Toxic Leadership – A US Army Perspective - IEDP
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Toxic Leadership – A US Army Perspective

Anti-suicide research which is widely applicable outside the military


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A 2010 study of Army suicides in Iraq by Cultural Advisor Dr. Dave Matsuda (Doc) identifies toxic leadership as part of a syndrome in which soldiers ideate, attempt and all to often succeed in taking their own lives. Doc Matsuda is an anthropologist who started his fieldwork career studying the traffickers of ancient artefacts, La Familia of drug cartels and insurgents in war-torn Mexico and Central America.

On the back of his experience with insurgents Doc was invited to Iraq by the US Army where he helped to implement counterinsurgency strategy at tactical, operational and strategic levels. While there he was asked by the Brigadier General Pete Bayer, the US officer in charge of winding down US operations in Iraq, to study why the Army was experiencing an unprecedentedly high rate of suicides – and what could be done to stop young men and women from taking their own lives. BG Bayer was frustrated by the lack of progress in official US Army suicide studies.

In March 2010 Doc Matsuda criss-crossed Iraq conducting fieldwork among 50 soldiers who were in the circle of trust of those who had recently committed suicide. His research showed that while all victims had some dysfunctional experiences in their background, they also had in common toxic relationships in which they were bullied and ostracized by one or more officers or high ranking NCOs. Anyone who has watched films like ‘A Few Good Men’ knows that the Army’s standard approach is to debrief the chain of command in search of ‘dysfunctionality’, and to largely ignore the insider stories told by the circle of trust, this revelation will come as little surprise.

Doc’s research found that during times of war, as the operation tempo increases and stretches the available rank and file thin, the Army allows in recruits who are less than optimally suited for military service. His report notes that beyond a basic physical fitness and self-evaluation “all manner of pre-existing conditions and circumstances…can be waivered away to clear the volunteer for induction and service.” This insight supports the standard thesis that suicide victims are the result of ‘pre-existing conditions and circumstances’, however there is another impact of this less thorough recruiting policy; inappropriately trained people, who are unsuited for leadership roles, are fast track promoted to ranks beyond their level of competency and expertise.

In a side bar Doc notes that in Thomas Rick’s book The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today the author points out that there was a much higher level of demotion and dismissal of officers and NCOs in WWII than was the trend in Iraq. As such it means that amongst the many excellent leaders in the military there are also a good number of incompetent and ‘toxic’ ones who continue to operate and get promoted.

The phrase Toxic Leadership, coined by Dr Marcia Whicker in her 1996 book Toxic Leadership: When Organizations Go Bad, refers to a leadership style that can be either overtly oppressive, which is easier to deal with; or more hidden, subversive and undermining which is ultimately more damaging to all parties – the subordinate, the toxic leader and the organization.

Gen. David Perkins, who led the first troops into downtown Iraq in 2003, and now runs the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas says "If we don't do something about toxic leadership… not to be too dramatic, but it does have life or death consequences.” He continues "I can just tell you from experience ... that if you have toxic leadership, people will get sort of what we call the 'foxhole mentality.' They'll just hunker down and no one is taking what we call prudent risk. They're not being innovative, they're not being creative. And some people who are toxic leaders, they might be able to get some short-term results and get an immediate mission at hand done. But in the process, they are destroying the organization and destroying their people."

These insights from Gen Perkins can be applied outside of military life to civil organizations. The timescales and impact may be more pressurised in war situations, but workers in civilian organizations are also susceptible to the ‘hunkering down’ mentality Gen Perkins describes. This quickly leads to worker demoralization and reduced productivity as well as the shutting out of any ability to innovate or improve processes.

Dr. Dave Matsuda concludes his anti-suicide research with some widely applicable recommendations that can prevent toxic leadership from prevailing in both military and civilian environments. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

  • Leaders should be rated on how well they take care of their soldiers [staff]
  • Conduct quarterly 360° ‘command climate’ surveys
  • Have more emotional sessions and team building exercises – “because soldiers stop complaining only when they think leaders are not listening”
  • Whenever possible let soldiers choose their roommates.

The key concept here is that to dissipate the build-up of toxic leadership, it is important that organizations have a balancing mechanism where decisions and feedback on leaders come from the bottom-up, rather than always from the top-down.

Toxic leaders are typically very good at using manipulation to make themselves appear as capable leaders, and to impose their detrimental toxic solutions onto their soldiers. It is this dual appearance that allows them to ‘get away’ with their toxic behaviour; so the control mechanism enabling other sources of feedback, such as 360° reviews, is essential. The key is to enable ‘followers’ to have a route to express their view and feelings about their leaders that will highlight any inconsistencies in the perceptions of those leaders’ abilities to come to the fore.

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