and so they continue to rise. At some point, their true nature comes out and they culminate because the General Officers decide they are not cut out to be generals (though the GOs have used those leaders below them to attain their own position). Out of the 6 brigade commanders I have good knowledge of, 3 were of this style (though not as bad as the Zachar desription), and 2 were some of the best leaders I have ever seen in the army.

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