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.
The recent resignation of David Patraeus from his position as Director of the CIA shocked me, as it did the rest of the nation. During my time in Afghanistan, I spent 5 months listening to daily briefings given to then General Petraeus and even wrote papers that appeared on his desk. I was very impressed by his steady mind, rarely excited or angry. He obviously possessed a razor sharp brain, which perceived not only technical issues, but human nature. He was the penultimate warrior-scholar.
But, there were things that irked me about him, too. First, there was his eternal optimism. I felt that as things continued to get worse in Afghanistan, General Petraeus always put a positive spin on things. Many would consider this a positive trait, but in war I do not. One of the reasons for the Vietnam debacle was a corps of general officers who did not tell their civilian masters the hard truth. Because of the Pakistani safe-haven we cannot defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, unless we are willing to engage in a general war against the Muslim world. America could have achieved a more focused goal there, but I do not believe our generals made that clear. I also detected a sly politician in Petraeus. This made me suspicious of him, because I am suspicious of all politicians.
But I would go to war with David Petraeus anytime, anywhere. He is a tireless worker and a great Soldier. I did not agree with many of the central tenets of his counterinsurgency doctrine, though.
I cannot comment on the specifics of this case, as there are too many unknowns right now. What I can comment on is the current culture within the military that must be addressed. That culture is one of the male-female mentor/lover paradigm. I’ve written before about my experiences with women in the military, and they are not positive. I have never seen a work area where women in the Army did not encourage sexual banter. The flirting with high-ups was always over the top, and the females get preferential treatment. Before joining the Army, I never had a negative view about women in the workforce, so this is not some agenda I’m driving because of long-held personal sour grapes. The Army formed my opinion on the role of females in the military, and that opinion is negative, especially when it comes to combat arms. I’m not exactly sure what causes the difference between how females and males operate in a military environment and the civilian world, but I have some theories.
In this post, by Michael Yon, Yon states that Broadwell had incredible access to powerful people and organizations within the military, such organizations as the special operations community. The other female involved, Jill Kelley, is supposedly a “social liaison” (Read: Hot chick who loves tough, powerful, men) to the Joint Special Operations Command, (JSOC), which is the umbrella command for SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, and other elite counter-terrorism units. It is my personal opinion that both Broadwell and Kelley reek of high society trollers, addicted to power and prestige. This situation meshes perfectly with my personal experience in the Army. I began to notice that a considerable number of females wear the JSOC combat patch on the right shoulder of their uniforms, which means they have been deployed in some manner with special operators who kill very bad people. My suspicions have been supported by people of rank and connection. The female Soldiers who sport this patch are almost invariably good looking. The special operations community has a reputation for sexual hooliganism in Afghanistan and in many cases they hand pick females to serve as their camp followers for sexual gratification, much like during the American Civil War. One story which made its way from Afghanistan had 50% of a Female Engagement Team (FET) becoming impregnated by members of the Special Forces unit they were deployed with (FET almost always deploys with Special Forces–very convenient). Not surprisingly, many members of FET are attractive, athletic alpha females–the exact kind of lady special operators seems to prefer and the exact kind of woman who is aggressive enough to pursue rough men in a war zone. We should know that the Army spends millions training each member of FET, teaching them a language and cultural intricacies. To have them sent home early from deployment because of pregnancies is costing taxpayers serious cash, but that’s the price the Left is willing to pay in the name of equality. Yet, the media, which can delve into even TOP SECRET government documents, fails to report stories like these. I wonder why…
Jill Kelley appears to be a JSOC socialite. I wonder what it would take for me or any other man to hold the title of “social liaison’ for America’s most secret organization? I’m sure having a vagina couldn’t hurt.
Broadwell was given, by most counts, access to Petraeus, that few, if any ever had. I conducted important intelligence work in Afghanistan, trying my best to see what would help America win its war, hopping the politically correct hurdles like a rabbit dodging Taliban gunfire. No one listened. I should have been a hot chick, then the Taliban would have paid, and maybe Soldiers would have lived. I would never, as a Soldier, have had the access to Petraeus’ ear such as did Broadwell. Yet the current culture of journalist as celebrity and adoration of females for the sake of maintaining the possibility of sexual hook-up, trumps national defense.
It gets better. Now, ISAF commander John Allen is under investigation for allegedly having inappropriate conversations with Kelley. Shocking, I say. A beautiful, military socialite latching onto Army generals–the most powerful men in the world.
When I was working for the police department, an old salt told me about the 70s. Women would park out in front of the police department at the end of the day, waiting for cops to get off shift. Most of these women were strangers to the cops, but had the disease that Broadwell and Kelley apparently have: An addiction to men of authority. Men have their weaknesses–mostly it’s that we like the approval of women and we like sex. But these things are well-publicized. What is not publicized is female predation on men of power, money and fame. It’s glaringly obvious in the military, it’s deleterious to the defense of our nation–and no one cares because it involves the feminist narrative.
We better clean up our act. But I doubt we will.
I’m currently reading “No Easy Day”, by Mark Owen ( pseudonym), the story of the mission by SEAL Team 6 to kill Osama bin Laden. In chapter 3, he relates an incident in which he and the team had to pack for a mission:
“We worked under “Big Boy Rules” at the command, which means there wasn’t a lot of management unless you needed it.”
At one point the author approaches a veteran SEAL and asks him what he should pack. The vet looks at him and says:
“Dude, what do you think you need to bring for deployment? Load it,” he said. “This is your guide. Bring what you think you need.”
Later in the chapter Owen says that training for war was constant, SEALS walked around in full kit moving from range to range.
Little Boy Rules are my main reason for choosing to leave the Army. The only way I could survive at this point is in Special Operations. Making up my own mind is what I miss most about being a cop. Not having someone hold my hand, stand me in a formation and yell at me about picking up trash. I can’t wait to get out and feel free again. As a cop, I decided what I carried for equipment, even what kind of gun I carried. While there were rules and regulations, they weren’t the focus of our existence; the mission was the focus. In Big Army, the regulations trump mission. Daily, we are reminded of regulations, while the average Soldier knows little about fighting wars.
As much as I complain about Little Boy Rules, I’ve seen first hand why they exist. It’s constantly amazed me the inability of people to do the right thing without being told or forced to do so. Some people I’ve talked to even say they like the military because it tells them what to do.
I have about a year remaining. I look forward to being an adult.
Headed to the National Training Center in California’s Mojave desert for a month. Hoping to crush “Red Cell”. I get better under pressure. 😉
See you in September.
Yesterday I went for a bike ride, approximately 18 miles total. I rode my mountain bike out Fort Drum’s gate, had lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings, a coffee at Starbucks in downtown Watertown, then rode back. I approached the gate guard with my ID card in hand. I was wearing civilian clothes because it was a day off for me. The guard stared at me for longer than I expected before asking, in an extremely foreboding tone: “Where is your reflective belt?” The Army reflective belt is part of the physical training uniform and is also worn during some outdoor activity, even in broad day light. Given that the Army’s current digital camo pattern couldn’t hide a Soldier in a 50 foot well, the idea that a green or yellow belt prevents many accidents during the day seems absurd. Joe makes fun of the belt all the time, asking if it deflects bullets.
I told the gate guard that I didn’t have my belt with me. Usually I wear by belt on bike rides, but to be honest I wasn’t sure if I needed to wear it when I was out of uniform during the day. Apparently I do, because the guard made if very clear that if I ever rode my bike to the gate again without a belt, the guards wouldn’t let me in. The base is the size of a small town, so this green belt is valuable indeed and grants one elite status by actually allowing Soldiers to get to their homes. I guess I would have been sleeping in the woods outside the gate without my belt.
The guard gave me a pass for my beltless sin. As I rode my bike away, I grew increasingly pissed at the situation. Here I was a guy who joined the Army out of a sense of duty, a married adult, with kids, a former cop who arrested people for real crimes–never because American citizens weren’t wearing reflective material–being told by some retired military fellow longing for his glory days that I couldn’t get back to the place where I lay my head because I didn’t have a green belt on. Yeah, I know. He was just doing his job. Which is why I nodded my head and rode off without arguing with him. Then it occurred to me that a general officer probably made the dumb reflective belt rule. Someone responsible for an entire division in the most deployed unit in US military history actually made a rule this inane. All the same time, General McChrystal was issuing rules of engagement in Afghanistan that said we couldn’t fire illumination rounds during firefights at night if we thought there was the smallest chance an empty illumination canister could fall on a farmer’s hut. Never mind that we can’t see the enemy that’s shooting at us.
And so as I see it, this is a symptom of why America can’t finish off its modern day wars. Its military is incredibly small minded. We have the brightest, shiniest toys any Soldier could hope for. We just have no idea what we’re doing strategically. As I once said to an analyst buddy of mine in Afghanistan: “Stupid people place equal importance on all things.”
Don’t get me wrong. The Army has some very smart people within its ranks. But it is an utterly broken culture, devoid of the agility, creativity and openness needed to fight today’s wars. We’re forced to rely on drone strikes in Pakistan and hope for the best. The only units in the Army that possess the needed qualities to fight are special operations forces, and they know how ponderously dumb Big Army can be. Many times, the special operators avoid working with regular military folk while deployed because they consider them amateurs.
As long as Soldiers know more about the regulations covering the proper wear of the reflective belt than they do Sun Tzu, expect America to continue making itself look foolish.
My recent post, “The Army doesn’t give a !@#$ about Soldiers”, brought two comment that made me think. I often wonder how the Army has changed over decades and if what Soldiers experience now is just what they experienced in 1983 and before. A friend of mine was in the Army in the early 90s and he loved it. He was in air defense artillery in Germany. He and I think a like on most things and when I describe some of the things that go on in today’s Army, he gets depressed. I told him about one instance in which the company commander and 1st sergeant saw that my section was playing basketball on a Friday. The commander became upset because we weren’t doing PT we were playing basketball. It was clear that the commander did not play sports in high school or college and only thinks of them as games. Basketball is one of the toughest physical challenges there is, but to him we were having fun, which can never be part of training. When I told my Army veteran friend this story, he said, “That story makes me hate the Army.”
I constantly ponder the Army life. Sometimes I think I’m too weak. But I know I’ve been successful, if not comfortable. But there is so much nonsense. So much distracting bureaucracy and inexperience.
Many people tell me that I should try out for Army Special Forces. I’ve resisted this due to my age, but I did go to one of their recruiting briefings when I was in Germany. The recruiter was a SF qualified Sergeant First Class, and what he had to tell us had me chomping at the bit. He said that he hated the Army before he joined SF, that it’s been so long since he stood in a formation that he thought he’d forgotten how. That there was a brotherhood in SF you couldn’t find in regular Army. He stood in front of his audience with his hands jammed in his pockets, against regulation. To me, here was a man who understood what was important without an Army manual telling him. Some Soldiers in SF say they could never be regular Army again. Andy McNab, a former member of Britain’s elite Special Air Service, writes in his books, that one of the first things he noticed when the SAS members walked through his work areas, was how quiet they were; no yelling, no motivational speeches, no barking inanities. McNab went on to become the most decorated active soldier in the British army during his tour.
I’m not saying I’m a soldier of McNab’s quality. I’m sure I’m not. But I don’t believe my mindset fits that of the regular Army as an enlisted person. I just want to get the job done, and be able to focus on the mission. I want time to work on my mission. Please read Mark Bowden’s, Black Hawk Down, for an understanding of how elite troops view even the “Hooah” types in the Rangers. The Delta operators, men picked for unconventional thinking and quiet professionalism, looked at the Rangers and regular Army with a bit of scorn. And it wasn’t just elitism at work. They saw immaturity, dysfunction and a focus on the wrong issues.
The best way I can state what I’d like to do and be in the Army is by quoting someone else, Jean Larteguy, a former French soldier who wrote about the French conflicts in Indochina and Algeria among other wars. Larteguy says:
“I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.”
Sign me up for that Army, too.
Recently, I’ve been reading a book called “Black Hearts”, a story about a platoon from the 101 Airborne is Iraq. The story is not a pretty one. It is in fact so disturbing to me that I’ve had to put the book down for days at a time on several occasions. But I will finish it eventually. At the core of the story are bad Army leaders, who think they can bully and abuse people into performing well. One leader in particular, a battalion commander, lords himself over his company captains and blames them for every bad turn the war takes in his area of responsibility.
As I continued reading the book, one point kept standing out: America simply didn’t have enough troops to do all of the things necessary to control the country. In one instance the commander ordered that checkpoints be set up along a road, manned by a squad of soldiers at a time. Because there were so few troops, the checkpoints were usually only manned by 4 troops instead of 10-12. In order to satisfy brigade staff, the battalion reports indicated the checkpoints were fully manned, just so brigade would’t complain. The soldiers would have to stay at these checkpoints for days on end, sleeping on the ground or in their vehicles and never taking their body armor off because of regulations. Eventually an insurgent simply walked up to a checkpoint and shot two soldiers, killing them. One soldier had his helmet off and was shot in the neck. Investigators found that he would have dies even if he had his helmet on, but the battalion commander told the soldiers of his unit that the dead soldier “deserved to die”, because he had his helmet off.
In this situation, a lack of troops made the effects of bad leadership much worse. In fact, too few troops makes everything worse in military operations. One would think this would be obvious, but the modern military is obsessed with technology to the point it believes it needs only a skeleton crew of humans. In the current environment, soldiers are so busy that many times they don’t even know how to use newer technology because there is no time to train. I can attest to this fact.
My brigade at Ft. Drum, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, is currently at only 70% manning. This is due to draw downs and the fact that units in Europe have not yet been dissolved, so troops are spread thin. The 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum is the most deployed unit in the Army since 2001. Everyday is chaos at my unit. There is not enough solders or time to get everything done that needs doing. I feel, personally, as if I have to know everything about everything, that there are no systems in place to keep things running smoothly. Training and maintenance go by the wayside because we are always trying to catch up on bureaucratic functions. In effect, we are a self-licking ice cream cone. It is very stressful on everyone, especially the enlisted people, since shit always rolls downhill. Remember, a Private gets in more trouble for losing his rifle than a General does for losing a war.
A few months ago my unit took a “command climate survey”, in which soldiers were asked to rate their leaders and general working environment. The number one complaint from non-commission officers was that they felt they were over worked. I’m sure many people in many jobs feel they are over worked, but I wish people could see the hours and work that a typical NCO int he Army puts in.
Today, our battalion commander, a man I very much admire, spoke to 2-22 Infantry. We are preparing for a large training exercise and were given very short notice about the event. The commander said that when he was first coming up in the Army, the unit would have had two years notice to prepare. This year we were given 21 days. The amount of stress this creates is difficult to explain. And things like this happen almost monthly at my unit. There is no individual in the Army to blame, but we as a nation and our government has to look very seriously at the effect our high tempo-low numbers strategy is having on our military and the individuals that make it up. The low retention and high suicide rates are no coincidence.