Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Military memories: I realize now that when I was a captain, I was a toxic leader

By Lt. Col. "A.N. O’Nymous," U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist When I was a junior military intelligence captain and S2 for a combat arms battalion, I was a "toxic leader." There were no good reasons for this, but the fact that my immediate boss was toxic, that I was having personal issues, and that ...


By Lt. Col. "A.N. O'Nymous," U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

By Lt. Col. "A.N. O’Nymous," U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

When I was a junior military intelligence captain and S2 for a combat arms battalion, I was a "toxic leader." There were no good reasons for this, but the fact that my immediate boss was toxic, that I was having personal issues, and that I was leaning strongly toward leaving the military all had something to do with it. During this period, which lasted close to two years, selfishness guided my every action. I was not only selfish but lazy, desiring a sense of accomplishment without wanting to do the extra work it takes to build an effective, trained team. I cared neither about teaching nor mentoring my subordinates, and I did not listen to them. I also drove them hard. The result was an S2 Shop that seemed to check all the right boxes but was hardly a team.

My shop’s apparent accomplishments were strong. We exceeded the standard in every security inspection conducted by higher-ups, not only passing but incurring zero reports of deficiencies. We were also highly successful during our two deployments to a maneuver training center. During our first deployment, my templates for enemy disposition and my descriptions of enemy action were so accurate that I was under suspicion for cheating for most of this exercise. (I didn’t cheat; I had just done my homework well.) Near the end of this exercise, the brigade commander even sent the brigade S2 to me for training, which was no doubt a humiliating experience for that major. During my second deployment, my staff work helped my battalion defeat the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) in more battles than we lost — the only time that year that a friendly unit accomplished this feat.

But, I was the guy in my shop doing all the briefings and drawing all the templates. My troops’ jobs were to simply battletrack and take care of my logistical needs as our command post hopped from one place to another. Of course, they were unhappy doing such menial chores. My bright lieutenant, NCOs, and soldiers knew they should have been doing much more than this. All also knew that the way we were doing business was dysfunctional. What if, for example, something happened to me? In the long term, this would have been a good thing. In the short term, though, it would have been a mess.

Everyone was unhappy, and, unsurprisingly, a large rift developed between me and both my assistant S2 and senior intelligence sergeant. Eventually, this rift fueled further unprofessionalism from my assistant S2 and me. Things got personal.

Since my shop had met or exceeded every goal given us and I got along well with my battalion commander, I more than half-expected a top block rating for my final efficiency report. Our army being what it is, I probably would have received this rating in many units. Thankfully, I did not. My battalion commander, who was not himself a great leader, strangely exercised wisdom in my case. I’ll never forget, for my final counseling, his sitting me down and telling me: "You have been responsible for much of my success. When I list my battalion’s accomplishments for my boss, I do so knowing that you were instrumental in many of them. But, you didn’t get along with my majors, you didn’t get along with your soldiers, and I blame you for that. I’m going to give you a report card that is squarely center of mass, and that’s the best that I can do."

This warning was indeed the best thing he could have done for me, because this warning — along with an underlying sense of shame that I could not shake — initiated some serious introspection on my part.

Compounding this good fortune, in my next two jobs (I became a staff officer and company commander in Iraq), I was blessed with the best set of leaders with whom I have had the pleasure of serving. Watching them in action made a hugely positive impression on me. Reading a book that my next commander gave me, Major General Perry Smith’s Rules and Tools for Leaders, made a similar impression. Experiencing the positive climate change that took place in the Task Force 1st Armored Division headquarters when Brigadier General Martin Dempsey replaced Major General Ricardo Sanchez (the epitome of a toxic leader) also made an impression. Things began to click and fall in place, and I returned to a better path, continually learning as I went.

The article "Narcissism and Toxic Leaders" in the current issue of Military Review sheds some light on my failings then. Narcissism, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Joe Doty, Ph.D. and Master Sergeant Jeff Fenlason argue, is the essential condition for toxic leadership (though not all narcissists are toxic leaders). Narcissists have "an in?ated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves." Toxic leaders, who are not necessarily screamers, are those narcissists whose selfish, destructive behaviors create unhealthy organizations and demoralized troops. The authors persuasively contend that our military should develop "methods to enhance its [narcissism’s] positive attributes and raise awareness of its negative ones."

What I like best about this article is the authors’ observation about self-deception, how toxic leaders (giddy with their seeming string of professional successes, I imagine) often do not even know that they are toxic. That was certainly true in my case. Toxic leaders’ driving junior leaders from the military, their creating subordinates who are themselves toxic, their units’ members failing to act ethically in the absence of immediate supervision, their units lapsing into utter ineffectiveness when they depart the unit and the motivation to work (fear) is removed — all of these results have nothing to do with their leadership, these leaders tell themselves. They are great leaders, they think. After all, their report cards say so.

The authors conclude that our military needs to place "more emphasis on mentoring, self-awareness, self- regulation, and emotional intelligence." But, how do we do this, and is this enough?

Based on my experience, what our institution must do first to counter this persistent problem is to improve how we evaluate leaders. As a junior captain, I was lucky to get the report card I actually deserved. We need to take more of the luck out of this process. A good place to start would be with incorporating 360-degree feedback from leaders’ subordinates, peers, and raters into their efficiency reports. It is also important for our military to figure out how to better assess a unit’s health and to make this assessment a key element (if not THE key element) of efficiency reports. In other words, obvious indicators of mission accomplishment need to be better balanced with indicators of overall unit health and morale. These latter indicators might include, for example, command climate survey results, soldier retention rates, and the time the unit dedicates to the professional development of its officers and soldiers.

Getting leader efficiency reports right would require of our military a great deal of serious thought, study, and energy. However, the long-term results would be unquestionably worth it.

Just as important, though, is helping to prevent toxic leadership in the first place by improving education in our service schools. I should have been thinking about "organizational culture" and "organizational leadership" before I was a major at the Army’s Command and General Staff College. True, I received my commission from Officer Candidate School, where there is probably time for only a day or two of such discussion. However, robust discussions, videos, and authoritative and compelling testimonies regarding "what right looks like" in healthy organizations and "what wrong looks like" in unhealthy organizations would probably have made a huge difference for me if I had received this instruction at basic course, advanced course, and the now-defunct Combined Arms and Services Staff School.

Similarly, teaching cadets who are attending military schools and ROTC programs to recognize the signs of healthy and unhealthy units might make a huge difference for these officers, and such classes should be consistently taught at NCO schools, too. Such a block of instruction — regularly and consistently applied in service schools throughout a leader’s career — would at least get leaders thinking about putting their units’ long-term health and their troops’ professional development before short-term mission accomplishment. It is especially important that junior leaders receive this instruction while their character is still malleable. Our pushing junior leaders to units without this education, when they are prone to automatically emulate apparently successful leaders (who, in real terms, may not be successful at all), is harming these young leaders, their future units, and their future troops — in a few cases, perhaps, irreparably.

The views offered here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. military.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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