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Opinion

Toxic leadership in the military

A bad boss makes life miserable. Everyone who's been in the workforce knows this.

I spent 14 long months working for a senior manager who salivated over the interns, demeaned subordinates, took credit for others' work and poisoned the atmosphere with rumors and gossip.

I was free to leave, of course — and did. I don't know how military members in similar environments, who can't leave the service, are bound to follow orders and observe the chain of command, survive.

A 2011 survey by the Center for Army Leadership found that most subordinates "believe they have interacted with toxic leaders, and that the problem is severe."

This week, in an NPR report on toxic leaders in the military, an anthropologist the Army hired to find out why soldiers were committing suicide noted that the reasons weren't just personal problems. They "also had a leader who made their lives hell," the report said.

Among the misery inflicted: sexual assaults, harassment, physical abuse, assignments designed to sabotage jobs. Enough for some to commit suicide.

"When you're ridden mercilessly, there's just no letup, a lot of folks begin to fold," the researcher, Dave Matsudam, told NPR.

The Army is supposed to be tough. It's supposed to teach discipline, endurance, teamwork and strict observation of the chain of command. It's how the service keeps people safe.

But there's a difference between a boss who is demanding — enforcing rigorous standards and pushing subordinates to exceed their own expectations — and one who is toxic.

Identifying those leaders, however, and ensuring that they're rooted out before they do serious damage, is a difficult task. The Army's been working on it for more than a decade, without a lot of success.

In a 2004 column in "Military Review," Col. George E. Reed wrote: "Perhaps there is something about military culture combined with various personnel policies that contributes to suffering such leaders in silence. After all, soldiers want to be proud of their units, and the Army value of loyalty militates against airing dirty laundry. Subordinates might not report toxic leaders because nobody likes a whiner. We expect professionals to perform the best of their ability despite a supervisor's leadership style."

I keep thinking about Jack Nicholson's Col. Jessup, the tyrant in "A Few Good Men" who ordered violent "training" — fatal, it turned out — for a Marine he considered substandard.

Nathan Jessup was unrepentant. "I run my unit how I run my unit," he said. "You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances." He said he was protecting U.S. citizens and doing a job the general public preferred not to know about.

Sadly, Jessup's point, made in the 1992 movie, still rings true. It's easier not to know the hell our service men and women endure, both as part of their efforts to protect us and in the course of their work in a toxic environment. In the 2011 Army survey, nearly 40 percent of those who responded believed that it was unacceptable to seek help for stress-related problems.

The Army revised its doctrine in 2012 to define what toxic leadership means. As part of a pilot program, it assigned eight commanders to be evaluated by superiors and those reporting to them, according to NPR. Those 360 evaluations are supposed to root out problem officers. The Army plans to expand the program this year.

But that's one small effort in what needs to be a major examination of toxic leadership in the military.

The link between the tyrannical behavior of some military leaders and the sexual assaults and suicides being reported in the service is clear.

It's bad enough for a business leader to rule by fear and intimidation. In the military, toxic commands get people killed.

It's past time to eradicate the poisons that hurt our troops' ability to serve.

Candy Hatcher is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot. Email: candy.hatcher@pilotonline.com.
 

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