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Army wants to rid top ranks of toxic leaders

Jul. 31, 2011 - 04:59PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 31, 2011 - 04:59PM  |  
(John Harman / Staff)

LEGENDS IN BAD LEADERSHIP

The Army’s report cited these descriptions of toxic leadership, listing them as "extreme," "moderate" or "negative but not concerning":
Extreme cases
• "Serving as primary staff officer in a maneuver battalion where all decisions were very centralized, primary staff officers would have to wait two weeks for an appointment with the battalion commander. Initiatives, suggestions, opinions not vetted by the Executive Officer were crushed with prejudice. Honest mistakes resulted in comments like ‘CPT if you do that again I will put a gun to your head and pull the trigger,’ collective reamings’ of the staff and attributional behavior. One of the officers was also sleeping with subordinates’ wives, which divided the battalion as well."
• "Lack of concern; self before service; he was out for No. 1 — made the statement ‘I do not have to develop you, just work you til you drop; when you drop, I will just replace you with another officer.’"
• "Domineering, distrust of others, and uncompromising behaviors led to a work environment of paranoia and leadership by fear and intimidation."
• "The superior was intimidating and derisive of employees. He required certain workers to remove family pictures from their work areas and had different behavior standards for various employees based on their national heritage."
Moderate cases
• "Punitive, argumentative, overbearing, always right, didn't listen to other opinions, quick to react."
• "The individual was drunk with power. His integrity was lacking as he wrote checks he couldn’t cash in order to get people to align with him. He surrounded himself with yes men, and acted like a tyrant. His actions caused his staff to function independently and not as a collective Staff. The whole time period was painful at best."
• "Constantly putting team members down as incompetent. Conducting daily nonproductive meetings, playing silly games. Displayed no knowledge of mission requirements nor concern for the mission nor the organization or welfare of the organization's military, civilian, and contract members."
Negative, but not concerning
• "Information flow did not go freely and leader resisted input from others."
• "Micromanagement. Assigned same task to multiple people.

The Army is working to flush toxic leaders from its ranks. A survey of more than 22,630 soldiers from the rank of E-5 through O-6 and Army civilians showed that roughly one in five sees his or her superior as "toxic and unethical," while only 27 percent believe that their organization allows the frank and free flow of ideas.

"You could look at this and say 82 percent of Army leaders are doing good and great things, but our nature isn't going to be congratulatory," said Col. Thomas Guthrie, director of the Center for Army Leadership, which has conducted the Annual Survey of Army Leadership since 2005. "Eighteen percent is too high even if it is perceived. It's trying to change those climates out there, those individual behaviors, that's taking some time. We do have to invoke some change, and we have to look internally for that."

"I'm not surprised that some leaders have figured out how to balance the demands on their time better than others," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a statement to Army Times. "We'll address the concerns described in the report."

He said the report offers another data-point to help senior Army leaders better understand the challenges of continuing to produce the best possible leaders for an Army at war.

"Ten years of continuous operations have strained the force," Dempsey said. "It's important to remember that the vast majority of leaders in the Army are very good and are deeply committed to leading our nation's sons and daughters."

"Leadership is a combat multiplier, so … we should put out the best product all the time," Guthrie said. "We can't settle for second-best. Even if just a portion of our leaders aren't performing, we need to take a look at it. Leadership produces more leaders, not more followers."

According to the report, toxic leaders commonly exhibit these behaviors: avoiding subordinates, behaving aggressively toward others, denigrating subordinates, hoarding information, hoarding job tasks, blaming others for their own problems, being overly critical of work that is done well, and intimidating others. They also routinely see their subordinates as disposable instruments rather than people, have a destructive personality or interpersonal skills that are detrimental to the command climate, and appear motivated primarily by self-interest, according to the report.

Toxic leaders, who should not be confused with incompetent leaders or those who don't exhibit effective leadership behavior, work to "promote themselves at the expense of their subordinates and usually do so without considering long-term ramifications to their subordinates, their unit and the Army profession," according to the report.

The report also cites a personal communication from retired Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, a former III Corps commander, that estimates roughly 8 percent to 12 percent of Army officers at the rank of colonel and higher "are so toxic that they need to be removed from command."

Further, 83 percent of respondents said they observed a toxic leader in the last year. However, 97 percent said they observed an "exceptional" leader in the last year as well.

Rooting out toxic leaders may seem a daunting task, especially in an organization as large and diverse as the Army. But the report offers some potential solutions to this problem, including "an acknowledgement of the presence and detriment of toxic leadership in the Army.

"It also requires accurate and consistent assessment, input from subordinates, and a focus beyond what gets done in the short-term, toward a focus of how things get done, and the long-term effects associated with constructive leadership," according to the report.

The Army is working on several programs to combat toxic leadership — from creating a new tool that would better screen colonels competing for brigade command to re-emphasizing professional military education and revamping the Officer Evaluation Report.

Some key recommendations being considered or developed by the Army:

• Developing a Commander's Assessment Tool.

• Revising the Officer Evaluation Report.

• Enhancing leader development.

• Instituting 360-degree evaluations.

• Conducting annual command climate surveys.

This and other changes have the potential to create new ripples in promotion and command selection processes that have remained more or less unchanged for four decades.

The Commander's Assessment Tool is an initiative from Dempsey, Guthrie said.

"It's aimed at identifying potential leaders who have, for one reason or another, toxic blood, if you will," he said.

The idea is to create an anonymous survey that is filled out by the officer, his peers, subordinates and superiors.

"That information then goes into one report, a snapshot ... to identify abhorrent behaviors," Guthrie said.

The survey, which is still being developed by the Center for Army Leadership, would then be provided to a command selection board as it evaluates officers for command, Guthrie said. The goal is to launch a pilot program in fiscal 2012 to test the assessment tool in the brigade command selection board, he said.

"That's the intent right now for the Army, to try to use this as a tool to make sure we're picking the very best leaders," he said.

If things go well, the assessment tool will be implemented in fiscal 2013 and could potentially be added to command selection boards at the battalion level as well, Guthrie said.

As it stands, the system enjoys a "99 success rate," said Al Eggerton, a policy analyst with Army Human Resources Command. By his measure, the number of commanders who are removed is about 1 percent of the service's 1,400 commands worldwide.

"Where the imperfections are, they're dramatic and unfortunate, and we move on those quickly," Eggerton said. "The Army's system to weed out and identify those guys is excellent. We identify them quickly, and we don't wait to take action when we find things that are against Army values, show negligence or incompetence."

Revamping the OER

The Army is revising the OER, and proposed changes have been submitted to Dempsey and are pending secretary of the Army approval, according to HRC.

Officials at HRC declined to discuss potential changes because they have not been approved.

However, Dempsey told Army Times the Army is developing three versions of the OER based on lessons learned from the past decade of war.

"We know what leaders are asked to do in that kind of environment," he said. "We've pushed a lot of authority and capability to the edge, so we've identified some new attributes."

One OER would be geared toward company-grade officers, another toward field-grade officers and a third will be for senior officers, Dempsey said.

"They're not all different; integrity runs throughout," he said.

OERs are crucial, Eggerton said.

"Through the OERs, you can see this guy grow," he said. "You can definitely tell through the senior rater narratives lots about leadership style. This is where we identify problems as well."

The Army also is looking to put "some teeth" back in professional military education, Dempsey said.

"You have to go to school in order to be certified in order to be promoted, in order to be selected … in ways we haven't been able to do because the pace [of the wars] has just been running us ragged," he said.

Issues being studied include the length of the captains' career course and how to leverage emerging gaming technology to help soldiers learn better, Dempsey said.

"It's all about who are we as a profession and how do we develop leaders to be professionals," he said.

Guthrie said he believes the Army has lagged behind in leader development, primarily due to 10 years of war.

Leaders are grown through a combination of training, education and experience, he said.

"What we've seen the last 10 years is experiences, combat experiences, and we've decreased, unintentionally, the education and training," he said. "The Army is putting in place some policies right now to address that, and we're trying to get back that balance."

At the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., majors who are about to become staff officers — a precursor to taking command — have in recent years taken a leadership course that includes a hefty section on toxic leadership.

The course, L100, underwent a major revision in the last three years, which included more content on toxic leadership, said Ted Thomas, head of the CGSC's Command and Leadership Department.

"From the academic side, we have been trying to raise more awareness of the command climate, and toxicity is part of that," Thomas said. "We try to raise self-awareness and ask the question, ‘Am I a toxic leader?' When we ask who has worked for a toxic leader, every hand will go up, but when we ask, which of you are toxic leaders, we may get one or two raise their hands."

The leadership course discusses how to gain a unit's commitment and not just its compliance; how to develop a vision as a commander, so that troops know what to do when the commander's not around; and how to instill a candid, open climate.

Toxicity can be subjective, Thomas acknowledged. But, generally, a command climate is toxic when a majority of the subordinates feel it is, he said.

"Loyalty and cohesion sometimes cloud a soldier's perception of toxicity," Turner said. "A soldier may say it doesn't bother me that my commander yells and screams and is abusive to my staff, that's the same thing I do, and it clouds their judgment."

360-degree evals

Dempsey is considering whether to employ 360-degree evaluations as part of HRC's overhaul of the officer and noncommissioned officer evaluation reporting systems.

"We have to change the culture of the Army to embrace 360s," he said, and develop a culture where leaders want to know how they're viewed by their peers and subordinates.

Initial plans call for requiring leaders to complete a 360-degree evaluation. Their supervisors won't see the results of the evaluation but must certify that it was done, Dempsey said.

The evaluations would include feedback by the person himself, three superiors, five peers and five subordinates. Whether these evaluations will become a part of the OER or simply a tool for career counseling remains to be seen.

One criticism of the current system is that an officer can advance merely by impressing his superiors, who may be miles away from his unit's operations.

Eggerton suggested that 360-degree evaluations may better serve as a developmental tool.

"I would think that it would be exceptionally valuable for me to know, even if they have an agenda in making their comment, that is the way my subordinates perceive me," he said. "That may make me a better leader, so I'd like to know that."

The Army currently offers what it calls the Multi-Source Assessment Feedback Tool, or MSAF. It is a developmental tool that incorporates feedback from one's superiors, subordinates and peers, and compares that information against one's self-ratings. Its goal is to provide unbiased feedback from multiple perspectives so the leader can learn and gain insight into his strengths and weaknesses.

The MSAF is voluntary and is designed for self-development and self-improvement, Guthrie said. Officials, however, are encouraging leaders to use the MSAF, and once they identify areas where they need improvement, the Army offers online tutorials via its Virtual Improvement Center, Guthrie said.

Commanders can volunteer their unit for a unit-level assessment, and Guthrie said the Army is encouraging more commanders to do so.

One unit Guthrie cited conducted a unit-level MSAF before deploying and again after it got home, giving the commander insight into how his soldiers were doing before and after the deployment.

Leadership survey

The Annual Survey of Army Leadership goes out Army-wide to soldiers E-5 through O-6, and in 2009, researchers began sending the survey to Army civilians as well, Guthrie said.

This year, 22,635 people responded to the survey, which was sent out in the fall, for a 16 percent response rate, he said.

For the first time this year, the Center for Army Leadership asked specific questions relating to toxic leadership and its prevalence throughout the Army, Guthrie said.

"In 2009, we identified toxic leadership as a potential problem, so we studied it again this year," he said.

The full report from the survey was provided to senior Army leaders in June, and a supplemental report focusing specifically on toxic leadership was sent up the chain of command in early July, Guthrie said. The toxic leadership report was released publicly July 19.

"The Army is a huge organization, but we do these surveys, and we put it out there for everyone to see and they do lead to change," Guthrie said.

Retired Gen. Dennis Reimer, a former Army chief of staff, said he hasn't seen the survey but emphasized the importance of leadership in the Army.

"It's a life-or-death matter, so you want to make sure you pick the right leaders to do that," he said. "There are probably few other organizations that do this kind of survey to see where they stand. From the military standpoint, when you put the unit before self, that's where you've got to start. And you've got to focus on your soldiers instead of focusing on your bosses. I think that's really important, and I think the soldiers understand that."

The fundamentals of good leadership never change, Reimer said.

"Soldiers understand that," he said. "They're not looking for somebody who wants to win a popularity contest. They want a leader who knows their job and then takes care of them so they can do their jobs. It creates an environment where they can be successful."

Gen. Charles "Hondo" Campbell, who recently retired after commanding Forces Command, agreed.

"One good way to look at this is to look at it from the point of view of the soldier who's led," said Campbell, who also has not seen the report. "Soldiers expect their leaders to be men and women who have character and integrity. They have to be competent in their craft, technically proficient and tactically competent. They also expect their leaders to care for them and their families."

In his experience, Campbell said, leaders who become toxic often become that way because of arrogance.

"They have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, and it is the belief that they are important — as opposed to their understanding that they do important things," he said. "Fundamentally, that's the opposite of our value of selfless service."

Campbell said that while he's saddened to hear about the findings of the survey, he is not surprised to hear there are toxic leaders in the Army.

"[The Army] needs to adjust that leader's behavior or attitudes so he's no longer toxic or remove them," he said. "Soldiers deserve to be well led by men and women who are competent and have integrity."

Signs of a toxic leader

As of July 1, the Army has 436 general officers on active status. Of those, 133 have the title of "commanding general." The Army also has 50 promotable colonels who have been selected, and confirmed by the Senate, for promotion to brigadier general. Seven of these colonels are in command positions.

In addition to those officers, there are 4,951 colonels and 11,423 lieutenant colonels in the active Army. Of those, 417 colonels and 893 lieutenant colonels are in command billets, according to HRC.

So far this year, the Army has relieved four brigade commanders, the highest number since 2005. At least two of the firings had nothing to do with misconduct or battlefield performance, but were for issues related to toxic leadership.

The report cites the 2011 Profession of Arms campaign senior leader survey, which revealed that only 27 percent of respondents — command sergeants major, chief warrant officers 5 and colonels through general officers — said the Army is effective in identifying ineffective or negative leaders, and just 17 percent thought the Army is effective in rehabilitating or removing such leaders.

In addition, more than two-thirds of the time, toxic leadership was never directly questioned or reported, and 50 percent of toxic leaders are expected to achieve a higher level of leadership responsibility and are still emulated by 18 percent of their subordinates, according to the report.

The Army will continue to study and monitor this issue of toxic leadership, Guthrie said.

George Reed, a retired colonel and leadership expert at the University of San Diego who has written extensively about negative leadership in the military, said addressing the issue of toxic leaders is critical for the long-term health of the Army.

"We want to be effective, but even great organizations can be run into the ground," Reed said. "Soldiers will get the job done. They will fight the enemy, so why do we care? Soldiers will tell you lower retention rates, domestic violence, absenteeism, increased alcohol consumption, drug consumption, lack of productivity, lack of motivation. The spirits get crushed out of young up-and-coming people with high potential."

Retention suffers because soldiers who see bad leaders get promoted hold the institution responsible, Reed said.

"Their faith and confidence in the Army goes down when toxic leaders go up," Reed said. "The soldier looks at the promotion list, slaps his head and says, ‘They can't do that to my Army.' "

Managing Editor Richard Sandza and senior writer jtice@atpco.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Jim Tice contributed to this report.

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