Home Opinion It's Time to Address Toxic Leadership in the Military

It's Time to Address Toxic Leadership in the Military

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Note: This article first appeared at In Military.

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

About 81% of servicemembers decide not to remain in the military for 20 years until they are eligible to retire. This decision comes despite the many benefits of military service:

  • Free healthcare
  • Pay and benefits competitive with the civilian job market
  • Cost of living adjustments
  • Tax-free allowances
  • Career opportunities

Toxic leadership also plays a role in this high attrition rate. In the military, toxicity can be defined as abusive servicemembers who are petty, arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and unconcerned about the morale of their subordinates.

According to an investigation by National Public Radio, top commanders in the Army have stated publicly that they have too many toxic leaders in the service. NPR cited an Army study that found a toxic command climate can even trigger suicidal behavior.

The radio network cited a research study conducted at Center for Army Leadership at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which surveyed over 22,000 military members. While the majority of commanders received high ratings, around 20 percent of military members categorized their leaders as toxic.

Toxic leadership can have an impact on any of the five military branches. The Marine Corps Times reported that a commander of the Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 had been relieved of his command for creating a toxic work environment.

The Army takes toxic leadership so seriously that it published its definition of the behavior in the Army Leadership section of the Army Doctrine Publication No. 6-22; it defines toxic leadership as self-centered leaders who deceive, intimidate, coerce subordinates, and have a negative impact on the mission performance.

Furthermore, the Army identifies toxic leaders as those with an inflated sense of self-worth and who require subordinates to carry out their orders solely on the basis of their position of power. This contrasts with a charismatic leader who fosters intrinsic motivation, productivity and commitment to the service’s mission and goals.

The impact of negative, toxic leadership destroys subordinates’ self-initiative, potential and unit morale. As a result, each of the five military branches is at risk of losing valuable personnel despite the efforts made to train them and to provide them with high-quality benefits.

Over the course of my 20-year career in the military, I have found that command climate from the top has a direct impact on leadership styles throughout the lower ranks. For example, if a unit commander acts as a role model, identifies value in subordinates, fosters motivation and unit commitment, and considers each subordinate equally, then lower rank leaders will likely follow a similar leadership style.

Effective leadership in the lower ranks is needed to address the attrition rate that plagues the military. An E-4 or an E-5 with leadership responsibilities has substantial influence on servicemembers who are on their first four-year enlistment. The experience of junior enlisted members with their E-4 or E-5 leaders is likely to have a direct impact on whether they remain in the service or separate at the end of their enlistment period.

High attrition rates in the military are extremely costly because of the great expense to train recruits. As a result, it is essential to develop effective leaders early so that they can have a positive influence in the careers of new servicemembers. Leadership training and a command climate that exhibits effective leadership can produce junior leaders who inspire hard work toward goal accomplishment, are supportive of the mission and generate organizational commitment.

Junior leaders who are empowered to make decisions to help their subordinates are also important. For example, if operational commitments allow, a junior leader who can make decisions and display empathy toward the lower ranks is likely to create an effective work environment.

Something as simple as permitting a subordinate to report for work late to attend a family function or provide flexibility that promotes a good work-life balance is likely to have a positive effect on that subordinate. In addition to setting a good leadership example for the subordinate, displaying empathy might help to increase organizational commitment when it is time to re-enlist.

Eliminating toxic leaders through leadership training and setting an effective command climate are essential and likely to increase morale and lower the attrition rate.

About the author:

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been a member of the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions.

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