The Military Has A Toxic Leadership Problem

Leadership

Recently, the term “toxic leadership” has broken into mainstream culture. Where it used to mainly occupy wardrooms, ready rooms, and professional journals, it’s now entered the lexicon of pop psychology and management consultants. The military, to its credit, has devoted much time and energy to the study of leadership, probably much more than the civilian world. It has been trying to address the toxic leadership problem for years, with little success.


The problem the military faces is that it seems to be stuck relieving commanders after they fail, instead of figuring out how those people got to be in charge in the first place. Way too often, there’s just a high-profile relief of some kind. For example, Lt. Col. Armando Gonzalez was relieved of command of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 “after an investigation determined he had created a toxic work environment and allegedly made racist, sexist and other unacceptable comments about personnel who worked for him,” Marine Corps Times reported in November 2016. His firing ended his reign of toxicity, but how did he did so far in his career in the first place? Like this and other cases, the toxic leader is gone, and the service goes on thinking the problem has been solved. Until the next one. To end this cycle, the military has to start fixing the problem before they become commanding officers, not after.

U.S. Marine Corps

Why do we see cases of commanders so immature that they throw things during meetings or put master chiefs in “time outs” like children? Every commander has spent years doing what the institution judged as the right things — completing key assignments, going to the right schools, and getting good evaluations the whole way. Were those leaders holding those impulses inside for nearly 20 years as they climbed the ladder, just waiting to take a unit’s colors, whereupon they could finally start assaulting their subordinates?

Perhaps the problem stems from a lax command selection process. Selection for command is first a product of the promotion rates for O-2 to O-5. An officer has to successfully pass through four promotion boards of increasing difficulty. O-5s are in the top third of their original contemporaries, purely by virtue of their promotion boards. Many more of those officers’ potential competitors self-attrite for a variety of reasons and get out along the way.

Then, the services select the best of those to slate the various commands. At least according to the standards the military has set for them, those selected for command are an extremely elite group. After another round of culling for O-6 command, doubly so. If the system is working as advertised, there shouldn’t be any toxic leaders, or at least so few that they are the stuff of legend, not semi-regular characters in military life. That they seem to exist in any numbers means that the system isn’t working when it comes to selecting qualities desired in leaders.

U.S. Army photo

A “toxic leader” is different from just a poor leader. A poor leader is one who fails his mission or his people. A toxic leader fails at the mission and fails his people. His command fails by both external and internal measures.

Just being incompetent or ineffective doesn’t make a leader toxic. While a leader with those traits can definitely be difficult to serve under, a competent supporting staff can mask a commanding officer technical incompetence.

Simultaneously, narcissism, self-centeredness, and cruelty make a poor leader, but not necessarily an ineffective one. In fact, being self-centered can be an advantage in many ways. It helps with self-confidence, which is certainly advantageous. Moreover, it enables one to use other people with neither conscience nor regret. This form of solipsism is sometimes a military superpower. Look no further than someone such as Gen. George Patton. Whether you call it self-confidence or narcissism, Patton’s attitude defined his command, both in its highs, such as beating Montgomery to Messina, and its lows, such as slapping a hospitalized soldier.

But it’s the combination of selfishness and incompetence that makes a toxic leader. And that’s why it’s so hard to screen out. Selfishness by itself actually helps many leaders ascend the ladder. As long as they’re competent, they may be demanding commanders, but bearable, because their units are successful. Eventually, though, a toxic leader reaches a level beyond his capability. Like a drowning victim, he flails for something to grab on in order to keep afloat. In this case, it’s his subordinates. A drowning selfish leader will climb on top of his followers to keep his head above water. Eventually that strategy fails, and that’s when he’s finally relieved.

U.S. Air Force photo

The military can certainly be more proactive in ensuring the competence of its leaders. That’s half of the problem. The Royal Navy’s Perisher course is a good example of a way to root out incompetent commanders. In order to be eligible for submarine command, their skippers must graduate a demanding four-month tactical syllabus culminating in several multi-ship exercises. The attrition rate approaches 50%. Getting rid of incompetent people doesn’t require much effort, just the will to do so.

But eliminating selfish leaders is much harder. That’s not black and white. There is a place for  things like “360-degree evaluations,” wherein leaders are evaluated by the led, but even the best of those tools will always have a whiff of popularity contest about them. While they are great teaching tools to give constructive criticism, they are difficult to integrate into evaluation systems, which need to be as objective as possible. Their best use is as an enhanced version of a command climate survey, alerting senior leaders to take a harder look at a potentially toxic subordinate commander.

Addressing selfishness among officers is a tough order (many enlisted might say an impossible one), but is the key to eliminating toxic leadership. As much as the military needs a magic wand to fix this, there is no such thing. It will be a long, tough slog.

It means looking at the culture from the day a potential officer joins the military through top level school and tweaking it to reward selflessness. One of the biggest differences between any of the officer candidates schools and enlisted recruit training is that boot camp is about building a unit and OCS is almost purely based on individual success or failure. While maintaining the screening function through attrition at OCS is important, the standard of excellence needs to be based more on which candidates are successful in teams.

It further means revising entrance requirements for officers to reflect emotional intelligence. It means making competitions among teams, not between individuals, the focus of formal training schools. It means de-emphasizing “honor graduate” of whatever course, and doubly emphasizing honor platoon, squad, or even study group. It may take a generation to make a difference, but it’s the only way to address this particular lack of character.

“Inspect what you expect.” The military inspects and grades officers based on individual effort, yet it expects people to succeed as teams. No wonder results don’t always match expectations.

U.S. Army photo
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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A recent salvage operation of the KC-130J crash site recovered the remains of three of the Marines, who were later identified, Corps officials said.

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(YouTube via Air Force Times)

Editor's Note: This article by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The Air Force is investigating an airman after he posted a video on YouTube rife with homophobic slurs and insults.

A man in an Air Force uniform, identified only by the YouTube username "Baptist Dave 1611" ranted in a recent video, calling gay people "sodomites," "vermin scum," and "roaches" among other slurs, according to Air Force Times, which first reported the story Wednesday.

"The specifics of the situation are being reviewed by the airman's command team," said service spokesman Maj Nick Mercurio, confirming the incident. Mercurio did not provide any identifying details about the airman.

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Two U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday, defense officials have announced.

Operation Resolute Support issued a terse news release announcing the latest casualties that did not include any information about the circumstances of their deaths.

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