Toxic leadership has been a topic in the military for some time now. The military hasn’t really made much progress in fixing the problem, but the Marine Corps seems willing to at least give it a shot. Recently, the Corps announced a pilot program to start giving re-enlisting Marines emotional intelligence, or EQ, tests. The idea is that testing for emotional intelligence might give them a chance to remove toxic leaders before they infect units as noncommissioned officers.

At first glance, it seems like a decision the Marines may have been forced into. While the Corps looks at small-unit leadership at the NCO level with almost a cult-like fascination, its leadership has found it wanting at times. During Gen. James Amos’ tenure as commandant, he instituted an oft-maligned program to improve NCO leadership that he called “The Reawakening.” It included a lot of initiatives, ranging from the rational, like tough enforcement of height and weight standards, to the ridiculous, like having firewatches wandering every floor of every barracks all through the night, and was a response to such high-profile incidents like the video released in 2011 of Marine scout snipers urinating on Taliban corpses.

The Corps’ current commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, has found himself fighting a scandal that makes the scout sniper urination incident look, well, piss-weak: Marines United, in which Marines in a closed Facebook group shared and distributed nude photos of female service members on a massive scale. Almost at the same time, the Corps was hit with allegations of hazing by drill instructors at Parris Island that led one recruit to kill himself.

To his credit, Neller has tried to address the issues of sexual harassment and hazing at their roots, rather than just impose ineffective new rules. That’s a key break from what Amos attempted with his Reawakening. It’s the opposite of making everyone wear diapers because one Marine shit his pants and the way things are supposed to be done.

U.S. Marine Corps photo
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller addresses Marines from Staff Non-Commissioned Officers Academy at Camp Johnson N.C. Sept. 7, 2017.

That’s not to say it will be easy.

With this pilot EQ testing program, the Corps plans to administer EQ tests online to re-enlisting Marines for a period of five years to further develop the methodology before making it count for re-enlistment and promotion, which leaves plenty of room for the initiative to be squashed by new leadership or priorities.  

Additionally, the test will have to be Marine-proof. Every service member knows about “the gouge,” which is universal for almost every military test. The answers, or at least the methodology behind any important exam, always get leaked. It will only be a matter of time before people figure out how to game the system and what the Corps wants them to say.

A well-constructed test, with a large enough question bank and questions hard enough not to be gamed, is possible with modern testing methods; however, it will require a serious commitment to making it work and not just having another rote requirement. The second it becomes unimportant to the Corps, it will become unimportant to Marines.

However this test ends up moving forward, it will almost certainly be better than the old way of doing things, which was to just publish a new sheaf of rules and punish a few miscreants. Neller is at least trying to head potential problems off at the pass. It will take years to see whether he’s successful, but with concerted effort, his efforts should pay off for far longer.