In my relatively short Army career, I have seen more toxic leaders than in all my other jobs put together. The problem has now reached a catastrophic level, with a new report, conducted by the US Army, stating that as many as 20% of all leaders in the Army could be considered toxic. It is tearing the Army apart. This report goes on to state that the majority of soldier suicide involve a toxic leader which made life, a possibly already troubled life, virtually intolerable for the soldier. A former Army officer who now works for the New York Times says he thinks 20% is a low number, and I very much agree. Enlisted military jobs were listed as the most stressful jobs of 2013. Part of the stress is the leadership, not just the Taliban.
I never knew what a toxic leader was before I joined the Army. I had some bad bosses, but I don’t think I would have classified any of them, but perhaps one, as toxic. But in the Army, it has been the rare occasion that I have not worked in fairly close proximity to someone that possesses one or several of the Army’s listed traits of toxic leaders. I’ve scoured by brain to think of why it could be so bad compared to everywhere else.
First, let me say that I was skeptical that things were any different in the Army than they were decades ago before the Army’s suicide problem and before Toxic Leader became such a popular term. But several things have led me to believe that something has changed, and for the worse (following my thoughts on our nation in general I suppose). First, the suicide numbers are striking. It is more than statistically significant when the rate of people killing themselves doubles within a ten year period and shows little sign of dropping to the levels of seen before the problem arose. Army suicide rates are comparable to the suicide rates among males in prison. I am my Battalion’s suicide prevention officer, so I have a professional interest in this. I also have an interest because I have felt the burden of toxic leaders in the Army, and I can say that it effected me in ways that I did not think possible. The military used to have lower rates of suicide than the civilian world. One would expect this in a tight-knit organization in which everyone has a well-paying job, educational incentives, and health care. Also consider that the average soldier has fewer mental illnesses, more education and is less likely to be a criminal than the average US civilian. The Army’s response to suicide has been predictably clumsy and bureaucratic. It added several more blocks of training on how to identify soldiers who may be at risk for suicide and this of course entailed more paperwork, online training and seminars. Almost all of which only addressed the symptoms and not the cause of a very serious problem. It could be argued that this type of action adds to the despondency problem in the Army, by adding dehumanizing bureaucracy in the mix, something which Max Weber termed, The Iron Cage. What soldiers really need is very tight units which serve similar roles to families. People join gangs not so they can rob stores and shoot people, but to have connection with humans. I know this sounds stupidly romantic, but it’s easy to see and feel the effects of the disintegration of social connections.
Another thing that convinced me things changed is talking to people that used to be in the military before our modern wars. When they read about current issues and how things are done, or hear my stories, they shake their heads. They tell me it was never like this. I real forums online, too, in which high ranking retired NCOs (E8 or E9) say they got out because of the changes they say, an oppressive environment that slowly drained their desire to participate. Many of them state that this trend began 5-10 years ago, which seems to be in line with the suicide trend.
Thirdly, is my own experience. In my entire life as a professional, I have never met a higher rate of narcissistic personalities than in the US Army’s officer and NCO Corp. It’s now come to light that the narcissistic personality trait is at the core of toxic leadership. This is perfectly in line with my observations in the Army and also my assessment of where our society is headed. The Army is a great microcosm for almost any society, as the values held most dear and the traits most endemic reveal themselves explicitly in the military. Studies show and my own personal experience indicates that people in college and those that are not far removed from college have very elitist attitudes and think they’re better than others around them and in past generations. These are the folks that make up the officer corps. And as officers, they are taught by the Army itself that they are better than non-officers. I see this attitude every day. The article I link to shows the definition of narcissism:
“an inﬂated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves
All negative and positive traits are magnified in the military, especially during war. Transpose our world of selfies, metrosexual manicures, hourly Twitter updates on the current state of one’s hair, breakfast, pants or fecal matter, add the current focus on efficiency, bureaucracy and hyper-rationality and then throw in a college degree and rank, and we get the witch’s brew we call a toxic leader.
There are so many toxic leaders in the Army, I would dare call it a culture. I’m not sure what percentage would need to be toxic to be defined as a culture, but if we analyze what a culture is, we find that it’s really peer pressure in action. Peer pressure gets a bad rep. It’s the way people learn their boundaries within a society. In the Army, toxic leaders with higher rank will have a grievous effect far beyond their own immediate actions, because not only do they make many of their subordinated miserable, but some subordinated will copy their leadership style. The toxic leader is leading by example and everyone should fully expect that his toxicity will be seen by juniors as the way the Army works.
One defense against this could be philosophy. There should be schools for NCOs and officers that teaches the basic foundation of Western ethics and morality. Why not begin with Aristotle? Another issue that is probably contributing to the military’s problems, in the ever-growing bureaucracy. The Army is a huge bureaucracy. One of the biggest in the world. According to Max Weber, bureaucracy is the defining edifice of modern Western civilization. Bureaucracy is what maximizes productivity, it focuses on efficiency and makes perfection its aim. Bureaucracy is inherently dehumanizing. In the modern Western military, combine uber-bureaucracy with the inherent utilitarian aspects of fighting wars, and it seems we may have a system that drains humans at emotional levels. I think this is why many officers do not have the emotional intelligence required to properly lead people. In the current environment, emotional intelligence is simply not exercised, so it never develops. I believe that my time as a police officer developed my emotional intelligence to a higher degree than would have been possible if I started out in the Army. While there was significant bureaucracy as a city cop, much of the job required me to deal with a wide range of human emotions and situations. It made me realize that no matter how much we prize efficiency, human beings are not robots. When humans are placed in systems that ignore their humanity, they become despondent. This is essentially what Dilbert shows us.
I myself have felt the sting of bureaucracy and how it perpetuates the negative aspects of narcissistic leaders. The drive for perfection in order to look good in front of the boss trumps all else. One word on a PowerPoint slide that is not agreeable to these types of leaders results in the assessment that the product is a disaster. Font size and type become incredibly important, to the point where people are berated for Calibri instead of Arial. The content of the slide is secondary.
Steve Denning of Forbes magazine, writes:
Are the people who lead these 20th Century bureaucracies incompetent? When it comes to C-suite teams who don’t perceive that the world has changed and who try to cope with the new demands of the marketplace by pressing the bureaucracy to run harder, the answer is yes. They are incompetent leaders for the 21st Century. They don’t understand what it takes to succeed in their jobs. Comprehensive studies, such as Deloitte’s Shift Indexshow that they are running their organizations faster and faster into the ground.
And through their incompetence, pursuing bureaucratic management instead of radical management, these leaders are causing massive damage to the economy on a daily basis and to the lives of people who depend on them: Why Amazon Can’t Make A Kindle In The USA.
Denning goes on to write:
What’s striking about the list is that these relatively high level people are imprisoned in hierarchical bureaucracies. They see little point in what they are doing. The organizations they work for don’t know where they are going, and as a result, neither do these people.
The even sadder part of the story is that the organizations they work for are going down the tubes. Deloitte’s Center for the Edge studies show that the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 has declined from around 75 years half a century ago to less than 15 years and is heading towards 5 years. The pointlessness that these people see in their jobs is an accurate reflection of the deteriorating condition of the firms they work for. When those doing the work are dispirited, it is inevitable that customers too will be frustrated and that the firm will not prosper.
So, even at a purely utilitarian level, these organizations are failing? Why? Because they are made up of people and the people are not satisfied.
This is what is happening in the Army. And I see no evidence at all that the Army will fix it. The focus on efficiency instead of creativity, and the enraging habit of adding processes instead of taking them away is ruining the military. Most of our enemies have no bureaucratic systems, or they are much, much smaller than our own, yet they have basically defeated us, achieving their strategic aims while we founder and fib that we are winning.
I am a creative person. Since a boy, I have enjoyed stories and the fantastic. Instead of maximizing this, the Army usually crushes this instinct. I could write multiple blog posts about the bureaucratic problems in the Army, and how they drain people’s souls. Moreover, many of these processes are downright dumb.
The Army must radically change at multiple levels if the deleterious trends so evident are to reverse. But it won’t. As usual, I take the line: “We are doomed”. The feedback loops that keep civilizations more or less on an upward trend, are not present in the Army. When a leader is toxic, he is the Emperor with no clothes. No one will say anything and soldiers can’t quit to find another job, not for years, when their contract expires. Even when the problems of bureaucracy are identified, the reaction of government is to add more bureaucracy, when the first question ought to be: Why do we need to do any of this? How much do we really gain vs the time put into the process?
In the end, we’ll all pay the price. We’ve already paid a large one.