Bad or toxic leadership, abusive supervision, and petty tyranny in organizations are perennial issues. But to date, there has been little effort to examine the scope and nature of bad leadership in the military. Tarnished rectifies that lack of attention by defining the problems and suggesting possible solutions appropriate to the military’s unique structure and situation.
Leadership is central to the identity of the U.S. military. Service academies and precommissioning processes have traditionally stressed the development of conscientious leaders of character. The services regularly publish doctrinal works and professional journal articles focusing on various aspects of leadership. Unsurprisingly, in most of those publications leadership is presented as a universally positive notion, a solution to problems, and something to be developed through an extensive and costly system of professional military education.
Leadership expert George E. Reed, however, focuses on individual experiences of toxic leadership at the organizational level, arguing that because toxic leadership has such a detrimental impact on the military organizational culture, additional remediation measures are needed. Reed also demonstrates how system dynamics and military culture themselves contribute to the problem. Most significant, the book provides cogent advice and insights to those suffering from toxic leaders, educators developing tomorrow’s military leaders, and military administrators working to repair the current system.
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About the Author
George E. Reed is dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He served for twenty-seven years as an army officer including six years as the director of command and leadership studies at the U.S. Army War College. His writing has been published in journals such as Public Administration Review, Military Review, Leadership, Public Integrity, Armed Forces and Society, and Parameters.
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Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military
By George E. Reed
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Nature and Scope of Toxic Leadership
The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instructions and to give commands in such a manner and in such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself; while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.
— Major General John M. Schofield, 1879
Leadership is a favored and important construct of the U.S. military. Its service academies are charged to produce responsible leaders of character, an extensive and expensive system of professional military education schools and courses endeavors to enhance leadership skills at all levels, and those in positions of authority are vested with extraordinary levels of power and responsibility. Each service publishes copious amounts of leadership doctrine and guidance materials that seek to inculcate a common view of what is expected of those in positions of authority. Leadership is viewed not only as a role or process but also as a solution to almost any problem. Public debacles, scandals, or failings are frequently explained, in part, as a failure of leadership. Leaders, especially those in positions of command, are deemed accountable for everything their unit does or fails to do; as a result, when military organizations perform poorly, leaders are frequently replaced. It is an approach that has generally served the nation well in light of the unique context in which the military operates.
The military context is different from many others, distinctive and unique for its association with the employment of violence on behalf of the state. Democracies have an ambiguous relationship with their militaries. The state depends on its standing military to safeguard it, but the military also represents a potential threat to democracy — thus the concerns expressed by our founding fathers and their preference for defense based on militias raised from the citizenry in times of crisis. Such concerns also serve to explain why leadership is a central construct in the military. Formations that are well led and controlled by those who have a nuanced understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society serve as a protection of the republic. It is no wonder that military leadership tends to be more structured and professionalized than in other sectors of society. Discipline, clear lines of authority manifested in a command, and a control-oriented focus are not simply vestiges of bureaucracy; they are also a means to contain an organization that has access to a great deal of destructive power.
The military also requires an exceptional level of commitment from its members. Military service is synonymous with sacrifice, involving long periods of separation from family members, frequent moves and deployments, the rigors of intensive training, and the horrors of combat. A military life is rewarding, but it is also hard, exacting a toll that is both physical and emotional. The environment is frequently dangerous, whether from attack by enemies of the state or in the performance of high-risk operations using weapons and heavy equipment. The air and sea are inherently unforgiving environments even without an enemy to fight. The modern U.S. military is an all-recruited force that depends on attracting and retaining enough qualified men and women who are willing to serve despite the associated dangers and rigors. It is drawn mostly from an increasingly small subsection of the larger citizenry, a fit and youthful population mostly between eighteen and twenty-five years of age. It is both an enthusiastic and occasionally unruly demographic.
When it comes to organizational outcomes, the stakes are high in military organizations. The penalty for poor performance extends beyond profit and loss to include the lives of both military personnel and noncombatants. Those in positions of authority in military organizations are constantly reminded of the costs associated with insufficient training, inadequate equipment, and poor strategy. Because the military serves as the guarantor of security for the nation, the cost of military failure can be catastrophic for a society. The public rightly expects a high level of performance and disciplined execution of duties. Personal failures and flaws tolerated by leaders in other sectors are less likely to be forgiven in the military. Americans seem to equally relish putting their leaders on pedestals and knocking them off: Americans may well be prone to a form of hero worship where military leaders are respected and exalted, but the public is also unforgiving when it perceives its trust and confidence were misplaced.
The American people have a relatively high level of confidence in the leadership of their military. The Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership publishes an annual National Leadership Index that surveys public confidence in the leadership of thirteen sectors. The military is, and has been, the institution in American society that rates the highest level of leadership confidence. On a scale of confidence ranging from "none at all" to "a great deal," the military is the only sector that reached the great deal of confidence level. It is remarkable that the military holds such a position of confidence after over a decade of protracted conflict, with the inevitable mistakes and public missteps associated with combat operations. In the court of public opinion, the stories of bravery and sacrifice compete with those of senior officer misconduct and atrocities. When the military performs its duties well and meets the expectations of the broader society, it builds confidence and goodwill. When it fails to meet those expectations, confidence is diminished. Still, in terms of leadership, the military is clearly doing something right in the eyes of the public, though we might question whether such a high opinion is based on full knowledge as the professionalized army is increasingly distant from the populace it serves.
The relative lack of understanding most Americans have about their military is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the distance between the average citizen and the military is a sign of success. The more a professionalized military does its job well, the less attention the average civilian must devote to issues of national defense. That leaves military professionals to apply their craft without excessive interference or meddling. To some degree, ignorance of the military is also evidence of trust and confidence. On the other hand, such benign neglect does not serve the nation or its military well. Uneducated overconfidence can result in the unwise application of military power, and unfettered admiration can lead to unquestioning and excessive deference with regard to military matters. Excessive deference can be problematic when bad, destructive, abusive, or toxic leadership practices that would not be acceptable in other sectors are allowed to go unchecked in the armed services.
There are legitimate reasons why military practices occasionally vary from those in the larger society. Prosecuting military offenses such as desertion and failure to obey a lawful order are necessary to instill discipline. The military justice system is designed to enable the application of law in an expeditionary force in foreign lands where access to the civilian court system is inconvenient if not impossible. Yet such exceptions should be carefully considered and justified, not granted as a blank check out of ignorance and inattention. An article in the Atlantic decried the lack of effective congressional oversight:
Politicians say that national security is their first and most sacred duty, but they do not act as if this is so. The most recent defense budget passed the House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 61 to zero, with similarly one-sided debate before the vote. This is the same House of Representatives that cannot pass a long-term Highway Trust Fund bill that both parties support. "The lionization of military officials by politicians is remarkable and dangerous," a retired Air Force colonel named Tom Ruby, who now writes on organizational culture, told me. He and others said that this deference was one reason so little serious oversight of the military took place.
There is an unstated contract with American families in terms of expectations regarding leadership. The flower of American youth is the raw material the military requires to operate. Mothers and fathers send their sons and daughters to the armed services, probably with some reservations but mostly with consent, with the understanding that their children will be given opportunities to learn and develop under the tutelage of good leaders. Through the intensive socialization process of basic and advanced training, young men and women become soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. When their service is complete, they tell friends and family about their experiences, thereby influencing others to enlist as well. It is understood that the military environment is dangerous and that safety cannot be guaranteed, but it is also anticipated that loved ones will be cared for as best as practicable and treated with respect. Unfortunately, the terms of this contract are not always met.
Describing Toxic Leadership
Leadership can be viewed on a spectrum, with exemplary, motivating, and inspiring behavior on one end and demotivating, belittling, and disrespectful behavior at the other. All those who attempt to lead can be placed somewhere along that spectrum. Some in positions of authority add value to their organizations through a leadership style that raises morale, energizing and uplifting the organizational climate in the process. Others demoralize subordinates through a self-serving, inflexible, and petty style that has a negative impact on the organizational climate.
There are two things to keep in mind when talking about leadership style. First, leadership style is a pattern of behavior over time as perceived by the targets of influence. That is, the intentions of a leader are less important than the perceptions of the followers. It is not a single behavior or instance that marks a problematic or destructive leadership style — every supervisor has a bad day once in a while. Rather, it is a pattern of behavior and the impact over time that tell the tale. Second, style has little to do with competence or dedication. Some who appear to be devoid of interpersonal skills can manifest brilliance and be highly competent in the technical or cognitive domain. Stonewall Jackson, for example, was one of the most venerated confederate generals of the American Civil War. As a battlefield commander, he was appreciated for his tactical proficiency and dependability. Before the Civil War, however, his dour nature and peculiar habits had earned him the nickname "Tom Fool Jackson" among students at the Virginia Military Academy. As a brevet major assigned to Fort Meade, he was subject to a brooding anger, as demonstrated in his squabble with a fellow officer that earned him a stern reprimand from General Winfield Scott. Jackson was quirky, but he was also an extremely effective leader in the crucible of war.
Those who attempt to lead with a destructive style are often highly dedicated and highly motivated to achieve the goals and objectives of the organization, but they go about accomplishing them in a manner that is counterproductive in the long run. When it comes to style, military leadership doctrine has been largely silent on this subject. That is probably appropriate because there is no one right way to influence others. No two leaders are exactly alike. What comes naturally to one person is awkward and inauthentic for another. Leaders are expected to harness their strengths and militate against their weaknesses. Some are naturally more affable or charismatic than others, but there are plenty of effective leaders who are introverted and more reserved in their interactions.
Proponents of situational leadership suggest that the best leadership style is the one that meets the needs of subordinates and the demands of a particular situation. It is the responsibility of leaders to vary their approach based on what subordinates need and what a situation demands at a given point in time. There is a time to be loud and a time to be soft-spoken, a time to demand and a time to encourage or nurture. If the building is on fire, loud and emphatic direction is appreciated while that same behavior would be inappropriate in a different setting. If the enemy is inside the wire and the last rounds of ammunition are being counted, it is not the time to call for a focus group.
The most effective leaders seem to have an ability to identify the kind of intervention that is most likely to have a positive result, and they modify their behavior accordingly. As a result, we see a wide variation of leadership styles in practice as well as tolerance for a broad range of influence-behaviors. The range of tolerance for leadership style is sometimes too broad at the organizational level, permitting some who have an inappropriate style to have access to positions of authority and to remain in them too long. Supervisor-centric evaluations do not always discern between those who have a positive style and those who have a destructive impact. "Talented people in the 21st century expect to work in healthy climates, where strong bonds of mutual trust facilitate mission accomplishment and support long-term institutional strength," asserted W. F. Ulmer Jr. in a 2013 article on toxic leadership. Military personnel set a high bar for their superiors; inculcated along with respect for their superiors is the expectation that they will be led well.
In 2003 then secretary of the army Thomas E. White asked the U.S. Army War College to take a look at how the army might identify leaders who have a destructive leadership style. The result was a qualitative research study that used a series of focus groups to derive insights into the problem. That led to a report to the secretary of the army and a Military Review article published in 2004. Both publications are publicly available, but the backstory that prompted them is less widely known. Retired lieutenant general Walter F. Ulmer Jr. knew Secretary White from their mutual service in Germany during the Cold War. Ulmer, retired from a distinguished career that had included command of III Corps at Fort Hood, Texas, honed his academic interest in the study of leadership as the chief executive officer of the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit organization that maintains one of the largest repositories of data on executives. For several years Ulmer informally canvassed a group of army colonels and lieutenant colonels for their experiences at the hands of senior leaders. What he found troubled him. Although his data collection methods and particularly his sampling process would not stand the scrutiny of the behavioral sciences, his convenience sample indicated that about 13 percent viewed their leaders as an obstruction to mission accomplishment, with leadership styles that were destructive to the long-term health and welfare of their units. Ulmer obtained an audience with the secretary of the army and asked him whether such numbers struck the secretary as satisfactory or an issue of concern. It was that question that prompted a question that had not been previously asked: What are we doing to identify and assess those who have a destructive leadership style? It was a very good question.
The armed services have long been successful in espousing the positive aspects of leadership. Military publications have typically focused more on the aspirations of good leadership than the lived experience in the field. Military doctrine on leadership is quite good at describing desired leadership behavior. It provides a common view of what leaders are expected to do at various levels of the organization. Leadership guru Peter Drucker reportedly once described the army's field manual on leadership (FM 22-100) as the single best document written on the subject. Meindl, Ehrlich, and Dukerich described an unrelenting positive social construction and commitment as the romance of leadership, but they saw the elevation of leadership to prominent and near mystical levels as exceeding the limits of what was substantiated by scientific inquiry. The romance of leadership is perpetuated by a one-sided view of leadership bolstered by accounts of heroic leaders who are both inspiring and larger than life, distanced from our more mundane existence. Good leadership is indeed a wonderful thing, but what passes for leadership behavior in practice all too frequently falls short of aspirations.
Excerpted from Tarnished by George E. Reed. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Nature and Scope of Toxic Leadership
2. Impact of Toxic Leadership
3. Creating and Sustaining Toxic Leaders
4. The Role of Narcicissm in Toxic Leadership
5. Toxic Leadership and Sexual Misconduct
6. Surviving a Toxic Leader
7. Toxic Coworkers
8. Mitigating Toxic Leadership