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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.
A Marine wanted for killing his mother's boyfriend reportedly escaped police by hiding inside an RV they'd spent hours searching before towing it to a parking lot, where he escaped under the cover of darkness.
It wasn't until more than two weeks later authorities finally caught up to Michael Brown at his mom's home, which was the scene of the crime.
Brown stuffed himself into a tight spot in his camper during an hours-long search of the vehicle on Nov. 10, according to NBC affiliate WSLS in Virginia. A day earlier, cops said Brown fatally shot his mother's boyfriend, Rodney Brown. The AWOL Marine remained on the lam until Nov. 27, where he was finally apprehended without incident.
No motive is yet known for last week's Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard shooting tragedy, which appears to have been a random act of violence in which the sailor who fatally shot two civilian workers and himself did not know them and did not plan his actions ahead of time, shipyard commander Capt. Greg Burton said in an "All Hands" message sent out Friday.
Machinist's Mate Auxiliary Fireman Gabriel Antonio Romero of San Antonio, an armed watch-stander on the attack submarine USS Columbia, shot three civilian workers Dec. 4 and then turned a gun on himself while the sub rested in dry dock 2 for a major overhaul, the Navy said.
"The investigation continues, but there is currently no known motive and no information to indicate the sailor knew any of the victims," Burton said.
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said it had successfully conducted another test at a satellite launch site, the latest in a string of developments aimed at "restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.", state news agency KCNA reported on Saturday.
The test was conducted on Friday at the Sohae satellite launch site, KCNA said, citing a spokesman for North Korea's Academy of Defence Science, without specifying what sort of testing occurred.
Since the Washington Post first published the "Afghanistan papers," I have been reminded of a scene from "Apocalypse Now Redux" in which Army Col. Walter Kurtz reads to the soldier assigned to kill him two Time magazine articles showing how the American people had been lied to about Vietnam by both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations.
In one of the articles, a British counterinsurgency expert tells Nixon that "things felt much better and smelled much better" during his visit to Vietnam.
"How do they smell to you, soldier?" Kurtz asks.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Erik Prince, the controversial private security executive and prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, made a secret visit to Venezuela last month and met Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, one of socialist leader Nicolas Maduro's closest and most outspoken allies, according to five sources familiar with the matter.