Crises Can Be Averted By Dismissing Toxic Leaders By Adrian Bonenberger

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DeM Banter: Many issue with the article below, but the message rings loud and clear…we have some leadership issues in the DoD…heck in the nation…

At War (NYTimes.com)
August 19, 2013

The military has taken its fair share of institutional blows lately, including scandals that have humbled generals and admirals, a rising suicide rate, embarrassing revelations about failures to prevent sexual assault (of both men and women), and, most recently, the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning.

It seems that before there is time to make an organizational adjustment to one crisis, or even gauge the root of the problem, another emerges. The military is trying to respond, and some initiatives show promise, like a revamped course in Navy basic training that may be reducing episodes of sexual harassment. But I believe one cause of many of these problems is consistent: bullying or, as we call them in the military, “toxic” leaders. Many current and former junior officers, myself included, believe that a single institutional change could prevent many of the military’s crises: the speedy identification and dismissal of those weak leaders.

This idea has been floated before. In 2011, a study by the Center for Army Leadership put the number of toxic leaders in the Army at somewhere around one in five. Having spoken with veterans from all the armed services, and having spent seven years in the Army infantry myself, I can say that 20 percent might be a low estimate. In my view, the infantry too often indulges senior leaders who are bullying, homophobic, sexist or closed-minded micromanagers. The effect on the soldiers and sergeants under their command can be deplorable.

Pfc. Manning was in a sister infantry brigade to the one I served in during my second deployment. When one hears accounts of how the private, who has said that he is gay, was isolated and ostracized in his unit, one has to wonder: what role did bullying play in his decision to release a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks? Pfc. Manning broke his oath and his word, and deserved to be punished, in my view. But if the military did a good job of identifying bullies and holding them accountable, might we have fewer people like him?

Here is some of the bullying I saw firsthand, or heard about from witnesses. An officer threw a hot cup of noodles at one of his subordinates while screaming at him because a slide deck was late. An officer castigated his soldiers for being ungrateful to the Army during a suicide stand-down, claiming that the soldiers were not working more than 20 hours a week, and that their families should be grateful for having any benefits. A sergeant in charge of his unit’s Islamic outreach program routinely described Afghans as “Haji” and expressed contempt for the Muslim religion. A sergeant described what could only be interpreted as serial rape in laudatory terms, while everyone – including myself – stood around laughing. These officers and sergeants – many of whom have since been promoted – had a very real, measurable effect on their units.

What happened to the effort to reduce poor leadership in the ranks? General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has proposed a nonbinding peer review system that would help mentor officers indicated to be harmful for their units. Under the system, described as a “360 review,” certain subordinates would have a chance to rate superior officers. I believe we should expand on that idea by allowing all enlisted service members, noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers to evaluate their direct and next-higher superior.

The Pentagon could also build a database from records that could pinpoint problem units and leaders. Those records might include statistics for criminal behavior, sexual assault, bullying, inspector general complaints and Congressional inquiries. If those numbers could be established down to the company level, it would be possible to track leaders who presided over units with consistently serious discipline issues.

We are still at war, and the military has a lot on its plate right now. But the longer good officers and sergeants are forced to tolerate weak or abusive counterparts, the longer soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen will suffer under their charge. I may have been a mediocre officer, but I had the terrific fortune to work for some truly exceptional leaders. Troops should not have to tolerate the opposite.

Adrian Bonenberger is a former Army infantry officer who did two combat tours in Afghanistan, most recently as a company commander for First Battalion, 87th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, the battalion featured in The New York Times series “A Year at War.” He is attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his memoir, “Afghan Post,” will be released later this year.

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