My Biggest Leadership Mistake: Abdicating Leadership in a Toxic Command

Conspiring officers from The Caine Mutiny.
Conspiring officers in The Caine Mutiny.

By Major David Chichetti

In 2013, I had just relinquished command of my Cavalry Troop, when I sat down for one last counseling session with my Brigade Commander. We spoke of a few things, in particular the situation with my “toxic” Squadron Commander. He then asked me “What was your biggest failure in command?”

I pride myself on being a decisive leader, but suddenly I found myself unable to produce a good answer. I had definitely made some mistakes; including a few notable incidents that would make any Sergeants Major list of officer jokes. But did I make a serious error that had far reaching effects? Did I endanger anyone? Did I fail to recognize the operational environment and act accordingly? Did I not take care of the team?  In the moment he asked that question, I could not think of any egregious mistakes so I sheepishly gave him an innocuous answer and changed the subject. But the question still lingered in my head: “What was my biggest leadership failure?”

Two years later, I found my answer watching “The Caine Mutiny” during a seminar at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC). In the story, the toxic career Navy officer Captain Queeg is the Commander of the USS Caine. Most of the Caine’s officers joined the Navy during wartime and thought little of the career Navy Officer’s strict enforcement of regulations. As a result, they fomented dissent amongst the crew, culminating in a total loss of confidence in their commander.

In the climactic scene, the officers of the Caine are celebrating their exoneration after a mutiny against Captain Queeg when LT Greenwald, the prosecuting attorney, arrives at the party. Much to the chagrin of the crew, he is drunk and angry claiming that he put the “wrong man on trial.” LT Greenwald excoriates the officers of the Caine for not being loyal to the Captain and for challenging the foundation of the institution. From Greenwald’s perspective, the Caine’s smug group of over-privileged officers had violated their commitment to the institution and loyalty to the chain of command.

Greenwald’s speech struck a chord with me, because I had finally realized the reasoning and thus, the answer to my Brigade Commander’s question: I had forgotten my commitment as an officer serving in the United States Army.

I had already been a successful Troop Commander. I had led my Cavalry Troop in combat, received a high enumeration rating from my previous Brigade Commander, and was a favorite to the chain of command. My previous Squadron commander was difficult to work with but I had remained above the fray. I was invulnerable to his sudden outbursts and tirades, and could speak my mind without fear of repercussions. I scoffed my colleague’s complaints, sometimes viewing them as too weak for the job.  Upward mobility seemed a certainty for me as a post command Captain and I was enjoying my time. But leaders change, and soon the chain of command I had grown comfortable with was exchanged for new leaders and field grade officers. The new Squadron Commander would implement his own brand of leadership causing a different kind of turmoil.

From an objective standpoint, he had the experience necessary to make the unit successful. His uniform adorned all the qualification badges envied by young officers and he had served with elite units. During the first meeting with command teams, he spoke of implementing some much needed administrative changes and taking the Squadron in the right direction. The feeling of optimism was palpable in the room. Afterwards, he spoke to me personally about how he needed my assistance to implement change in order to create a guiding coalition amongst the officers. The tools were in place for a successful run at Squadron Command. It was up to the Troop Commanders to reciprocate and support him. 

However, reciprocating proved difficult. The optimism of the first meeting was soon replaced by frustration and pessimism. Reasonable disagreements were often met with scornful rebukes. Several of these heated exchanges left indelible impressions on the officers of the Squadron; further suppressing differing viewpoints. Micromanagement replaced initiative which pushed Troops, Staff and leaders into parochial worlds. The Squadron became void of any unifying force and dictatorial management reigned.

By most definitions, our new commander was the archetype of a “toxic” leader. 

As his Headquarters Troop Commander and senior Captain I had a unique role in the Squadron. Most junior officers looked to me as a role model and steward of the Squadron name. The normative nature of my position afforded me the capacity to either submit to the commander wholeheartedly or be the role model professional for my peers and subordinates. Ostensibly, the question for me was: Do I blindly support a “toxic” leader or do I rise above his personality, find solutions and broker support for the Soldiers?  Supporting his toxic regime would amount to tacit approval. Unfortunately, I lacked both the maturity and cognitive depth to be a broker of support and as a result, I became the de-facto driver of instability.   

My reactionary behavior to his leadership style fueled the environment of discontent and distrust. I was the sounding board for all gripes and complaints. I tacitly encouraged officers to vent frustrations during our near daily gripe sessions. On several occasions, I fought with him publicly regarding his policies. These incidents were on full display for the Squadron’s NCOs and Soldiers. His grandiose plans were the object of my derision and I could never quite grasp that these items were anything beyond a nefarious attempt at self-aggrandizement. My protests garnered strong admiration amongst junior leaders. Support for the chain of command was redirected in my direction; fueling my ego and bolstering my reputation in the Troop. My attitude, actions and demeanor reflected the feeling that this was a “toxic” regime and the responsibility was purely on the Squadron Commander.  Eventually, senior leaders became aware of the issues and took actions. So when I arrived for my final counseling session with my Brigade Commander, I had a feeling of vindication, but after his questioning, I left with a feeling of “Was I missing the point?”

LT Greenwald illuminated the answer for me: I had failed to manage a toxic leader and serve as a role model for my peers. CGSC was LT Greenwald throwing the glass of wine in my face. Despite any good reasons I had for being combative with my commander, my Brigade, Division and the Army needed me as the senior captain and role model to be a broker between our bully of a boss and the Soldiers. In other words, I needed to make it work.

My commitment to the Army and the leaders appointed over me were overshadowed by my stubborn logic of self-righteousness. As a result, the Squadron continued down a path of self-destruction resulting in nearly every junior officer leaving the service and an in-effective command. The opportunity for me to inject my skill sets for the good of the Squadron was squandered by petty vendettas.

There is no question that he was a bad leader, but I failed to do the one thing my Soldiers truly needed of me: to lead.

There is a balance between loyalty to the chain of command and commitment to the institution. Dan Johnson, a former Army officer, contends that loyalty is the reason that “toxic” leaders exist.  Leaders hold their tongues for fear of appearing disloyal and suffering repercussions as a result. This is a rational position for subordinates. Toxic leaders can threaten with UCMJ actions or write a pernicious evaluation report with far reaching effects on a career. This situation often results in subordinates being forced to choose between strident protest and submission. Most choose the latter for reasons of self-preservation, but this default reasoning neglects the professional’s commitment to the mission and the institution of the service. 

The Army professional distinguishes his or her self from the amateur by their commitment to the institution.  Military leaders have a commitment to the service and have a duty to accomplish the mission despite the circumstances. The Army defines commitment as the “resolve to contribute honorable service to the Nation and accomplish the mission despite adversity, obstacles, and challenges.” A true leader, in the face of adversity, focuses on the solution. A strident protest against toxicity is an abdication of one’s duty. Former Chief of Staff Edward C. Meyer was quoted as saying: “Soldiers who are assumed to solve their own problems will in turn assume nobody cares.” Commitment requires people to take responsibility in effort to achieve the mission.

My own personal disdain for the man caused me to become mired in emotions instead of focusing on mission accomplishment. There was no question that my boss was a toxic leader. In my egocentric logic, strident protest was a much more personally satisfying option to submission.

But I failed to understand that there is a difference between rote submission to a toxic leader and commitment to the service. When leaders are faced with this kind of abusive leadership, they are still duty bound by the mission. Subordinates must develop creative ways to bring out the best in the organization despite poor leadership.

Since that incident, I have had several leaders with similar traits. Close communication and having a strong emotional intelligence has always worked best for me in these situations. As Don Corleone puts it: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” Rather than setting the example as a professional, working with others to find solutions, and assisting the commander when he asked for my help, I took the immature route and fueled deceit. I lost track of my commitment as an officer in the United States Army. 

MAJ David Chichetti active duty Infantry officer for 11 years. Undergraduate at the Citadel and a Masters from Kansas State University. Currently assigned to the 101st ABN (AASLT)


  • The Caine Mutiny. Dir. Edward Dmytryk. Perf. Humphrey Bogart. Columbia, 1954. Film
  • Johnson, Dan. “The Greatest Threat Facing the Army Profession.” Military Review, September 2013, 69-72.
  • The Caine Mutiny. Dir. Edward Dmytryk. Perf. Humphrey Bogart. Columbia, 1954. FilmJohnson, Dan. “The Greatest Threat Facing the Army Profession.” Military Review, September 2013, 69-72.
  • ADRP 1 U.S. Army, The Army Profession, ADRP 1 (Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2015), G-1.
  • E.C. Meyer General, United States Army Chief of Staff June 1979-June 1983.” Address to the Annual Chaplains Conference. Washington DC. 17 JUL 1979.p 3 Defense Technical Information Center. Web. 1 Dec. 2016. <>.

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