Army looks to purge bad leaders
I suppose everyone responds differently to criticism directed in different manners. With some soldiers I could just talk to them and know that the deficiencies would get fixed. But I also had a troop I tried to teach land navigation to that resulted in my throwing my helmet against a tree and walking away. I've taken a good number of butt chewings in my day, I was a horrible cadet in military school, and only a marginally better soldier. Butt chewings were easy. Adopt the 50 mile stare and think about something else. But 15 years later I still remember my platoon sergeant (SFC Matthews) telling me in Srpski Brod, Bosnia one time that I had really let him down the previous day. That was it. No yelling, no specifics Just that I let him down. If I could have made it up to him by jumping on a grenade, I would have happily done so. I was just devastated. To me, that was the most effective leadership of all time.
So, different leadership techniques are required for different folks. But what isn't needed is what this NPR article refers to as "toxic leadership."
Top commanders in the U.S. Army have announced publicly that they have a problem: They have too many "toxic leaders" — the kind of bosses who make their employees miserable. Many corporations share a similar problem, but in the Army's case, destructive leadership can potentially have life or death consequences. So, some Army researchers are wondering if toxic officers have contributed to soldiers' mental health problems.
I can give you the results of the study now: yes, absolutely they do.
[The researcher, Dave Matsuda] looked at the cases of eight soldiers who had recently killed themselves and interviewed friends of the victims.
"I crisscrossed Iraq and interviewed 50 soldiers," Matusda recalls.
A more complicated story began to emerge, he says. In addition to major problems in their personal lives, the victims also had a leader who made their lives hell — sometimes a couple of leaders — Matsuda says. The officers would "smoke" them, as soldiers call it.
"Oftentimes platoon leaders will take turns seeing who can smoke this guy the worst. Seeing who can dream up the worst torture, seeing who can dream up the worst duties, seeing who can make this guy's life the most miserable," says Matusda.
He says the evidence did not show that the soldiers' leaders caused them to commit suicide. But the soldiers' friends said leaders had helped push them over the brink.
"When you're ridden mercilessly, there's just no letup, a lot of folks begin to fold," Matsuda says. He submitted a report stating: "[S]uicidal behavior can be triggered by ... toxic command climate."
What's worse is that some of these guys were being elevated over their more effective peers according to another of the researchers:
Toxic leaders were also good at snowing their superiors — so they kept getting promoted. Reed says after Military Review published his article about the study, he was flooded with emails from other soldiers who complained about the toxic leaders they knew.
"The stories just poured out at that point," Reed, who now teaches leadership studies at University of San Diego, says. "It was distressing because the Army is a world-class organization and at some point you have to ask, 'No, really? Are we tolerating this kind of leadership behavior?' "
Go read the entire thing, it really is fascinating. My experience is that the military, like everywhere else has great leaders, and poor ones. It's not alone in that. You find it in every facet of civilian professional life as well. The big difference is that the military has to be able to somehow address these issues or people get killed. If you don't like your Captain you can't just up and move to a different company. You are there for the long haul, like it or not.
The Army then launched a pilot project to take a second step toward dealing with the problem: In addition to having leaders evaluate their subordinates, as just about every institution does, they asked subordinates to evaluate their leaders — anonymously. The pilot project evaluated only eight commanders, in what the Army and management specialists call a 360 evaluation, but Perkins says the Army plans to expand the system by October 2014.
Meanwhile, Army commanders have taken more aggressive steps: They have kicked a small number of officers out of their jobs for being toxic. And the issue is becoming part of a national conversation. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told the Senate chamber recently that destructive leaders are one reason why the number of sexual assaults in the military is so high. "You've just heard from these victims, there are too many command climates that are toxic," she said.
Like I said, go read it all.