Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The annals of toxic leadership: Col. Frank Zachar on loyalty vs. Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer on what a good unit feels like

Col. Frank Zachar, recently tossed as commander of an Army brigade in Germany, allegedly told his subordinates that, "If we were disloyal … then he was going to take an ice pick and shove it in our left eye." Zachar is said to have explained, "It [is] all about loyalty. Performance does not matter, potential ...

Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.

Col. Frank Zachar, recently tossed as commander of an Army brigade in Germany, allegedly told his subordinates that, "If we were disloyal … then he was going to take an ice pick and shove it in our left eye."

Zachar is said to have explained, "It [is] all about loyalty. Performance does not matter, potential does not matter, only loyalty matters. If you are not loyal … you will not survive this brigade."

This reminds me, by contrast, of something I read the other day by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, one of the Army's under-acknowledged heroes, who led the way in the revival of ethical leadership following My Lai, when as lieutenant colonel he played a big role in a study showing Gen. Westmoreland, the chief of staff, how screwed up the Army was.

Col. Frank Zachar, recently tossed as commander of an Army brigade in Germany, allegedly told his subordinates that, "If we were disloyal … then he was going to take an ice pick and shove it in our left eye."

Zachar is said to have explained, "It [is] all about loyalty. Performance does not matter, potential does not matter, only loyalty matters. If you are not loyal … you will not survive this brigade."

This reminds me, by contrast, of something I read the other day by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, one of the Army’s under-acknowledged heroes, who led the way in the revival of ethical leadership following My Lai, when as lieutenant colonel he played a big role in a study showing Gen. Westmoreland, the chief of staff, how screwed up the Army was.

In 1986, Ulmer wrote:

What is the essence of a ‘good climate’ that promotes esprit and gives birth to ‘high performing units’? It is probably easier to feel or sense than to describe. It doesn’t take long for most experienced people to take its measure. There is a pervasive sense of mission. There is a common agreement on what are the top priorities. There are clear standards. Competence is prized and appreciated. There is a willingness to share information. There is a sense of fair play. There is joy in teamwork. There are quick and convenient ways to attack nonsense and fix aberrations in the system. There is a sure sense of rationality and trust. The key to the climate is leadership in general, and senior leadership in particular.

Maybe that should keep Zachar around as a living example of what not to do.

It’s hard times for separate brigade commanders in Europe — the commander of the 173rd just got himself "suspended." Anyone know what’s up with that? ("Bryan H. in Heidelberg," feel free to post anonymously.)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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