Toxic leadership at the top

Opinion
President Donald Trump (DoD photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

The U.S. military, and particularly the Marine Corps — in which I served both as an enlisted Marine and officer — puts a strong emphasis on leadership. Marines are taught leadership traits and qualities and are expected to exhibit them at nearly every level.

During my three decades of service, I saw good and great leadership, poor leadership, and toxic leadership. Nearly everyone in the military knows what toxic leadership looks like, even if they haven't experienced it directly.

Unfortunately, our commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump, exhibits the qualities of a toxic leader.


Toxic leaders lead by force, not example. They are abusive, belittling and self-serving. And while the military has conducted many studies into the topic, a 2003 Army War College report described destructive, or toxic, leaders this way: "Destructive leaders are seen by the majority of subordinates as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible and petty."

By the Constitution, the president is designated as the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces. He (or she) does not serve in the military nor is he subject to court-martial or military discipline. However, it's not unreasonable to expect the president to live up to the values and laws that govern military service.

At a minimum, he should set the example with his conduct. Regrettably, President Trump is failing in that regard.

While there is some variation in the number of values listed and words used by the various service branches, all five military services have "core values" outlining basic ethical guidelines to guide and govern the conduct of their service members. They all exhibit common themes, among them honor, integrity and respect.

But here too, Trump regularly fails to meet those standards. The examples are many — particularly in recent weeks — and need not be listed here.

The president's spoken words and tweets disparaging and attacking others, or spreading falsehoods, are actions that would likely result in punishment for service members — particularly officers — who espoused similar sentiments. Military officers who engaged in such behavior wouldn't remain in the service very long, and their subordinates would rightly question their ability to lead and inspire — key traits for military leaders of all ranks.

For those who would argue that, by law, the president doesn't have to adhere to military values, standards, and laws: You're right, he doesn't. But I would argue that he should, especially since he so often professes his love for the military and champions the support he has provided (inaccurately in many cases but that's a topic for another day).

President Trump doesn't wear a uniform, nor is he required to meet physical or grooming standards, or required to follow the orders of those "appointed over" him.

He does, however, swear an oath similar to one that military officers do, to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution doesn't require the president to adhere to core values, or follow military laws and regulations, but shouldn't the American people, and service members in particular, expect the president to exhibit values and decorum at least at the same level we expect and demand of our military leaders?

The president doesn't have to rein in his disparaging and hateful comments, but he should. Not because it's required, but because it's the right example to set, and the right thing to do, not just for the military but for all Americans.

David Lapan is vice president of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center. His career in public service spans more than three decades, with service in the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Lapan is a retired Marine colonel, with more than 30 years of military service and 22 years of communications/public affairs experience at the highest levels of the Defense Department. As a public affairs officer, he served as a spokesman and advisor for the Defense Department; for the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; for the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces—Afghanistan; and for multi-national forces during military operations in Haiti and Iraq.

The views expressed here are those of the author.

An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington, June 15, 2005. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the Guantanamo prison against critics who want it closed by saying U.S. taxpayers have a big financial stake in it and no other facility could replace it at a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday. (Reuters/Jason Reed JIR/CN)

Senior defense officials offered a wide range of excuses to reporters on Wednesday about why they may not comply with a subpoena from House Democrats for documents related to the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

On Oct. 7, lawmakers subpoenaed information about military aid to Ukraine. Eight days later, a Pentagon official told them to pound sand in part because many of the documents requested are communications with the White House that are protected by executive privilege.

Read More Show Less

Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) will announce legislation Wednesday aiming to "fix" a new Trump administration citizenship policy that affects some children of U.S. service members stationed abroad.

Read More Show Less

The video opens innocently enough. A bell sounds as we gaze onto a U.S. Navy frigate, safely docked at port at Naval Base San Diego. A cadre of sailors, dressed in "crackerjack" style enlisted dress uniforms and hauling duffel bags over their shoulders, stride up a gangplank aboard the vessel. The officer on deck greets them with a blast of a boatswain's call. It could be the opening scene of a recruitment video for the greatest naval force on the planet.

Then the rhythmic clapping begins.

This is no recruitment video. It's 'In The Navy,' the legendary 1979 hit from disco queens The Village People, shot aboard the very real Knox-class USS Reasoner (FF-1063) frigate. And one of those five Navy sailors who strode up that gangplank during filming was Ronald Beck, at the time a legal yeoman and witness to one of the strangest collisions between the U.S. military and pop culture of the 20th century.

"They picked the ship and they picked us, I don't know why," Beck, who left the Navy in 1982, told Task & Purpose in a phone interview from his Texas home in October. "I was just lucky to be one of 'em picked."

Read More Show Less

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday casually brushed aside the disturbing news that, holy shit, MORE THAN 100 ISIS FIGHTERS HAVE ESCAPED FROM JAIL.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Esper essentially turned this fact into a positive, no doubt impressing public relations and political talking heads everywhere with some truly masterful spin.

"Of the 11,000 or so detainees that were imprisoned in northeast Syria, we've only had reports that a little more than a hundred have escaped," Esper said, adding that the Syrian Democratic Forces were continuing to guard prisons, and the Pentagon had not "seen this big prison break that we all expected."



Well, I feel better. How about you?

On Wednesday, the top U.S. envoy in charge of the global coalition to defeat ISIS said much the same, while adding another cherry on top: The United States has no idea where those 100+ fighters went.

"We do not know where they are," James Jeffrey told members of Congress of the 100+ escaped detainees. ISIS has about 18,000 "members" left in Iraq and Syria, according to recent Pentagon estimates.

A senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday the White House's understanding is that the SDF continues to keep the "vast majority" of ISIS fighters under "lock and key."

"It's obviously a fluid situation on the ground that we're monitoring closely," the official said, adding that released fighters will be "hunted down and recaptured." The official said it was Turkey's responsibility to do so.

President Trump expressed optimism on Wednesday about what was happening on the ground in northeast Syria, when he announced that a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds was expected to be made permanent.

"Turkey, Syria, and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries," Trump said. "We have done them a great service and we've done a great job for all of them — and now we're getting out."

The president boasted that the U.S.-brokered ceasefire had saved the lives of tens of thousands of Kurds "without spilling one drop of American blood."

Trump said that "small number of U.S. troops" would remain in Syria to protect oilfields.


Kade Kurita (U.S. Army photo(

Kade Kurita, the 20-year-old West Point cadet who had been missing since Friday evening, was found dead on Tuesday night, the U.S. Military Academy announced early Wednesday morning.

"We are grieving this loss and our thoughts and prayers go out to Cadet Kurita's family and friends," Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of West Point, said in the release.

Read More Show Less