The Reason Toxic Commanders Keep Getting Promoted

Leadership
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Gregory Keys

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Military Leader, a blog by Drew Steadman that provides leader development resources and insight for leaders of all professions.


Becoming a successful leader should mean more than just getting the mission done. It should also mean taking care of soldiers and families and making a difference in the lives of those we lead. We don’t talk about it often, but that’s what we intuitively feel. Followers desire leaders who guide the team to accomplish the mission while respecting and inspiring them.

Related: 10 Things We Need To Understand About Military Millennials »

And what’s the common theme among toxic leaders who continue to ascend the ranks? They get the mission done, but leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Bosses routinely fail to identify toxic subordinate commanders, but peers and subordinates always feel the impact. Why does this happen? Why do senior raters look down at subordinate leaders and see mission accomplishment but not the negative interactions they use to make it happen?

In a book that I will routinely recommend and reference, Tom Rath in “Strengths Based Leadership” offers a passage that helps explain why mission accomplishment — by almost any means necessary — is so highly valued when it comes to leader performance:

…even the highest level executives reported that they spend almost all of their time reacting to the needs of day instead of initiating for their future.

One challenge is that our ability to progress in our career is often determined by our effectiveness in responding to near-term needs. When high value is placed on solving these kinds of problems, it creates a culture in which leaders spend little or no time thinking about what could be done because they receive more accolades for simply doing what needs to be done.

Another reason we get caught in perpetual response mode is because it’s easier. Agreeing to take on a small objective – for example, cleaning out your inbox by the end of each day – is much more manageable than embarking on a larger and more proactive goal – like creating a new product or mapping out how to double your business in three to five years. Solving problems and removing barriers comes naturally to many people, while initiating is much harder work.

Think about the military leader’s day. In your experience, would you say that most time is spent initiating effort to grow the organization? Or is most of the day spent reacting to outside requirements and solving immediate crises? I think most would say the latter.

The problem is that most leaders live in a task-saturated environment, which impedes them from analyzing the effects of their actions and discourages them from seeking ways to reach their unit’s, or their own, full potential. Time and again, I’ve seen junior officers and NCOs struggle to find the cognitive space, for example, to apply creativity to their training events or develop long-term leader development plans. The endless supply of “five-meter targets” prevents leaders from being the guide their organizations need. And our culture rewards them for it.

Senior raters end up recommending advancement for subordinate leaders who tackle the near-term targets because 1) the tasks are usually coming from the senior chain of command that has a vested interest in seeing them accomplished, and 2) the effort is visible and easy to measure. “How many on-time evaluations did A Company have?” is a lot easier to assess and evaluate than “Is the A Company Commander inspiring a culture of trust?” And most leaders are more comfortable having a conversation about the timeliness of evaluations than they are about establishing trust in the organization.

When senior raters focus on the flurry of near-term subordinate activity, they risk overlooking the methods by which subordinate leaders achieve the mission. Too often, immediately behind the curtain of a “successful” leader is an egocentric environment of micromanagement and mistrust that overworks its members and fails to personally and professionally develop them.

After stewing on this for a few days, I’m still left with questions. I want to know what you think.

This article, “ Why Do Toxic Leaders Keep Getting Promoted?,” originally appeared on The Military Leader.

More articles from The Military Leader:

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that's so striking that it begs a simple question: "What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?" When we do, we've decided, we're going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Read More Show Less
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump claims the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department's budget that he will now spend on his border wall was not going to be used for anything "important."

Trump announced on Friday that he was declaring a national emergency, allowing him to tap into military funding to help pay for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read More Show Less

Long before Tony Stark took a load of shrapnel to the chest in a distant war zone, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein gave America the most visceral description of powered armor for the warfighter of the future. Forget the spines of extra-lethal weaponry, the heads-up display, and even the augmented strength of an Iron Man suit — the real genius, Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers, "is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin."

"Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking," explains Johnny Rico. "Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians. But a suit, you just wear."

First introduced in 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) purported to offer this capability as America's first stab at militarized powered armor. And while SOCOM initially promised a veritable Iron Man-style tactical armor by 2018, a Navy spokesman told Task & Purpose the much-hyped exoskeleton will likely never get off the launch pad.

"The prototype itself is not currently suitable for operation in a close combat environment," SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty told Task & Purpose, adding that JATF-TALOS has no plans for an external demonstration this year. "There is still no intent to field the TALOS Mk 5 combat suit prototype."

Read More Show Less

D-Day veteran James McCue died a hero. About 500 strangers made sure of it.

"It's beautiful," Army Sgt. Pete Rooney said of the crowd that gathered in the cold and stood on the snow Thursday during McCue's burial. "I wish it happened for every veteran's funeral."

Read More Show Less