Does the Army have Toxic Leadership?

Officer and NCO circles have been roiling — especially officer circles — with the turbulence created by a rock that LTG (R) Walter F. Ulmer, Jr. threw into the still pools of the seldom-too-introspective Army magazine. Army is published by the Association of the United States Army and tends to be the voice of the Army Establishment, which LTG Ulmer’s career instantiates rather well.

And LTG Ulmer is worried. The title of his article is “Toxic Leadership–What Are We Talking About?” [.pdf], and only a general, perhaps, or a senior colonel, would ask that question. The Joes know, the sergeants know, the company and platoon leaders and the poor exhausted majors run ragged by staff busywork, they know. They see it, they experience it, and with each change of command or PCS they say a silent prayer that they’re not about to experience it again.

The article: Ulmer_0612 [pdf link] was forwarded to us by a retired colonel who doesn’t have to ask the question, because he’s been on the receiving end of it at every stage of his career (including, although he didn’t say this in his message to his mailing list of friends and other Army stakeholders, in the Pentagon with a toxic Secretary of Defense — who, we take pains to say, served a prior administration).

This is our colonel’s pull from what LTG Ulmer says in the article:

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.

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.

Our colonel also noticed something that LTG Ulmer did not discuss: one of the characteristics of a toxic leader is unreasonable perfectionism. One is reminded of LeMay’s apocryphal dictum: “To err is human, to forgive divine… neither of which is the policy of the Strategic Air Command.”

Fiction gives us the great example of a toxic leader, Captain Queeg, whether on Herman Wouk’s pages or as portrayed on the screen by Humphrey Bogart. Unfortunately we have plentiful examples in non-fiction and in the news. A historical parallel to Queeg was the man who was at once overbearing martinet and consummate seaman,  A naval officer named Marcus Arnheiter in the Vietnam War had a command arc that was uncannily parallel to Queeg’s, except without Queeg’s mitigating factors.

Some recent examples of toxic leaders include the Navy’s termagant Captain Holly Graf (herehereherehere, here and here [and 17 other pages on that site — use the search]) and of course our favorite dirtbag, Colonel James H. Johnson III.

The Army’s got some toxic-leader issues, but the Navy, which recently fired a captain for having made gay jokes some years ago, not only ignored Graf’s career-long substandard performance, but after her retirement quietly upgraded her discharge from the General Discharge the inquiry imposed to an honorable discharge. The scores of sailors and officers whose careers she destroyed were not available for comment.

Two characteristics of military officer management create this problem.

  • Up-or-out makes raging careerist loonies out of otherwise normal officers. This was copied from 1920s corporate management practices but never got fixed when the corporate world binned it.
  • Officers are evaluated only by their superiors, which rewards suck-up, $#!+-down “leaders”. The corporate world has long since found benefits in 360-degree evaluations, which are only used by the Army in a couple of special operations schools.

(We say officer management, but NCOs are increasingly managed by the same dysfunctional rules that officers have long suffered from).

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