27 June 2011


TOXIC LEADERS. As reported in the Washington Post, a survey of 22,000 Army leaders conducted by the Center for Army Leadership found that "more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants (NCOs) had directly observed a 'toxic' leader in the last year, and that about 20 percent of the respondents said that they had worked directly for one .... The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner, or displayed poor decision making. About half of the soldiers who worked under toxic leaders expected that their selfish and abusive commanders would be promoted to a higher level of leadership. This may create a self-perpetuating cycle with harmful effects on morale, productivity, and retention of quality personnel. There is no indication that the toxic leadership issue will correct itself."

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has served in the military. Officers and NCOs tend to come in two flavors -- those who perform their duty with quality, taking the welfare of the men and women under their command seriously; and those who perform their duty perfunctorily, with an eye toward advancing their own military careers at any cost. Every subordinate in every war has known toxic leaders. They are the inept, insecure commanders who rely on the skills and abilities of those beneath them, rather than cultivating their own expertise. What is surprising to this Vietnam veteran is that the military is actually, finally addressing the issue. One obvious facet of the solution, as described in the article, is to factor subordinates' views into the evaluations of commanders being considered for higher-level posts. To do so would dampen the impulse toward arbitrary behavior based on power, and encourage the impulse toward rational behavior based on the larger tactical, strategic, and personnel picture -- even for those bent on furthering their careers.

In wondering about the timing of this study, I realized that the military may finally be coming to terms with the fact that their mission has changed. World War II was the last conventional war fought by U.S. forces. In ever war or engagement since, from Vietnam to Panama, Somalia to Iraq and Afghanistan, the field of battle has shifted from conventional warfare to guerilla warfare or counterinsurgency. Among those who are on the front lines, this is not news. But for those calcified, entrenched Cold Warriors who make up the bulk of higher command (including the Pentagon and many legislators who oversee military budgets), this shift has not yet sunk in. Hence, there is a widening generational disconnect between older commanders and younger ones, as well as between toxic leaders and righteous leaders.

A number of excellent books and films exist which present the new reality forcefully. Among them are Generation Kill by Evan Wright (made into an HBO miniseries), Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, and most recently, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck In A Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher (a book partially based on the former Army scout captain's popular and suppressed blog). Speaking to the issue of commanders' mentality being stuck in conventional warfare, Gallagher writes, "Many junior officers, myself included, agree wholeheartedly with the general's premise that a generation gap existed within the officer corps, although our perception of it differed considerably. After spending most of our deployments at combat outposts with our soldiers, we tended to identify and think like our men more than our superiors probably wanted. Such seemed impossible to avoid, though, especially when said superiors showed up in too-clean uniforms, criticized trivial things, like soldiers not shaving enough or not wearing a full uniform while they walked to the shower, and then drove back to the FOB [Forward Operating Base] in time for dinner. We fought a war. All too often, it seemed like they avoided it.

" .... Not all of our visitors behaved like that, of course, but enough did to create the stereotype. The good spoke glowingly in public, and if they saw something they wanted corrected, pulled one of the leaders at the outpost aside. The bad criticized in public, talked rather than listened, and never once realized they were treading in someone else's house.

" .... While the general believed junior officers lacked discipline and openly feared for the future of 'his' army and 'his' officer corps, we in turn believed that the current institutional establishment lacked the creativity and ingenuity necessary to wage a successful counterinsurgency. The very top of the flag pole implored us to remain flexible and celebrated the innovative, different manner with which we approached problem sets. We were recruited and trained to make quick decisions on the ground, so that's what we did when we arrived in combat. After the first four years of war, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that approaching Iraq from a conventional mindset only led to calamity."

It is unlikely that conflicts anywhere in the world will return to conventional warfare anytime soon. Urban warfare and counterinsurgency are likely to be the most frequent form of armed conflict for years to come. In this environment, we need political and military leaders who are flexible, creative, and perceptive -- whose focus is on the mission, not on their own careers. Further, we need leaders who will not commit our military to unjust conflicts, or to conflicts intended to gain control over resources or territory which are not ours. If we wish other nations to conduct themselves ethically, we must lead by example.

NOTE: The concept of toxic leadership, although presented here in a military context, clearly applies across the board -- in academia, in corporations, in any workplace or any setting in which one person has power or influence over another.

POLITIFACT. I've discovered a wonderful online resource for ferreting out truth and accuracy, or their opposites, as mouthed by political leaders and those who aspire to high office. The website Politifact devotes itself to separating fact from fiction, holding to the fire the feet of those who get carried away with their own rhetoric, regardless of their party affiliation. Each entry is accompanied by a graphic Truth-o-meter, with values ranging from honest to pant-on-fire false. Whether you want to fact-check a regional politician, a Presidential candidate, or the President himself, Politifact is a most useful tool in separating the wheat from the chaff.

CONROY. Yesterday's post was devoted to quotes from Pat Conroy's novel Beach Music. As a followup, I offer this link to a famous letter which Conroy wrote to the editor of the Charleston Gazette, addressing teachers, censorship, and banned books. In the eyes of this lifelong reader, the only act more vile than banning a book is burning one. Conroy's defense of English teachers, of academic freedom, and the freedom to read and learn from any source, is nothing short of inspirational. It should be required reading for every school board, every librarian, every legislator who would limit or remove our civil liberties, control our thoughts, or in any way deprive us of the ideas of others .... however much those ideas may differ from our own.

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