Toxic Leadership: This Too Shall Pass



 Gen. David Perkins, who led the first troops into downtown Iraq in 2003, and now runs the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas says “If we don’t do something about toxic leadership… not to be too dramatic, but it does have life or death consequences.” He continues “I can just tell you from experience … that if you have toxic leadership, people will get sort of what we call the ‘foxhole mentality.’ They’ll just hunker down and no one is taking what we call prudent risk. They’re not being innovative, they’re not being creative. And some people who are toxic leaders, they might be able to get some short-term results and get an immediate mission at hand done. But in the process, they are destroying the organization and destroying their people.”

I understand the detrimental effects of toxic leadership.  The worst being the deleterious affects on morale, efficiency, motivation and performance of a unit or individual.

I’ve seen this in action.

As a leader in the military, I tried to balance negative and positive reinforcement.  Primarily, I visited wrath upon those who needed/deserved/earned it verbally.  A good little oral bashing followed up a short time later with a moral morale lifting pep talk.

I usually gave positive feedback orally coupled with a good review counseling in writing.

The only time that I wrote something negative for the “permanent record” was when it was a recurring issue.  Other than that I always tried to keep the “paper” away from my people.

Paper can crush a soul and kill a career of otherwise earnest and good people.  Some deserved to be led out of the service with paper…most do not.  At least, this is my view.

I was a Headquarters Platoon Sergeant (HQ PSG) in The Old Guard for 3 years.  A couple of my soldiers went through issues that would have killed their careers under other “leadership.”

These same folks went on to flourish because I gave them a chance to work through their issues via counseling and space.  I allowed them to make mistakes and to reflect upon those mistakes.  My four success stories are a current CSM, a retired MSG, a Marine Major serving in China and an active CW3.  All served several tours in the war zones.  Many of the others left the service but are doing well in the civilian sector.

As the HQ PSG, I was the guy who got the “problem children.”  The sick, crippled, blind, lame and lazy as the saying goes.  I used what skills I had to put these young men on a better path or I tried to do so.

I wasn’t always successful and some of them went out the door as Chapter cases.  I was able to take some kids and turn them around.  In some cases, that journey towards a better version of themselves took a natural path out of the military.  We aren’t all made for the Military and some of us outgrow the military.

I was one who feels that I outgrew the military.  The paths open to me were not logical for a person of my temperament.  I’m a foul mouthed, willful (slightly insane) individual who is wont to “speak truth to power.”  I’d not have made it much further in the Army that I knew.  So I left it behind.

It was a wise decision.

Life has been an incredible journey for me.

All of that said, this is what I don’t understand.

I had toxic leadership and I was hazed and bullied at times.  I fought back.  Probably scared a few people.  I told a First Sergeant once that if she wasn’t a female, I’d probably had already been in the Brig for smashing her face.  This 1SG was a bully.  Actually, she was one of those female 1SGs who wanted to be everyone’s mother.  If you let her mother you and became one of her cubs, you could get away with murdering Abel.  If you pushed back or told her that you already had a mother, her wrath fell upon thee or she attempted to let loose her wrath on you.

I wasn’t one to let someone punish me for the mere act of being independent.  I was competent and was replacing one of her darlings who had left a huge mess behind.  Her favoritism of this incompetent wretch had left her log section as a fail with missing equipment, lack of records and anything else that could possibly be deficient in a log section.  Yet, she praised this guy as he left and then told me that I had a big mess to clean up.

Now this is one Army deficiency that drove me out of the Army.  This was the THIRD LOG NCO whom I replaced who had been in position for multiple years and allowed to be incompetent and lazy.  I walked in behind them and was told each time; “you have a mess to clean up.”  My question was always this; “If you knew it was a mess, why did you not make him clean it?”  I never received a real answer.

The aforementioned 1SG attempted to hold me responsible after a couple of months for the mess left behind by her cub.  I refused her attempt and told her that the place was a mess because of her poor leadership.  She wasn’t happy to hear such a thing.  By this time, it didn’t matter to me.  I had decided to leave the Army.

She once came to me in an inspection in formation and told me that I had best start playing the game.  (I had only a few months left by this time).  I answered her that I only play games that I can win and that her games were impossible as she kept changing the rules.

Eventually, this 1SG was relieved.  A couple of months before I left the Army.  By this time, the Commander had been relieved as well.  I had told the new Unit commander that she had a mess on her hands.  “Captain, I’ll help keep you above water.  However, I didn’t make this mess and I’m tired of cleaning up after other people.  If you want this place cleaned up entirely, you had best bring in someone who can learn from me and replace me as I’m heading out the door.  I’ll teach them everything that I know and they’ll be able to carry on after I leave.”

This woman was wise enough to follow that advice and gave me an understudy.  I taught him as much as he was willing to learn and I left the Army and never looked back.

During all of this madness, I never once thought about hurting myself or others.  I never thought that I was the problem.  I knew that I had poor leadership and I usually laughed about it.

I don’t understand why or how others fall prey to these people.

In the end, there is this truth:  This too shall pass.

And it does.

In the Army, one will eventually either PCS, ETS or Retire.  Almost nothing is permanent.  I’ve always kept that in mind.

What’s the best two units in the Army?  “The one you just left and the one you’re about to go to.”

I learned that early on.

On that note, my first unit was insane.  I arrived just as a Commander was being relieved.  The 1SG was retired on Active Duty (ROADs).  It was a complete mess.  I arrived as a buck private and I remember working from sun up to sun down for about three months as we went through a Change of Command/Relief of Command Inventory.  CPT Fischer, who was my first Commander, came in as a whirlwind of activity.  LTC Julian Burns was my first Battalion Commander.

After the inventory was completed, we went to our first GRAF/Hohenfels rotation and it didn’t stop for nearly three years.

I was hazed and teased and treated like a dipshit for the first three or four months and placed in a 4 man room with four of the most un-military miscreants whom I would meet in the military.  I fought back and earned their grudging respect.  I learned from all of them and was better for it…in my opinion.  I learned how to “take shit” and dish it back.  I didn’t whine or cry about it…much.  I never felt that I should hurt myself.  Eventually, these guys became good friends but they were still all miscreants.  lol  And I suppose that I was one, too.  I think I carried some of those guys with me throughout my term of service and carry them with me now.

My first real 1SG was Terry Wrona.  A hell bent for leather, wild eyed career man who ran company PT every morning with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.  He ran us into the ground while laughing and leering at everyone Joe in his company.  He knew everyone and seemed to know everything.  He threw me in the Arms Room as a PV2 and made me earn that step from skeeter wings to a my first rocker.  He was possibly 5 foot 7 inches and 150lbs.  He intimidated everyone.

I was a pup who had no idea what I was doing but they needed someone in the Arms Room desperately.  They sent me to a short Armorer school, gave me a couple of weeks with a SSG whom we all called Deputy Dawg and who looked like he could have a heart attack at any second, slapped me on the ass and I was a Unit Armorer of a Tank HHC.  More weapons and NODs than you could shake a stick at.

I failed my very first inspection about a week later and it freaked me out.  It also led to 1SG Wrona visiting his wrath, insanity and, in hindsight, hilarity upon me several times a week.  He’d storm through the Arms Room cage door and start quizzing me.  At first, it scared the holy hell out of me.  I thought I was being tortured for the sins of a previous life.  However, it motivated me to study and learn and to experiment and practive.  More and more, I could answer those questions.  I learned how to repair the Ma Deuce and to break it down to the it’s bare bones.  I learned how to fix jams and smooth out the bore and where the application of lubricant would make a weapon work best (or worse).  I learned that if you yank back the charging handle of an M60 machine gun while the butt plate is not properly situated that you can make a nice hole in a wall.  I, also, learned that getting mad a a M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun and throwing it across the room at a rack of M16s only serves to damage a lot of M6s in a rack.  Eventually, I came to a point to where 1SG Wrona wouldn’t chew my ass until after I had answered a few dozen questions correctly and the ass chewing was more or less good natured.  Finally, he had to try hard to throw me off and I could go through a hundred questions and he’d only chew my ass halfheartedly after I missed the 101st question.  Finally, he had to make excuses to chew my ass.

That next inspection came 30 days later.  I passed with flying colors — a nearly perfect score with the holy terror of all inspection team — the MAIT team.  I was commendable.  Excellent!  Aside from steadily working off deficiencies and learning everything that I could over the past month, I had stayed up three days straight to make everything perfect for the inspection because I didn’t want to let “old Terry” down.

It paid off.  A little too well as I became the “show Arms Room” for the Battalion.  If a VIP came, he came to my Arms Room.  It was cool but a bit of a PITA, too.

About three maybe for weeks later, 1SG Wrona called me up to his office.  I, as a matter of course, start a mental inventory as I ascended the stairs and hall way to his office.  “What the hell does he want?  What the heck have I done wrong.  Got that.  Did that.  That’s done.  Hell, I have no idea.  I reckon I’ll find out in a minute.”

I reported to 1SG Wrona.  He tells me to have a seat and opens the door to the Commanders office.  “Oh hell…Terry and Andy [CPT Fischer] are gonna double team my ass.  I won’t have any butt cheek left.  What the hell have I done now!”

I hear 1SG Wrona say; “Nah, I’ll give it to him.  It’s better this way.”

By this time, I’m sweating bullets and sitting there as pale as a Victorian era dilettante.

1SG Wrona hands me a paper in a green folder, tells me to stand up and shakes my hand.

“Kaelin, you did good.  This is from me and the Cee Oh!  Now get back down there and carry on.”

I open the folder and gaze down upon my first Army Achievement Medal.

I have no idea why they chose not to give it to me in formation or any of that but it really didn’t matter to me.

By this time, I looked upon both men as father figures.  They were mean as hell and crazy strict but they taught me how to do a job and to do it well and to have pride in a job well done.  They drove me and once I got it down, they let me run with it.  When the situation called for it, they would dress me down.  When the dust settled, though.  They were there with a hand to lift you up, smack you on the ass and help you get back to it.  So far as I knew, they did this across the board.  Though, I always felt that I was their special project.  lol

One of the worst military leaders whom I’ve seen in Afghanistan was LTG Dan Bolger who recently wrote the book Why We Lost.  I’m of the opinion that it was “leaders” such as he who made this war a losing effort.  Risk averse men who walked around looking for reasons to fire, embarrass or ship people home.  I saw him berate folks for no other reason than being outside of the Green Bean on Camp Eggers.  One person was waiting on his counterpart on his way out the gate to the Ministry of Defense.  Bolger almost fired this guy until his military counterpart came to his defense.  However, it took a full Colonel having the balls to walk into bully Bolger’s office to get the firing countermanded.  Bolger often times didn’t ask questions.  He made a quick (oft erroneous) situational assessment and fired off a salvo.  Camp Eggers was a ghost town when Bolger was in command.  No more was accomplished.  People simply hid out and were afraid to be seen outside on Camp Eggers.  This led to an extremely toxic environment on Camp Eggers and elsewhere.  It also led to an amazing surge in business for the vendors on ISAF HQ and a dent in the sales at the Green Bean on Camp Eggers.  Bolger was also the author of the cowardly “uparmored” bunker mentality that took over the Afghan War over the past few years.  Afghan is now the land of the FOBBIT thanks to the courageous leadership of Dan Bolger.  What a hero!

With all that in mind, life gets tough at times.  Some leaders are excellent.  Some ARE toxic.  Why do so many these days seem to collapse under toxic leadership?

Do we not teach our young people patience and perseverance?

We’ve all had to tough out hard times and poor leadership.  All things pass with time.

Why do people buckle?  I don’t understand it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.