The Buzz

The U.S. Military's Most Dangerous Enemy (and It's Not Russia or China)

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 highprofile 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.

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.

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.

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