#52 The Toxic Unknown

Due to my writings here and another blog I write on Army Knowledge Online (AKO), I have gained some attention recently from people throughout the Army especially with regard to the "Black Hearts" incident. Over the past month or so, I have been in contact with a few different folks from the Army Center of Excellence for the Professional Military Ethic at the US Military Academy at West Point who have expressed an interest in looking at the ethical leadership challenges posed by incidents such as occurred to 1st platoon. After 4 years (yesterday was the 4 year anniversary of the attack on the Al Janabi family), there appears to be an interest in looking at the incident in greater depth to see what leadership lessons can be learned to try to ensure that something like that event never happens again. I am more than pleased to try to be of assistance to their efforts and am grateful for their interest in my work, both here and on AKO.

Yesterday I was sent an article entitled 'Toxic Leadership' by C.C., one of the administrators at Battle Command Knowledge Systems, the Army's official information sharing website embedded in Army Knowledge Online (AKO). The article was published in the July-August 2004 issue of Military Review Magazine and was written by Col George E. Reed. The moderator who sent it to me thought I might be interested in the authors thoughts on command climate and the impact leaders have on the overall feeling in their units. Col Reed offers the following as key elements of something called toxic leader syndrome:

"1. An apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates.

2. A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate.

3. A conviction by by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest."

After providing an example of of toxic leadership and how toxic leaders manifest themselves in units, the author goes on to ask the question:

"Why, we ask, does an organization so obviously people oriented and that places so much emphasis on leadership tolerate them?"

And right there may be the heart of the issue. The Army may claim to be people oriented, but when your catch-phrase is "Mission first, Soldiers always", there is an ethic within the organization that the mission must, and will, be accomplished no matter the cost. Additionally, in an organization that claims to put an emphasis on leadership, we really don't. By never studying the elements of human behavior, and only concentrating on the processes in place to work toward mission accomplishment, we have removed the priority of leading emotive, thoughtful human beings and replaced it with the supremacy of mission accomplishment. Add to that the constant movement of people in and out of organizations and the never-ending shuffling of personnel to meet mission requirements, and it becomes very difficult to isolate a toxic leader long enough to prevent the spread of the disease.

What the article doesn't consider however, is the fact that toxic leaders don't know, nor do they think they are toxic. If you look at the 3 key elements outlined above, and then read 'Black Hearts' with regard to my platoon's interpretation of my actions, you could easily come to think that I have (or at least had) a toxic leadership style. Interesting. The label of toxic leader is clearly placed on the battalion commander throughout the book. Most people who know me, or have worked for or with me, would not consider me a toxic leader. No do I consider myself one. I generally do not like folks with toxic personalities, and have worked to develop a leadership style almost in defiance of that model. In fact, most would probably identify me as a team player and a person who tries to lead by brains and persuasion rather than by force. Generally, I'm considered a nice guy and pretty easy to get along with. But still, using the components above, and taken in the context of my Soldier's perceptions of me in the book, I fit at least 2 of the 3 categories above.

This implies that leadership is only truly successful as seen through the eyes of the led. This was also true in 1st platoon. The original platoon sergeant in the story essentially quit when he became aware that he was going to be replaced, but the Soldiers remained extremely loyal to him and continued to think highly of him even after he had left them behind. They believed that he was a good leader and someone who was always looking out for them, even when that was not the case. I did not enjoy that confidence with them. I was always cognizant of that fact, but did not really consider the effect it was having on them. Without a mechanism to provide the leader some form of feedback on how they are perceived by their subordinates, there is no way to know - in 'real time' - whether or not one is being viewed positively or negatively by the organization. It is the rarest of people who have that sort of self-awareness, and sense of self that can recognize - in the moment - their effect on the unit.

Another cause of toxic leadership may be the character of the Army itself. Army leaders are expected to be type A, self-reliant, self-confident people. We try to raise them that way. There is little recognition, or respect for, the type B, more laid back personality. We want 'meat eaters', not 'flower pickers'. 'Meat eaters' develop somewhat idiosyncratic personalities that become critical elements of their leadership style. In essence they become a character. A larger-than-life personality that provides the emotional essence of the unit. General Patton was a 'meat eater'. So weren't General Andrew Jackson, and General Norm Schwartzkopf. They carried with them the aura of knowing exactly what needed to be done, and the force of will to carry it through. In 'Black Hearts', Tony Uribe carried that kind of personality aura. These type of men are the role models we continue to use to build our leaders today. Even Generals Eisenhower, Marshall, or Powell, although arguably more important to the success of the Army at their particular point in time, don't carry the same emotional power of the 'meat eater' generals throughout our history. Ask a hundred Soldiers which of our great leaders they would most want to emulate, and I don't think General Washington will be number one on the list.

And so we struggle today to find leaders whose Soldiers can identify with them and who can balance an understanding of the people in the organization with the requirements of mission accomplishment.

I watched some of that happen this week. As I get ready to assume a new set of responsibilities next week, I had the opportunity to speak with the cadre of the unit I will run. In light of what has happened to me over the past 4 years, I sat down the day before and wrote out some notes - my leadership philosophy, that I felt they should know. This seemed important to me because there will be a marked difference in leadership styles between me and the person I'm replacing. Not that I will be any better or any worse, but that the way we do our business will be different. I felt that the Soldiers should hear directly from me what I consider to be important, and why. They should also know how I perceive my responsibilities and theirs. The following are my notes:

1. People are more important than things.

2. "How" to think is more important than "what" to think.

3. We are accountable to/for ourselves, our peers, the organization, and most importantly, the students.

4. Our professionalism is a measure of respect for the student, the organization and the institution.

5. Dialogue beats discussion - Trust me, there will be a lot of it.

6. I will earn your trust. By virtue of experience, understanding and knowledge of your responsibilities , you already have mine. Don't abuse it.

7. Initiative, creativity and independence are good traits. Understand their limits and be prepared to accept accountability.

8. Understand Task / Purpose / Intent. View things by expected outcomes or observable behaviors.

9. If I do not provide a clear intent, you have a right and an obligation to ask for one.

10. I work for you. What does that mean?

As we worked through each of these thoughts, you could see that all of them were trying to figure out what I was saying and a method to compare / contrast this new understanding of the environment with the one they had gotten used to under their previous leader. You could tell that some of what I talked about made them happy, and some of it made them uncomfortable. Some parts they heard fit their idea of a 'good' leader and some parts made them wonder.

As I write this, and put forth the idea that almost everything in the realm of leader development is a bottom-up process, I keep feeling a little tug at the back of my brain that says that is not how it goes. The bottom doesn't get a vote. The top sets the tone and tenor and then enforces the standard until it is achieved. That if you let the bottom dictate the terms of the discussion then the unit will never get anywhere. Interestingly, that notion was also addressed in the 'Toxic Leadership' article.

"Many in the study group were concerned how a multi-rater 360 degree evaluation program would be implemented. Some were concerned about leaders pandering to subordinates or leaders not being forceful or demanding. Others felt that Soldiers are fully capable of distinguishing between the leader who sets and enforces high standards from the abusive and petty toxic leader: "Soldiers want competent leaders. You want somebody who can take charge and get the job done even if he is a little rough sometimes. You are going to favor that guy over somebody who wants to hold your hand and pat you on the back all the time. Troops know the difference."

So now we go to the opposite end of the spectrum. In order for the unit to succeed, the leader must create an environment that is positively viewed through the subordinates eyes. But, pandering to the subordinate will not lead to that outcome. In fact, pandering and not establishing high standards of behavior will lead to exactly the opposite. The unit will fail because the leader wasn't demanding enough.

Which leads me back once again to OODA loops as a method of viewing personal behavior, and the 6 viewpoints that I outlined last week.

I know that I am not as much an authoritarian and disciplinarian as the unit's previous leader. I also know that that does not mean that I have lower standards of expected behavior, but that they will be enforced differently than he did it. They do not know that. I know that my methods work - over time - to develop individual leader skills for my subordinates because that has happened in other units in the past. I know that the subordinates do not entirely trust me right now and are feeling me out to see if the manner in which I operate is some form of a trick. They are not used to being taken entirely seriously, and treated as equal players at the table. Although I wish I could remove that concern immediately, I know I cannot. I know that any decisions I make as the leader will have at least 3 different interpretations: What I decided and the reason I provided, their interpretation of the validity of the reason, and by extension my reasoning process, and their personal inclusion or exclusion from the decision making process.

In many ways, the paragraph above is exactly why autocratic, authoritarian and often toxic leaders continue to exist in the Army and in industry. They make life simple. The mental math outlined above is the really hard work of human being leadership, and not too many people want to do that. It's a lot easier sometimes to just be an asshole!

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Jeff...I have carried that Toxic Leadership article with me ever since I first read it....our Army does not want to deal with this issue because toxic leaders are compentent and get the job done....so the long term question becomes what effect did that leader have on his Soldiers and the unit.....at its most basic level this is the difference between transactional leadership and tranformational leadership.....Joe D

  2. Jeff.... I did finish the book, but I have not come to a definitive response for how I would respond if someone were to ask me what I really thought of it. One thing I ascertained very quickly was that the BN leadership WAS (or was creatively written to be percieved as) extremely toxic. However, let the reader make no mistake-- a toxic leader should not be confused with the 'meat eaters' referred to in your blog above. One's leadership style should not be defined overnight, and certainly should not be assessed by someone that has not had optimum time directly working with or for the leader. The book portrays you as disengaged and motivated by self interest, but "I" don't think it portrays SFC Fen as toxic. The organizational climate of that unit was on its way to becoming toxic before it left garrison. Respectfully, Gina Eckles/ACPME

  3. Gina -

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it. Your thoughts are important to consider. You are correct that toxicity and 'meat eaters' should not be used interchangably. One does not have to be toxic to be driven, focused, or capable of having a clear purpose and driving the organization towards it. However, toxic leadership is basically fear-driven, and the simplest and quickest way to get people to do anything is to motivate by fear. The 'threat' that some unknown retribution will be worse than what you are being required to do. While ineffective in the long term - toxic, fear-based, leadership is very effective in the short term.

    I would also agree that from my perspective, there was a toxic atmosphere throughout the battalion. But like Joe D. said above, toxic leaders are often "competent and get the job done." They are pursuing their mission and trying to accomplish it in the best manner they know how.

    With regard to the thoughts about my personal 'toxicity', I think your comments are interesting. Using COL Reed's definition above, I think my Soldiers perceived that I definitely displayed an "Apparent lack of concern for their well-being" and a "Conviction by the subordinates that the leader is driven by self-interest." That's what led me to my statements in the post itself.

    My problem with that is that their 'well-being' was damn near all I ever did think about. I knew they were stressed, I knew they had suffered alot, I knew that we were being watched and looked at etc. What I did NOT do was let them know all of that. I took a 'yesterday is the past approach' which they perceived as not caring about them.

    I also think that most - if not all - successful people have a self interest motivation to them. And the military enhances that by rewarding servicemembers with badges and ribbons and awards that generally recognize individual achievement. Given that, is it any wonder that we develop a highly tuned sense of competition and awareness of where we stand in relation to our peers? Hell, we wear our record on our uniform so we can visibly see who the 'top dogs' are! The entire promotion system is based on a comparative model of people based on individual achievement, not unit success. So at what point does individual drive and motivation to be the 'best' become the toxic motivation of self-interest? I don't know.

    Anyway, thank you again for both taking the time to read the book, and to respond here. Feel free to chime in anytime, and you know how to get in touch with me with any other thoughts or questions.