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The U.S. Air Force considers professional and expert leadership a valuable commodity. It recognizes a problem with the way in which some high-ranking leaders behave, adopting the general used term “toxic leadership”, and has removed commanders for this reason. This is not a problem that only the Air Force faces, but a problem across each military branch. This paper examines an Air Force Times article about the firing of a wing commander who was cited for toxic leadership. The paper defines what toxic leadership is, identifies toxic leadership traits, effects of toxic leadership and how to reduce toxic leadership.
That the Air Force has a toxic leadership that can be seen through the multiple firings of commanders, ranging from captains all the way to two-or three-star generals. The Air Force’s approach to toxic leaders should not only be to identify and remove toxic leaders, but to also educate and prevent toxic leaders from assuming positions of authority.
The Air Force must take the necessary steps to better train its young leaders toxic leadership traits and effects toxic leaders can have on a unit or organization. In addition, how the Air Force officer promotion system needs to be overhauled in order to prevent toxic leaders from progressing through the ranks.
Dyess Air Force Base, Texas has two wings, the 7th Bomb Wing (7 BW), the host unit, and the tenant 317th Airlift Wing (317 AW). The 317 AW falls under the Eighteenth Air Force (18 AF) and is broken into two groups, the 317th Operations Group (317 OG) and the 317th Maintenance Group (317 MXG).
Colonel David Owens worked as the 317th Wing Commander (317 AW/CC) from 6 July 2017 to 16 May, 2018 and oversaw both operational groups and the five subordinate squadrons. Wing commander is a duty title, not a rank. Typically, the wing commander has a support staff comprised of numerous agencies and the group commanders are the only members who report directly to the wing commander.
This allows the wing commander to concentrate on the wing’s primary mission and delegate authority to subordinates so they can accomplish their respective responsibilities. The principle of duties and responsibilities for a wing commander are laid out in the Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-2, commander’s responsibilities. Per AFI 1-2, commanders will establish and maintain a healthy command climate which fosters good order, discipline, teamwork, cohesion and trust. A healthy climate ensures members are treated with dignity, respect, and inclusion, and does not tolerate harassment, assault, or unlawful discrimination of any kind. The 317 AW operates as the largest C-130J Super Hercules airlift unit with a total of 28 aircraft, and 1,200 personnel assigned. The 317 AW works primarily as a tactical airlift organization, flying troops and supplies to deployed locations across the globe. (Dyess AFB, n.d)
On May 16, 2018, Col Owens was fired from his wing commander position by Lieutenant General Giovanni Tuck, commander of the 18 AF at Scott AFB, Illinois (Losey 2018). The Air Force Times would later receive a copy of the commander-driven investigation. The article stated that Col Owens displayed unreasonable levels of anger or physical aggression to his subordinates after hearing unwelcoming news and would publicly ridicule other commanders, senior enlisted and airmen on a weekly basis (Losey, 2018).
Testimony from airmen, who dealt with Col Owens, stated that he was quick to anger and felt like they were constantly walking on eggshells around him (Losey, 2018). His behavior towards his airmen rose to the level of “psychological abuse that degraded or insulted members of his command” (Losey, 2018). One airman tried to confront Col Owens about how poorly he had been treating other commanders during their weekly staff meetings. Instead of listening to what his airmen had to say, the report states that he kicked his feet up on his desk and told that airmen his attitude was “s—-y” and “f—ing terrible” (Losey, 2018). The same airman stated that “[Col Owens] did not care and was not going to ask him why he was upset” (Losey, 2018).
The final breaking point for many of Col Owens airmen was his disruptive behavior at an airmen’s retirement ceremony. This retiring airman wished to receive his Presidential Certificate of Appreciation from former President Barack Obama, instead of President Trump, as members of his family had worked for, the then Senator Obama (Losey, 2018). Upon learning this, Col Owens told an airman to “unf—“the situation and told the retiring airmen to receive a letter from President Trump, or would receive no presidential certificate at all.
The retiring airman would later tell investigators Col Owens had tainted his last day in uniform and for many of Col Owens subordinates, this was the final tipping point. Testimony from the investigation detailed how Col Owen’s attitude and “toxic conduct” had hurt many relationships with his senior non-commissioned officers in the wing, as well as his squadron commanders (Losey, 2018). Many stated that they only continued to follow Col Owens because they feared being reprimanded (Losey, 2018). The command-directed investigation ultimately confirmed that Col Owen had created a toxic work environment (Losey, 2018).
The study of toxic leadership is considered a difficult subject partly because while commonly used, the term does not possess a generally accepted definition. However, the Air Force utilizes the Army definition of toxic leadership, which is defined by Army Regulation 600-100 to be: “[A] combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. To be classified as toxic, the counterproductive behaviors must be recurrent and have a deleterious impact on the organization’s performance or the welfare of subordinates. An exacerbating factor may be if the behaviors demonstrate selfish reasons such as elevating one’s own status, grabbing power, or otherwise obtaining personal gain.” (AR 600-100).
Dr. Marcia Whicker, who is regarded as coining the phrase “toxic leadership”, has written numerous scholarly articles in the field of leadership and public administrations. She describes toxic leadership as someone who “maladjusted, malcontent, and often malevolent, even malicious” (Whicker, 1996). She goes on to explain how toxic leaders succeed inside an organization by tearing down others around them and focusing on selfish values (Whicker, 1996). Jean-Lipman Blumen, a professor of Organizational Behavior at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, who has also written over 180 articles on public policy, management, leadership and crisis management, (“Jean Lipman-Blumen Claremont Graduate University,” n.d.) defines toxic leadership in her article, The Alure of Toxic Leadership, as someone who “engages in numerous destructive behaviors” and often “exhibit certain dysfunctional personal characteristics” (Lipman-Blumen, 2006).
She further explains how some toxic traits include being “egotistic and arrogance that fosters incompetence and corruption” and “actions that intimidate, demoralize, demean and marginalize others” (Lipman-Blumen, 2006). Lastly, this follows suite with retired Army Colonel George E. Reed, who also noted that toxic leadership is hard to define, but said terms such as, “self-aggrandizing, petty, abusive, indifferent to unit climate, and interpersonally malicious” would help a clear example of a toxic leader (Reed, 2004). To demonstrate just how widespread toxic leadership is, Reed administered a survey to his students at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
Reed found that 61% of his class (which consisted of active duty Majors,) had considered leaving the military as a result of how badly they were treated by their supervisors (Reed, 2004). Reed later identified three key characteristic of a typical toxic leader: 1) an apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates; 2) A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational culture; 3) A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motived by self-interest (Reed, 2004).
A toxic leader can cause a great deal of harm and damage to not only an individual member but degrade the entire organization. Linda Fisher Thornton the author of 7 Lenses; Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership sites that some of the most common side effect of a toxic leader are: low productivity, low morale, high stress, employees start becoming detached and insulated to protect themselves and high turnover (Thornton, 2013).
Constantly working in high stress environment can have serious effects to ones health, and mental state (Thornton, 2013).
Toxic leadership has even been credited as a contributing factor to veteran suicides. In 2010, a study was done on the high number of suicides committed by Iraqi war veterans. (Maddox, 2014). Previous studies had looked at what was wrong with the soldiers: did they have a troubled past? did they possess mental health issues? Were they in debt? Dr. Dave Matsuda an anthropologist who was contracted for the study choose to interviewed friends of the eight most recent suicides and found that in addition to the significant personal problems each solider faced, many of the victims had a leader who was toxic (Maddox, 2014).
Dr. Matsuda did not believe these leaders alone caused the solider to commit suicide, but instead concluded “suicidal behavior can be triggered by toxic command climate” (Maddox, 2014). Reed agreed with this claim, arguing that “We do know that one of the precursors to suicide is a degradation in relationships. And, we do know that toxic leadership has a degrading effect on relationships. So, there is an indirect effect, meaning it could be a variable. It’s worth studying more'(Vergun, 2014).
In 2018, the Air Force Times published commentary written by an Air Force officer using a “Game of Thrones” pseudonym, Col ‘Ned Stark,’ enabling him to provide a viewpoint that ran contrary to the general Air Force culture. He wrote two articles: “The Air Force is not designed to produce good leaders” and “Wanted: Leaders we can believe in” (Stark, 2018). Col ‘Stark’ criticized the Air Force’s leadership development process and proposed that the officer promotion system needed to be changed. Col ‘Stark’ explained how leadership classes offered to colonels were optional and many students did not take advantage of it (Stark, 2018).
Col ‘Stark’ wrote that “Fellowship programs are even worse. Fellows don’t get a single assigned reading on leadership, let alone discuss it. Once again let’s look at the evidence: How many fired commanders were “distinguished graduates” or fellows in prestigious programs? Nearly all.” (Stark, 2018). Col ‘Stark’ pointed out how nearly all the Air Force’s up and coming commanders were picked from the pool of distinguished graduates and any marks against them were swept under the rug (Stark, 2018). Col Stark continued to criticize the Air Force by highlighting problems with the current Air Force officer promotion system.
Col ‘Stark’ explained how officers who worked along side with generals were picked for stratification which fast-tracked their careers; this allowed them to promote faster, thus missing out on years that they could have used to better develop their leadership skills (Stark, 2018). He advocated for more emotional intelligence classes to build trust and successful relationship necessary to solve airmen’s problems, and that they be mandatory. “Good commanders will work hard to mentor, develop and hold subordinate supervisors accountable. Better flight leadership results in better frontline supervisors. Airmen feel valued and cared for, so they perform better and decide to remain in uniform” said Col Stark (Stark, 2018).
While Col ‘Stark’ chose to publish his commentary with a fake name fearing it would cost him his career, it did the exact opposite. Chief of Staff General David Goldfein applauded the comments and ensured Col ‘Stark’ who later revealed himself to be Col Jason Lamb, an intelligence officer stationed in Texas, that his head, and career were safe. Gen Goldfein also offered him a job on his staff to help fix the officer evaluation program which is scheduled to debut in 2020 (Rempfer, 2018). Col Lambs remarks about the Air Force also lead the way for an increase in required leadership training.
Leadership development courses taught at Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, aim to better improve a leader’s people skills by making them more emotionally intelligent (Heitzman, 2020). Emotional intelligence is defined as an individual who manages to control his or her emotions and can influence the emotions of others (Emotional Intelligence, n.d). A Harvard Business Review cited that having emotional intelligence is a key leadership skill and that effective leaders are one who are aware to perceive others emotions (Ovans, 2015). Through simulations, airmen can play out and practice certain roles and be graded on how well they respond to each role. Lt Col Andrew Clayton, Air University Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies said, “You have to be able to connect with people, create relationships and understand how you impact the environment” (Heitzman, 2020).
The actions Col. Owens displayed in the article present clear signs of toxic leadership. Col Owens did adhere to the guide provided by AFI 1-2 and did not maintain a healthy command climate which fostered good order, teamwork, cohesions and trust as airmen felt as if they were walking on eggshells around him (Losey, 2018). In addition, he clearly treated airmen without dignity and respect with his foul language and acts of aggression towards them, another violation of AFI 1-2. Col Owen fits the definition of toxic leadership presented by Whicker by acting maliciously towards others (1996), Lipman-Blumen’s definition by engaging in numerous destructive behaviors, (2006) and Reed’s definition by being indifferent to unit climate and interpersonally malicious (2004).
Col Owen fits most of Reeds toxic leadership characteristics by showing an apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates by not listening to feedback when given (Reed, 2004), and showing a personality that negatively affected the organization with his stunt that tainted an airmen’s retirement ceremony (Reed, 2004) (Losey, 2018). While there is no evidence of Col. Owens causing direct harm to any airmen, his toxic leadership clearly caused “psychological abuse” (Losey, 2018) which could produce levels of high stress and low morale (Fishbruh 2012).
Col Owens showed a clear lack of emotional intelligence by not listening to his airmen as they attempted to provide him with feedback (Losey, 2018) and not trying to connect to those he oversaw (Heitzman, 2020). The article did not mention whether Col Owen was a distinguished graduate, which could have fast tracked his career, thus allowing for a lapse in leadership skills.
The airmen at the 317 AW tried to correct their leader as they saw the situation getting worse, but without a productive result. Mistakes Col Owens displayed sealed his fate as a toxic leader.
Trying to get rid of toxic leadership within the military is not be an easy task. Reducing In order to do this, leaders must create a culture that treats others with dignity and respect, while at the same time, encourages reporting inappropriate behavior without fear of being reprimanded. This involves several different components to positively reinforce desirable command attributes and minimize undesirable habits or inclinations.
The Air Force needs to make a conscious effort to educate young officers. This paper discussed how he Air Force defines toxic leadership via the Army Regulations and further defining toxic leadership and identifying characteristics. Explaining some of the effects toxic leadership can have on a unit such as producing low morale, and high stress environments. Lastly, discussing ways the Air Force can attempt to reduce the amount of toxic leadership by reforming its officer evaluation programs and through better education of emotion intelligence.
As stated before, the discussion of toxic leadership is a complex subject. It has varying definitions and traits, but can also be intermixed with terms of bullying, harassment, and abuse.
There is an abundance of research on the subject. I however believe that more education on what makes someone a toxic leader, identifying toxic leadership traits and having more classes on emotional intelligence will be more beneficial to the entire organization. Starting off with young officers and airmen will lead to more benefits down the road. I have been very fortune in my Air Force career to have not experienced anyone who I would personally call a toxic leader, but I have heard plenty of stories of toxic leadership. This a problem that won’t being going away anytime soon, but can be reduced through education.
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