Marcus Aurelius: Toxic Leadership in the US Army

Cultural Intelligence, Ethics, Military
Marcus Aurelius

“Toxic Leadership–What Are We Talking About?,” by Lieutenant General (Retired) Walter F. Ulmer, Jr.  Article appears in June 2012 issue of Army Magazine, the Army’s professional journal published by the Association of the United States Army.<

Toxic Leadership LtGen Ulmer Jr. (Ret)<

I think LTG(R) Ulmer generally captured the situation accurately: we know at least generally what toxic leaders are and how to recognize them, we know they exist within the force, and the Army is extremely (perhaps overly) cautious about dealing with them.

From my own experience, I know that toxic leaders abound throughout the Army.

Permit me a couple of speculations:

First, I think the Army (and other Services as well) unconsciously cultivates toxic leader traits through some of its formal leadership training programs: the R-Day and Fourth Class System experiences at West Point and other Service academies, the various OCS processes, and Ranger School. In some of these programs, much is made of “Schofield’s Dissertation on Discipline,”  quoted in full below.  Practically, Schofield’s guidance is honored much more in the breach than in the observance.

Second, I think toxic leaders are tolerated and rewarded because, at least in the short term, they tend to be effective. At various costs to subordinates, they often succeed in satisfying bosses’ short-term objectives. Since much of the Army rotates frequently, toxic leaders seem to escape the long-term assessment and accountability for their actions that longer associations might generate.

In his article, LTG(R) mentions, “… suspicions that many reports of toxic leadership are from dissatisfied subordinates who failed to meet the legitimate expectations of demanding bosses. …” While he dismisses that possibility, it is also internally inconsistent since one of the traits of toxic leadership, one which I did not see mentioned in his current article, is perfectionism. Perfectionism could, at least in may cases, be a logical counter to a perception of “legitimate expectation.”

I think LTG(R) Ulmer correctly assessed the Army’s institutional view of toxic leadership when he says, “… The toxic leader phenomenom is a slowly growing organizational cancer that can be tolerated by resilient people for a long time before causing sharp institutional pain. …” and “… Perceived institutional nonchalance about the situation is a serious contradiction of espoused Army values. …”  As the old saying goes, “it’s mind over matter.” With all that’s going on in the Army today, the Army doesn’t yet mind enough and the troops don’t yet matter enough.

For those interested, I quote Schofield’s Dissertation on Discipline, as presented in the graduation address to the USMA Class of 1879, in its entirety, below:

“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 instruction and give commands in such a manner and 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 to others, cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests disrespect towards others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself. “

MG John M. Schofield

Phi Beta Iota:  Toxic leadership is not to be confused with unethical or unconstitutional leadership.   The focus here is on methods rather than ends.  The US Army–and the rest of the US Government–suffer from multiple “leadership” cancers, the most serious being leadership that lacks both intelligence and integrity.