Identifying and Addressing Toxic Leadership in the Army

Disciplined response to authority remains a fundamental value that our Army upholds. The past decade has seen our true volunteer force execute complex operations with remarkable professionalism, which is likely unprecedented in history. It is important to note that these achievements were accomplished despite inconsistent funding and frequent structural changes over the years. Our Army also stands out for its self-reflective nature, with various studies investigating leadership and command climates. While "good leadership" is commonly observed, incidents involving "toxic leaders" garner attention and rightfully so.

Recent military journals have documented instances where Army and Navy commanders were relieved of their duties, presenting a cause for concern regarding toxic leaders, particularly in higher ranks. In the 21st century, talented individuals expect to work in environments that promote their wellbeing, making it crucial to address any toxic leadership behaviors.

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Before addressing numbers, impact, cause, and solution, it is crucial to define what a toxic leader is. According to Webster's, toxic refers to something poisonous and not far from being destructive or harmful.

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The definition of toxic leadership may vary depending on the culture. However, certain leadership styles that were acceptable in the past, such as those found aboard the HMS Bounty, would not be tolerated today. In modern times, soldiers have higher expectations for their leaders' behavior, which is defined as doctrine.

In response to a task given by the Secretary of the Army in 2003, faculty and students from the U.S. Army War College have described toxic leaders as individuals who prioritize visible short-term mission accomplishment.

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They are skilled at delivering impressive and articulate presentations and expressing enthusiasm for missions. However, they show no concern or are completely unaware of the morale and climate among their staff and troops. Additionally, they are perceived by a majority of subordinates as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible, and petty.

The notion is that not all facets of a harmful personality operate independently, as indicated in this definition. We highly value "expressive presentations and enthusiastic reactions to goals." The phrase "are observed by the majority of followers" in the 2003 definition holds significance. When determining toxicity in a leader, group consensus holds great influence. A study conducted by the U.S. Army War College titled "Leadership Lessons at Division Command Level-2010: A Review of Division Commander Leader Behaviors and Organizational Climates in Selected Army Divisions after Nine Years of War" examined and interviewed 183 officers from four divisions who had recently returned from deployments in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom.

According to the study, officers described toxic leaders as self-serving, arrogant, volatile, and opinionated to the point of being dysfunctional for the organization. However, they also noted that these leaders were very persuasive, responsive, and accommodating to their senior officers. The officers emphasized that these traits distinguished toxic leaders from those who were simply tough or oversupervised, lacked good interpersonal skills, or rarely took initiative in tactical situations. It is important to note that a leader being deemed inferior or unsatisfactory due to decision-making flaws, poor interpersonal skills, or lack of motivation did not automatically classify them as toxic.

According to a 2004 division commander study, it is possible to possess certain behaviors that make a person a highly regarded senior leader, such as making tough decisions on time, providing context and perspective, and visiting the troops. However, even with these behaviors, a leader can still be considered toxic by a majority of their subordinates. In other words, not all poor leaders are toxic, but all toxic officers are ultimately poor leaders. The upcoming version of Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership defines toxic leadership as a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have negative effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

A recent study conducted by the Army Center of Excellence for the Professional Military Ethic titled "ACPME Technical Report 2010-01: MNF-I Excellence in Character and Ethical Leadership (EXCEL) Study" emphasizes the importance of developing leaders who can distinguish between being firm and being abusive. It is crucial to identify and separate individuals who exhibit abusive behavior. Hence, a proposed definition suggests that toxic leaders are those who prioritize self-centered careerism over the well-being of their subordinates and unit. Their leadership style is marked by abusive and dictatorial behavior, which creates an unfavorable organizational climate.

According to surveys, interviews, and literature, other observations about toxic leaders include the following: they rarely take blame or share glory, they are not toxic all the time or to all individuals, they tend to avoid toxic behavior when in the presence of their superiors, they sometimes have positive ideas and accomplish good outcomes, they can be charming when it suits them, they are often described as highly intelligent and hard-working, they often have a group of devoted "fans" who consistently work for them, subordinates have viewed them as toxic since the early stages of their career, their boss is either unaware or pretends to be unaware of their mistreatment of subordinates and rarely keeps records of it.

LTG Walter F. Ulmer Jr., USA Ret., has held various leadership positions throughout his military career. He commanded the 3rd Armored Division and III Corps, served as director of human resources development at HQDA, and was the Commandant of Cadets at USMA. After his military service, Ulmer became the president and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership. He has also co-authored several studies on officer leadership, including the 1970 "Study on Military Professionalism" conducted by the U.S. Army War College, the 2000 CSIS study titled "American Military Culture in the Twenty-first Century," and the 2004 and 2010 studies on "Leadership Lessons at Division Command Level."

Due to the absence of a standardized definition of toxicity, subjective perceptions about a superior's behavior, the emphasis on loyalty and resilience in our Army culture, and the presence of some esteemed officers known for being harsh, estimations of the quantity of toxic leaders are only approximations. However, the subjectivity diminishes when we evaluate the effect of toxic leadership on the organization's climate.

Mutual trust is essential for successful mission accomplishment and the sustainability of an organization. On the other hand, toxic leaders can negatively impact a healthy work environment. In fact, even a few toxic leaders can erode confidence in the organization's dedication to strong leadership.

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There is a significant quantity of toxic leaders.

The Center for Army Leadership (CAL) “Technical Report 20113” is currently the best resource for information on toxic leaders. This report, which received national attention, estimated that toxic leaders make up approximately 20 percent of both noncommissioned and commissioned officers. It is important to note that respondents may have had a wide interpretation of what constitutes a toxic leader, but the study members made efforts to distinguish toxicity from simply poor leadership. A recent survey conducted at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College revealed a similar figure of nearly 18 percent. Despite the specific numbers, it is widely acknowledged within the officer corps that toxic leaders do exist, although their numbers may be decreasing compared to an unknown previous period.

Informal surveys conducted over a 15-year period at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) and the Army War College provide some valuable information on the percentage of perceived toxic leaders among colonels and general officers. This particular level of leadership is considered to pose the greatest potential danger to operational effectiveness and retaining high-quality personnel. The data presented in the chart on the following page are based on input from successful student officers who had received favorable treatment from the institution.

The percentages of senior leaders perceived by their subordinates to be outstanding/transformational (30–50 percent) would be considered remarkably high in any organization, which is a testament to the Army's persistent efforts in developing and selecting effective leaders. However, the "toxic" numbers are also noteworthy and call for an institutional response. If this percentage of toxic senior leaders persists, it could negatively impact a mission command culture. LTC Larry Ingraham, a highly regarded soldier and scientist, noted the significant variances in subordinate opinions of senior officers. He suggested that a personnel system that cannot differentiate between respected and disliked individuals must have a fundamental flaw.

Why Toxic Leaders Thrive in Our Society

Military environments are conducive to both cultivating exceptional leaders and tolerating despots. Our society values collaboration, allegiance, and deference to authority. We hold in high regard a proactive mindset. We foster a sense of pride within each unit and are uneasy with dissidents. We rightfully prioritize achieving our objectives. As long as the task at hand is relatively short-term, the detrimental attitude of overachievers can flourish without consequences. Subordinates hesitate to label their superiors as toxic. They possess a sense of loyalty and are determined to avoid discrediting their unit. They aim to protect their own reputation and avoid being branded as agitators. Furthermore, it takes an exceptionally perceptive and assertive superior to recognize a troublesome subordinate and take appropriate action. In most cases, the removal of a toxic leader is only set in motion after a public spectacle forces an investigation that reveals their harmful leadership as the underlying issue.

Extensive research has been conducted in the fields of social, behavioral, and cognitive sciences regarding toxic or destructive leaders. A noteworthy article, published in The Leadership Quarterly in June 2007 titled "The Toxic Triangle: Destructive Leaders, Susceptible Followers, and Conducive Environments," provides a valuable summary. It states that destructive leaders possess three key elements of charisma: vision, self-presentational skills, and personal energy. It is intriguing to observe how accurately these characteristics align with present-day Army officers. The aforementioned study explores the role of narcissistic personalities, whose entitlement often results in the misuse of power. Unfortunately, the connection between toxic behavior and severely compromised personalities does not bode well for resolving or developing effective institutional solutions.

Despite being aware of the issue for a long time, our institution has hesitated to address it directly. We have relied on making small adjustments to our education, training, and development systems, without a sense of urgency to take systematic action. When rare cases arose, they were dealt with individually, without much exploration into the underlying cultural issues. This is partly due to our institution's overall good performance and a mindset of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Additionally, senior leaders were understandably focused on immediate crises, leaving little time and energy to fix complex internal systems. While our institution is not completely broken, it does require some improvements.

There are ongoing concerns in the Army regarding the implementation of remedial programs that would give subordinates a formal role in personnel management. The main fear is that this could potentially weaken the chain of command. Furthermore, there are understandable suspicions that many reports of toxic leadership come from dissatisfied subordinates who did not meet the expectations of demanding supervisors. However, recent studies do not support this argument, although it may serve as a reason to avoid examining complex personnel systems. The phenomenon of toxic leaders slowly spreading within organizations can be tolerated for a considerable period before causing significant institutional harm.

Solution Concepts

We exercise caution when adopting practices that could potentially compromise command authority. While some officers have difficulty acknowledging the existence of toxic leaders among us, it would be dishonest for the majority of officers to pretend that there are none. However, continuing on the current path will not solve the problem. Additionally, current members of the force have little tolerance for toxic leaders, and the Army's perceived indifference to the situation contradicts its professed values. The mission command culture we strive for relies heavily on a trustworthy environment created by exceptional leaders.

Between 1996 and 2010, data was collected from selected CGSC and War College student samples. Two categories were used for this data.

Estimates in population

Essentially transformative: This person is both inspirational and encouraging, always prioritizing the mission and the well-being of the troops. They excel at coaching, building teams, and fostering a healthy climate. They hold themselves and others to high standards and are able to generate and reciprocate trust.

30-50 percent

The leader is essentially toxic as they alienate and abuse subordinates, create a hostile climate, and often rule by fear. They also reject bad news and are seen as self-serving and arrogant. However, they are skillful in upward relationships and are usually bright, energetic, and technically competent.

Between 8 and 10 percent

The integration of various ongoing initiatives into a comprehensive program is crucial, and education of the officer corps on the objectives, concepts, and details of these initiatives would be a significant factor in achieving this. According to the CAL 2011 report, this issue must be addressed at multiple levels simultaneously. One immediate objective is to prevent toxic leaders from becoming general officer candidates, which could restore confidence in the Army's promotion and selection systems and uphold Army values. To accomplish this, it is essential to establish a system for regularly reporting the outcomes of command climate surveys.

The Army should collect periodic data for climate assessments, similar to how they report on other aspects of readiness. The main focus for standardized climate assessments should be battalion-size units and staffs at division level and higher. Climate assessments have been used by commanders for a longer time than the 360 process and are still an important tool. However, unlike materiel and training readiness reports, climate assessments have not been collected Army-wide regularly. It is important to note that troop morale is crucial for combat power. Climate surveys can be customized for convenience and serve as a way to reinforce Army values. Additionally, they can provide early signs of toxic leadership. Issues such as who can access climate data and how reports are consolidated and reviewed require careful attention. Subordinates should provide selection boards with additional information.

The need to eliminate toxic leaders from hierarchical organizations, such as the U.S. Army, has led to the recommendation of revising the selection process for O-6 command. The 2010 Division Commander Study suggests providing boards selecting brigade-level commanders with additional data summarizing leadership behavior assessments from officers who have served under the candidates. This data would be collected from officers who had served as company commanders or principal staff offices when the individuals being considered were their battalion commanders. The assessments of subordinates are typically conducted one to three years after the candidate for O-6 command has left their previous command at the battalion level. It is important to note that this process is not a 360 "feedback" process.

The process of enhancing self-awareness and continuing growth as a leader should be kept separate from any input given by subordinates during the promotion, selection, or assignment process. The current officer performance database has limitations that make it difficult to identify toxic leaders before they are selected for O-6 assignments. Nevertheless, a carefully monitored pilot program conducted over several years could potentially uncover opportunities for earlier intervention and demonstrate the Army's commitment to addressing the issue. To facilitate this, a general officer steering committee should be established, reporting to the Chief of Staff and potentially led by the commanding general of U.S.

The Army Training and Doctrine Command is responsible for coordinating, guiding, and overseeing the implementation of necessary modifications and innovations to address the toxic leader issue within the military. It is important to note that there is no need for additional external studies, as the experience and expertise required can be found within Army agencies. The key is to coordinate and integrate current efforts into a comprehensive program that includes educating officers on the toxic leader issue. With the commitment and attention of senior Army leaders, creating positive environments that motivate and retain high-quality individuals is of utmost importance. It is also crucial to recognize that viable solutions for solving the problem and strengthening the institution are readily available, making this a prime time for action.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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Identifying and Addressing Toxic Leadership in the Army. (2016, Apr 17). Retrieved from

Identifying and Addressing Toxic Leadership in the Army essay
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