Recently the media has been paying attention to the issue of “Toxic Leadership” within the military. An article in the Washington Post cited several examples involving verbally-abusive generals, DoD Senior Executives, and various other examples. However, I was struck by this article in the Daily Mail about a triple amputee soldier from the Parachute Regiment, an elite Airborne unit in the British Army, and the primary feeder unit for the fabled SAS Regiment.
The soldier in question, Corporal Neathway lost his legs and his left arm in a bomb blast in Helmand province. Afterwards, he was assigned to the Parachute Training Support Unit, helping train new paratroopers. Whilst there, he was subjected to bullying and abuse at the hands of his Regimental Sergeant Major (U.S. Command Sgt Major equivalent) which included phone calls at all hours and insisting he wear attire that was not practical and embarrassing, given his physical condition. If this wasn’t enough – the part of the article that bothers me the most is that this man was investigated for such behavior before, and investigators found that he isolated and singled-out this soldier. And nothing seemingly happened. The most frustrating thing is that this man was allowed to remain in not only a senior leadership position, but in fact, the position responsible for maintaining discipline and looking out for the welfare of all troops under his command.
A lot of this incident resonated with me. As I’m a new poster to this site, I should give a bit of background. I served in the Canadian Army for 13 years, including time in Afghanistan, and four years as an integer with the US military and intelligence community. I worked for a multitude of leaders throughout my career, some good, some bad, but one in particular that I would define as “toxic”. I spent 3 years working for this supervisor while in an isolated unit – where he was the commander and had no form of supervision above him. I had heard about him before I started at this unit, and was warned. I was lucky enough to be part of a relatively close-knit community, so reputations, especially bad ones, tended to be well-known. However, being a relatively new NCO at the time, I went into the assignment with a blank slate, giving him the benefit of the doubt.
The next three years turned out to be the hardest and worst period of my career. Despite having a great operational position, it became relatively clear, relatively quickly that this man would not make this posting be a pleasant one. I performed well, but it always seemed like this man was waiting to jump on me. He finally got his chance a year in. I made a bad decision, and got into trouble, as I now know, junior personnel do. After trying to cover my six, I came clean and admitted my issue. I overcame it and it never happened again. However, this man never let me get over it. It effectively held me back for years of my career, while colleagues whom he liked more, but did little to no operational work, were promoted in record time.
This was very frustrating to me – because, up until this point, my career had been stellar, with promotions ahead of most of my peers and a solid reputation for my operational effectiveness. Then I suffered a relatively bad end to a personal relationship. I felt I couldn’t go to my chain of command for obvious reasons, and eventually the stress built to the point that I ended up passing out at my desk, and taken by ambulance to the base hospital. I was diagnosed with severe stress and anxiety, and given some stress leave to unwind. On the second day of this leave, I was awakened early in the morning by my doorbell. Standing there, was this supervisor, supposedly checking in on my well-being. After inviting himself into my home, he proceeded to threaten to send me back to my old unit and never once asked how he could help. At that point in time, I remember seriously questioning whether the military was right for me.
This was just one incident over those three years. There were other incidents undoubtedly, nor was I the only target of his toxic attention. I also don’t intend to implicate that this was as bad as the young Cpl’s treatment at the hands of his RSM. I actually ended up leaving the Army three years later, for personal reasons. But I’d be lying if I said those three years hadn’t had some impact on that decision. Of note, he walked out of that particular unit, with yet another promotion.
I also suspect that almost every soldier has had a similar experience. When in those situations, we all undoubtedly thought “How can people who are such horrible leaders make it into senior leadership positions?” or “How doe this type of behavior get tolerated?”. And I think those are both very valid questions – and questions that military leadership needs to answer sooner rather than later. Otherwise these toxic leaders will continue to affect morale, reflect badly on the multitude of good leaders, and cause soldiers to leave.
Toxic leaders need to be held accountable, and either adapt or perish. One of the most important principles of leadership is to promote the welfare of your troops. As a 4th generation soldier, this was something I was taught at a very young age. The military should have no place for leaders that abuse that sacred authority that has been granted to them. And when they fail to meet these standards, they need to move on to another profession. One thing I’ve learned is that toxic leadership is a not phenomenon that is unique to military service. However, I don’t think anyone can argue that a toxic military leader can make your life infinitely more miserable than his or her civilian toxic brethren ever could.