The quality of leadership in any large organization such as the Army will, one suspects, be distributed along a bell curve. At every level, from Corporals and Sergeants to Colonels and Generals, you’ll find gifted, brilliant leaders, and you’ll find incompetents and bullies.
I’m not exactly qualified to discuss the traits of leaders at the highest levels of the organization, but I have quite a bit of experience with leaders, both good and bad, at the battalion, company, platoon, and squad level.
Just over a year ago, NPR published a piece on Big Army’s recognition of the problem of toxic leadership, and its link to suicide in the ranks.
Top commanders in the U.S. Army have announced publicly that they have a problem: They have too many “toxic leaders” — the kind of bosses who make their employees miserable. Many corporations share a similar problem, but in the Army’s case, destructive leadership can potentially have life or death consequences. So, some Army researchers are wondering if toxic officers have contributed to soldiers’ mental health problems.
One of those researchers is Dave Matsuda. In 2010, then-Brig. Gen. Pete Bayer, who was supervising the Army’s drawdown in Iraq, asked Matsuda to study why almost 30 soldiers in Iraq had committed or attempted suicides in the past year.
“We got to a point where we were exceptionally frustrated by the suicides that were occurring,” Bayer says. “And quite honestly feeling — at least I was — helpless to some degree that otherwise good young men and women were taking their lives.”
ADP 6-22, the Army’s doctrinal publication on Leadership, describes toxic leadership.
Occasionally, negative leadership occurs in an organization. Negative leadership generally leaves people and organizations in a worse condition than when the leader follower relationship started. One form of negative leadership is toxic leadership. Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.
There’s that type of toxic leader. One who acts from self interest, often has narcissistic traits, feels that others are out to get them, sees accomplishment of the mission only as a means to promoting their own interests and career and fabulously talented at taking credit for all successes, while laying all blame on subordinates. Ironically, having destroyed any sense of teamwork, that blame is often laid at the foot of “disloyalty.” That last is an interesting bit. In the Army, you’re expected to display some level of personal loyalty to your boss, not because of fealty, but because we operate on the default presumption that the boss is likewise loyal to us, and more importantly, that the boss is loyal to the unit, institution and mission of the unit and Army. When the leader’s loyalties are not so aligned, of course it creates a conflict for the subordinate. Having served in such an environment, I can tell you that alone causes enormous, unrelenting stress.
Going back to the NPR piece, it looks at a somewhat different scenario.
Costabile says he never heard the term toxic leadership while he was in the Army. But he says some of his own leaders started tormenting him psychologically three years ago in Afghanistan, and the abuse continued when he came home in 2011 to Fort Carson in Colorado. He says those leaders didn’t scream at him, they ostracized him. And the more he felt like he was falling apart, the worse it got. Army records show he had “major depressive episodes” and “multiple hospitalizations.”
“Like the kid that was picked last for kickball in school, you know? I get the jobs that nobody wanted to do. Take out the trash, you’re going to sweep the floor, you’re going to mop the hallway. And it’s like, why?” Costabile says.
Every unit has “that guy.” For whatever reason, they have difficulty adapting to life in the service. Maybe they’re a little socially awkward, maybe they are lazy, or what have you. And leadership tries to knock a little sense into them. At the small unit level, you can lead with a carrot, or with a stick. And it is awfully easy to reach for the stick.
But it doesn’t take much for an already marginal troop to become ostracized. Your peers shun you, your supervisors sometimes forget to develop you, and instead marginalize you, your officers are frustrated with you, and soon hold you in contempt. An otherwise reasonably healthy organization develops a habit of minor cruelty.
Our disaffected soldier quickly loses trust in his unit, peers and leadership. Feeling alone (rather justifiably), that lack of trust is reciprocated. When you’re on the outs, it is natural to withdraw and become defensive, and passive aggressive. That behavior reinforces the leadership’s perception of the problem soldier.
At the worst, the soldier becomes a suicide statistic. At best, our problem child leaves the service, and spends the rest of his life resenting the Army. The more common outcome is the Army has to administratively separate the soldier before his commitment is complete, thus wasting the Army’s time and resources, and consuming a disproportionate amount of the leader’s time.
Understand, there are cases, many cases, where an administrative separation is called for, and this type of toxic environment is not to blame. The service is a challenging life under the best of circumstances, and not everyone is successful. It is often in the best interests of both the Army and the soldier to part ways. Or even if it is only in the Army’s best interest, it is still justified.
But every leader who has “that guy” in his unit has to ask himself, has his leadership contributed in making the soldier a failure? Is the lack of trust and loyalty up and down the chain of command due to a failure to mentor, counsel, lead and care for a soldier? If you have a soldier that feels so persecuted that he cannot trust you, how can your other soldiers trust you not to turn on them likewise?
Leadership, especially leading soldiers, is very much a human endeavor. You can study it from Army manuals, and other publications and books. You might have a natural talent for it, or have learned the ropes through hard experience. But you will make errors. The challenge is to recognize, hopefully early, when you have made errors, and mitigate the impact of them. The willingness to undertake such introspection is a daunting challenge. After all, we’re all the hero in our own story. But good leaders learn to do so, and internalize the lessons learned.
Bad leaders blame a subordinate for their failings.