In January 2020, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) released the results of its months-long internal investigation into its ethical culture following multiple high profile scandals that rocked the small, elite organization. Beyond the disgusting nature of the acts themselves, these scandals tarnished long-built organizational reputations and created a costly distraction from the critical mission that many continue to sacrifice their lives for.
The results of the internal review shocked few inside or outside the formation: Leadership was not to blame for these incidents, nor were any “systemic ethical concerns” identified. It’s a comforting prospect: a few bad eggs had gone rogue and committed horrific acts of their own accord. “We” are fine, “they” are the problem, and so it goes. Despite the anemic findings, the military responded with a shot across the bow to the force in the best way it knows how: it increased annual ethics training and created working groups to find ways to reduce the stressors deemed to be contributing factors to these events (i.e. compressed deployment cycles and other life stressors). The many discussions I’ve had with peers in the wake of these events follow a similar thread to public discussions about any egregious moral wrong in our society: we are quick to disassociate ourselves from these individuals and the environment that enabled their actions. It’s easy to view these events in isolation and to attribute wrongdoing solely to those who physically pulled the proverbial trigger.
But the discussion of assigning blame gets murkier when you take a step back and look at the context in which these events occurred. These events did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, they came on the heels of other, far more widespread crises. Military suicides hit a record high in 2018. In that same year, the Department of Defense reported a 38% increase in “unwanted sexual contact” over the span of two years. The “they” problem is more of a “we” problem.
At the height of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012, a high-level group of Army leadership and researchers identified a problem: there were too many toxic leaders at the highest levels of command. Through extensive surveys of more than 22,000 soldiers, the researchers found that many officers were being promoted and board-selected for command positions despite rampant evidence of hazing, bullying, ostracism, and other visible indicators of a toxic command climate within their formations. Bad eggs? Or does this prove something worse, something cultural?
I asked this same question last week to a group of aspiring young SOF officers as part of a classroom discussion titled “Ethical Challenges in SOF”. In reference to one of the SOF scandals discussed above, one particularly observant student noted that “these bad eggs don’t go from Quakers to murderers overnight.” Well said. He continued: “Unless he’s a diagnosed psychopath, there has to be a progression, a slippery slope of ethical fading and overlooked decisions that carry someone to the point of killing an unarmed combatant or strangling a fellow brother.” I agree.
What is toxic leadership? To me, toxic leadership is not synonymous with “bad” leadership. A bad leader is someone who fails to make timely decisions; who makes poor use of his organization’s resources; who fails to place himself at the aptly-named “point of friction”. Toxic leadership is more insidious because it is by definition contagious. A toxic leader infects the culture he or she leads with a sense of selfishness that ignores the collective; a fear that drives its members toward self-preservation; and an exclusive focus on mission accomplishment and performance metrics that often ignores the how and the why (“I don’t care how you do it, just get it done” – a common refrain of the toxic leader). Even worse, toxic leadership doesn’t require toxic intent. Sometimes the implied approval that comes from not asking the tough questions is all that is required to demonstrate a willingness to cut corners or to accept the unsavory in the name of mission accomplishment.
I have been on the receiving end of toxic leadership many times in my career:
- My first battalion commander threatened to destroy my career when I applied to go to SOF selection. “That’s fine,” he said after I stated I still wanted to go despite his best efforts to convince me otherwise. “I’ll have some great positions for you here when you fail selection.” (Thank God I passed)
- A battalion executive officer who loved what he called “metrics of performance” to the point of fabricating them or forcing subordinate sections into positions where it was impossible to achieve them honestly. Many of these metrics were directly tied to resource decisions.
- A company commander of mine who relied on name-calling and direct threats of disciplinary paperwork (for the slightest errors) in his successful pursuit of being the best company in the regiment. I still remember the disapproving way he would look under his eyebrows at anyone whose ideas he didn’t like or agree with, as if to say “I know you’re not as stupid as what you’re saying right now sounds.” He was universally adored by his superiors.
Even worse, I’ve been on the giving end of toxic leadership on more occasions than I’m proud to admit:
- I spent the entirety of my SOF initial training pipeline thinking it was about me. I did great on all my evaluations, but rarely did anything to help those around me. I went so far as to not give my (better) fins to a fellow student who was struggling to pass his swims. My reasoning? “This is an individual evaluation course”. You can imagine how great that attitude is for a small SOF team, especially for the team leader.
- I purposefully did not ask members of my team how we acquired some critical, hard-to-find supplies during my first team deployment. Why? I knew we couldn’t have gotten them forthrightly, but what I didn’t know couldn’t be held against me. Still today, I cringe to think what that decision did to my junior team members’ mindset, and what it could have enabled had we been there much longer.
- A few months ago (myself an executive officer seemingly obsessed with performance metrics), I purposefully didn’t ask how one of my sections had achieved 100% completion of a group training requirement I had tasked them with an hour earlier. The worst part was that my conduct over the preceding months had apparently signaled that I wouldn’t even ask any prying questions.
- The number of times the thought “how is this going to affect me and my reputation” crosses my mind daily (I’m a company commander now) would make you question why I’m in the position I am. Just writing that sentence took 15 minutes because my ego bombarded me with the following: “yeah, but you don’t act on those selfish thoughts”, “everyone thinks that way”, and the worst one: “it’s the imperative of success in a competitive environment.”
Remembering instances when I was a toxic leader is hard, but not because I’m some shining example of leadership – quite the opposite clearly. The worst part about toxic leadership is that it often hides underneath layers of justification. Pressing timelines, complex operating environments, and competing requirements make it easy to put a muzzle on your conscience. And that’s the reason it’s so hard to solve or even effectively identify some of the military’s most pressing cultural issues. It’s not because cultural issues don’t exist or that unethical actions are the result of bad eggs. It’s that we (the royal we) have failed to place as much importance on creating environments of trust and accountability as we do on achieving measurable metrics of mission accomplishment. There’s no happy medium there, and I don’t claim to even be close to the right answer about the balance. As the Department of Defense, our inability to achieve mission accomplishment will have disastrous and far-reaching consequences. But continuing to ignore our toxic mindset – that this is a “we” problem – threatens the long-term viability of the organization and the faith placed in us to do the right thing and to take care of America’s sons and daughters.
The author is an active duty SOF officer.