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Targeting toxic leaders

May. 2, 2013 - 12:35PM   |  
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Cases of misconduct and abuse of authority by military leaders have proliferated across the services in recent years, running the gamut from creepy serial sexual predators to vein-popping, f-bomb-dropping martinets.

Some cases are just bizarre:A Navy commander recently was fired after subordinates complained that he poked them in appallingly inappropriate places with his flashlight.

Most of the time, such “toxic leaders” are found out eventually and relieved. Some are even court-martialed.

But the real problem is that they made it to command in the first place. While there are processes available to displace toxic leaders, including command climate surveys and inspector general reports, toxic leadership is too dangerous and too common to let it slide. The fact is, objectionable patterns of behavior rarely surface for the first time at the senior command level.

Abusers direct their diatribes downward, and they get away with it because, in the military, the chain of command is sacrosanct. Only a very few subordinates will risk their careers to jump the chain of command and blow the whistle on a boss. It’s easier to just wait him out, knowing that if he doesn’t self-destruct on his own, he’ll eventually move on to another assignment.

That’s why a new proposal from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is so intriguing.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the military’s most senior officer, wants the military services to formalize “360-degree evaluations” for all unit commanders.

Dempsey isn’t saying how they should do this, but he makes a compelling argument for why: By giving leaders a total view of how they are viewed by subordinates, peers and superiors, they gain a new perspective on their own strengths and weaknesses, and on how their view of themselves differs from those around them.

The Army and Navy are already experimenting with the concept, which is increasingly common in the corporate world.

But the military structure and mission add their own set of wrinkles and complexities that must be worked through before 360-degree reviews can become an effective leadership development tool.

Among the issues that must be worked through:

Who should be reviewed? The subjects of 360-degree reviews should be commanding officers and senior noncommissioned officers at the company level and above.

Who should do the reviewing? Each commander should be reviewed by direct reports, indirect reports and peers in sufficient number as to ensure a reasonable level of anonymity for all reviewers (except the reporting senior, of course). Anonymity is critical to making this work.

How are reviewers selected? To guard against bullies picking their pets, or vindictive superiors intentionally manipulating selections, commanders should be able to select some of their reviewers, while others would be selected at random. This will ensure balance and fairness.

What happens to the results? The aim of the 360-degree review should be for leadership development, not to supplant fitness reports. These reviews can be addressed in counseling sessions with the immediate supervisor, and to inform an officer’s fitness report or evaluation. But it should not be used as a means of measuring one officer against another for promotion. Taken by itself, it is too subjective for that.

Toxic leaders have no place in a professional, all-volunteer military. Three hundred and sixty-degree evaluations could help identify such people early in their careers, allowing senior leaders to coach them to improve — or get them out of leadership roles before they become dangerous.

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