Army worries about “toxic” leaders in ranks

June 25, 2011

A major U.S. Army survey of leadership and morale found that more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants 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 survey of about 22,000 Army leaders was conducted by the Center for Army Leadership and comes during a year when the Army has removed or discipline three brigade commanders who were en route to, or returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Selection to command a combat brigade, which consists of about 5,000 soldiers and is commanded by a colonel, is highly competitive in the Army.

The survey also found that 97 percent of officers and sergeants had observed an “exceptional leader” within the Army in the past year.

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.


Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, shown here in May, has led a series of initiatives aimed a producing quicker-thinking and more flexible Army leaders. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

“This may create a self-perpetuating cycle with harmful and long-lasting effects on morale, productivity and retention of quality personnel,” the survey concluded. “There is no indication that the toxic leadership issue will correct itself.”

The Army began conducting annual surveys of its leaders in 2005 to determine trends in morale, the overall quality of leadership and the willingness of Army leaders to stay in the military until retirement.

The strain of combat in Afghanistan, which has seen an increase of about 65,000 troops since President Obama took office, did not appear to cause a major drop in morale. Overall, about 43 percent of active-duty Army leaders serving in Afghanistan reported high morale in 2010, compared with 47 percent in 2009.

About 55 percent of Army leaders in the United States reported high morale in 2010, down from 63 percent in 2009, a sign that some leaders, accustomed to repeated battlefield tours, may be chafing at the regimented and rule-oriented nature of garrison life as the pace of combat deployment slows.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who was recently selected to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has led a series of initiatives aimed a producing quicker-thinking and more flexible Army leaders.

As part of that effort, the Army is exploring whether subordinates’ views should be factored into the evaluations of commanders being considered for higher-level posts.

“We are looking at the command selection process asking how can we introduce 360-degree evaluations,” Dempsey said in a meeting with reporters this spring. “We can ask a battalion commander, does the senior commander [over him] engender a climate of trust.” Such an approach could help weed out toxic leaders.

Army officers and enlisted leaders have spent much of the last decade shuffling between the war zones and home. It is not unusual for sergeants to have taken part in as many as three or four combat tours in the past decade.

More than 70 percent of officers and sergeants in the survey, which was released late last month, said that Army leaders were “generally effective” at combat and counterinsurgency skills employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the strain of combat did seem to leave many of the Army leaders pessimistic about the future, with only 38 percent saying that the Army was headed in the right direction to prepare for the challenges of the next 10 years.

With budget cuts looming, many senior Pentagon officials have started to express concern that the military services will not get the resources that they need to replace and repair equipment that has been damaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These two wars have exhausted our force,” outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an recent interview. “One of my worries about the budget situation is that particularly the Army and Marine Corps are going to have to reset a lot of their equipment. . . . I mean they have just basically used it up.”

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