There is an ugly strain of criminal and unethical leadership in the upper ranks of the American military. Despite the exemplary service of most American military members, a persistent minority of U.S. flag officers (Navy admirals and Army, Air Force, and Marine generals) have embroiled the profession in scandal since the Revolutionary War. In Generals and Admirals, Criminals and Crooks, award-winning author Jeffrey J. Matthews examines bad leadership in American military history over the past one hundred years, beginning with war crimes in the Philippine-American War and ending with the recent Fat Leonard corruption scandal.
The U.S. armed forces have long acknowledged the detrimental effects of toxic leadership. An expert on the subject, Colonel George E. Reed, U.S. Army retired, characterizes toxic leaders as those who willfully abuse and bully their subordinates as a means to self-interested ends and who, as a result, create unhealthy work climates. In Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military, Reed laments, “It is not hard to find toxic leadership. Most military personnel have experienced it.” Furthermore, its frequent occurrence “represents a violation of the unwritten contract with the American people about how their sons and daughters should be treated while in service to the nation.”
The Pentagon has issued a multitude of regulations to curb overbearing toxic leaders in all branches of service. In 1993, for example, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin approved Joint Ethics Regulation (JER) as a single source of standards of ethical conduct and guidance for military leaders. Among the primary ethical values set forth in the JER were “caring” and “respect” for fellow Defense Department employees. Demonstrating compassion and kindness and treating people with dignity were also touted as “essential” acts of ethical and effective military leadership. According to the JER, considerate and empathetic leaders “help ensure that individuals are not treated solely as means to an end” and serve as a counterweight to the “temptation to pursue the mission at any cost.”
Nevertheless, toxic leadership proliferated. In 2003, Army Secretary Thomas E. White, a retired brigadier general, asked the Army War College to investigate the ongoing problem of “destructive” military leaders. The qualitative study, based on focus groups, revealed that an overwhelming number of officers had experienced abusive and self-centered superiors who lacked concern for the welfare of subordinates and who willfully soured the workplace. Five years later, a quantitative study of students at the Army War College revealed that every officer surveyed had dealt with a toxic superior at the rank of colonel or higher. In addition, more than half of the respondents had seriously considered leaving the profession of arms because of bad leadership. The war college students further reported that 11 percent of general officers and civilian executives were perceived “unfavorably” and that 8 percent were absolutely “toxic.” The officers’ personal experience with destructive leaders did not vary significantly by gender, race, or service branch.
The Army War College survey was replicated in 2009 by consulting 167 active-duty Army majors attending the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Eighteen percent of the respondents said that their superiors—lieutenant colonels and colonels—had “toxic” leadership styles, and, like the war college students, more than half of the majors had contemplated leaving the service because of tyrannical superiors. The authors of the study predicted that toxic leadership would persist because powerful “cultural norms,” including blind loyalty and a chain of command that dissuades officers from offering constructive feedback to superiors and other authorities. Moreover, speaking hard truths to power risks retribution and career derailment.