By Lt. Col. "A.N.
O'Nymous," U.S. Army
Best Defense guest
When I was a junior military intelligence captain and S2 for a
combat arms battalion, I was a "toxic leader." There were no good reasons for
this, but the fact that my immediate boss was toxic, that I was having personal
issues, and that I was leaning strongly toward leaving the military all had
something to do with it. During this period, which lasted close to two years,
selfishness guided my every action. I was not only selfish but lazy, desiring a
sense of accomplishment without wanting to do the extra work it takes to build
an effective, trained team. I cared neither about teaching nor mentoring my
subordinates, and I did not listen to them. I also drove them hard. The result
was an S2 Shop that seemed to check all the right boxes but was hardly a team.
My shop's apparent accomplishments were strong. We exceeded the standard in
every security inspection conducted by higher-ups, not only passing but
incurring zero reports of deficiencies. We were also highly successful during
our two deployments to a maneuver training center. During our first deployment,
my templates for enemy disposition and my descriptions of enemy action were so
accurate that I was under suspicion for cheating for most of this exercise. (I
didn't cheat; I had just done my homework well.) Near the end of this exercise,
the brigade commander even sent the brigade S2 to me for training, which was no
doubt a humiliating experience for that major. During my second deployment, my
staff work helped my battalion defeat the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) in more
battles than we lost -- the only time that year that a friendly unit
accomplished this feat.
But, I was the guy in my shop doing all the briefings and drawing all the
templates. My troops' jobs were to simply battletrack and take care of my
logistical needs as our command post hopped from one place to another. Of
course, they were unhappy doing such menial chores. My bright lieutenant, NCOs,
and soldiers knew they should have been doing much more than this. All also
knew that the way we were doing business was dysfunctional. What if, for
example, something happened to me? In the long term, this would have been a
good thing. In the short term, though, it would have been a mess.
Everyone was unhappy, and, unsurprisingly, a large rift developed
between me and both my assistant S2 and senior intelligence sergeant.
Eventually, this rift fueled further unprofessionalism from my assistant S2 and
me. Things got personal.
Since my shop had met or exceeded every goal given us and I got along well with
my battalion commander, I more than half-expected a top block rating for my
final efficiency report. Our army being what it is, I probably would have
received this rating in many units. Thankfully, I did not. My battalion
commander, who was not himself a great leader, strangely exercised wisdom in my
case. I'll never forget, for my final counseling, his sitting me down and
telling me: "You have been responsible for much of my success. When I list
my battalion's accomplishments for my boss, I do so knowing that you were
instrumental in many of them. But, you didn't get along with my majors, you
didn't get along with your soldiers, and I blame you for that. I'm going to
give you a report card that is squarely center of mass, and that's the best
that I can do."
This warning was indeed the best thing he could have done for me, because this
warning -- along with an underlying sense of shame that I could not shake -- initiated
some serious introspection on my part.
Compounding this good fortune, in my next two jobs (I became a
staff officer and company commander in Iraq), I was blessed with the best set
of leaders with whom I have had the pleasure of serving. Watching them in
action made a hugely positive impression on me. Reading a book that my next
commander gave me, Major General Perry Smith's Rules
and Tools for Leaders, made a similar impression. Experiencing the positive climate
change that took place in the Task Force 1st Armored Division
headquarters when Brigadier General Martin Dempsey replaced Major General
Ricardo Sanchez (the epitome of a toxic leader) also made an impression. Things
began to click and fall in place, and I returned to a better path, continually
learning as I went.
The article "Narcissism and Toxic Leaders" in the current
issue of Military Review sheds some
light on my failings then. Narcissism, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Joe Doty,
Ph.D. and Master Sergeant Jeff Fenlason argue, is the essential condition for
toxic leadership (though not all narcissists are toxic leaders). Narcissists
have "an in?ated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation
with themselves." Toxic leaders, who are not necessarily screamers, are
those narcissists whose selfish, destructive behaviors create unhealthy
organizations and demoralized troops. The authors persuasively contend that our
military should develop "methods to enhance its [narcissism's] positive
attributes and raise awareness of its negative ones."
What I like best about this article is the authors' observation about
self-deception, how toxic leaders (giddy with their seeming string of
professional successes, I imagine) often do not even know that they are toxic.
That was certainly true in my case. Toxic leaders' driving junior leaders from
the military, their creating subordinates who are themselves toxic, their
units' members failing to act ethically in the absence of immediate
supervision, their units lapsing into utter ineffectiveness when they depart
the unit and the motivation to work (fear) is removed -- all of these results
have nothing to do with their leadership, these leaders tell themselves. They
are great leaders, they think. After all, their report cards say so.
The authors conclude that our military needs to place "more
emphasis on mentoring, self-awareness, self- regulation, and emotional
intelligence." But, how do we do this, and is this enough?
Based on my experience, what our institution must do first to
counter this persistent problem is to improve how we evaluate leaders. As a
junior captain, I was lucky to get the report card I actually deserved. We need
to take more of the luck out of this process. A good place to start would be
with incorporating 360-degree feedback from leaders' subordinates,
peers, and raters into their
efficiency reports. It is also important for our
military to figure out how to better assess a unit's health and to make this
assessment a key element (if not THE key element) of efficiency reports. In
other words, obvious indicators of mission accomplishment need to be better
balanced with indicators of overall unit health and morale. These latter
indicators might include, for example, command climate survey results, soldier
retention rates, and the time the unit dedicates to the professional
development of its officers and soldiers.
Getting leader efficiency reports right would require of our
military a great deal of serious thought, study, and energy. However, the
long-term results would be unquestionably worth it.
Just as important, though, is helping to prevent toxic leadership in the first
place by improving education in our service schools. I should have been
thinking about "organizational culture" and "organizational leadership" before
I was a major at the Army's Command and General Staff College. True, I received
my commission from Officer Candidate School, where there is probably time for
only a day or two of such discussion. However, robust discussions, videos, and authoritative
and compelling testimonies regarding "what right looks like" in
healthy organizations and "what wrong looks like" in unhealthy organizations
would probably have made a huge difference for me if I had received this
instruction at basic course, advanced course, and the now-defunct Combined
Arms and Services
Similarly, teaching cadets who are attending military schools and
ROTC programs to recognize the signs of healthy and unhealthy units might make
a huge difference for these officers, and such classes should be consistently
taught at NCO schools, too. Such a block of instruction -- regularly and
consistently applied in service schools throughout a leader's career -- would
at least get leaders thinking about putting their units' long-term health and
their troops' professional development before short-term mission accomplishment.
It is especially important that junior leaders receive this instruction while
their character is still malleable. Our pushing junior leaders to units without
this education, when they are prone to automatically emulate apparently successful
leaders (who, in real terms, may not be successful at all), is harming these
young leaders, their future units, and their future troops -- in a few cases,
views offered here are the author's own and do not necessarily represent
those of the U.S. military.