Horrible Bosses: Already playing in an Army headquarters near you


You or somebody around you is probably perceived as a toxic leader.

A recent Army survey of civilians and soldiers from rank of E-5 to O-6  found that roughly one in five  sees his or her superior as “toxic and unethical.” (Read about it in this week’s Army Times cover story “No More ‘Toxic Leaders,'” on newsstands only.)

To get a sense of what it all means, we talked to Army leadership guru George Reed. Now at the University of San Diego, he served for 27 years as an Army officer, including six years as the director of Command and Leadership Studies at the Army War College, and he has authored several articles on the topic.

While Reed said the problem of negative leadership appears to be gaining attention at the top, people continue to suffer quietly under the service’s bad bosses. (We got a taste of this when we asked troops to tell us about their own experiences.)

“There are people telling you they are suffering under commanders who don’t care about them, who exhibit all the signs of toxic leadership,” Reed said. “They disregard subordinates, they’re self-aggrandizing and petty; they are humiliating their subordinates and treating them with a pattern of disrespect. There are soldiers suffering under soldiers who are doing those things and the institution is not reacting to it.”

The study, which surveyed more than 22,000 people is the largest of it’s kind, a signal of the Army’s rising interest, he said.

“This is a first, a major Army study,” Reed said. “We have a name for it, ‘toxic leadership.’ Now we’re getting large-scale information on how widespread the problem is. And I expect an attentive senior leader will act upon that information.”

Until then, toxic leadership remains ingrained in the Army. Many commanders are rewarded for short-term mission results over the well-being of soldiers. They cycle out of jobs quickly so they rarely get to see the consequences of their poor leadership styles.

“We want to be effective, but even great organizations can be run into the ground,” Reed said. “Soldiers will get the job done, they will fight the enemy, so why do we care? Soldiers will tell you lower retention rates, domestic violence, absenteeism, increased alcohol consumption, drug consumption, lack of productivity, lack of motivation. The spirits get crushed out of young up-and-coming people with high potential.”

Retention suffers because soldiers who ruefully watch bad leaders advance tend to hold the institution responsible.

“Their faith and confidence in the Army goes down when toxic leaders go up,” Reed said. “The soldier looks at the promotion list, slaps his head and says, ‘They can’t do that to my Army!'”

One part of the problem is that the evaluations used to retain and promote commanders provide only one perspective, from the top down. This view can mask toxic leaders, who are often “masters of kissing up and kicking down.”

“They know everything that’s going on in their unit, because if anything, they micromanage,” Reed said. “So if you’re at the top, looking down, they look good. But if you’re at the bottom, looking up, it’s misery in the ranks. The superiors don’t see it, and they can appreciate these people because everything’s done right now, they never turn down a mission, they’re very responsive, but they’re completely immune to the considerations from below.”

Criticism does not always come from above because commanders have more responsibilities than ever, and hence, little time to develop and counsel leaders below them. And when toxic leaders receive criticism comes from below, they tend to reject it.

“They are notoriously immune to criticism from subordinates,” Reed said. “First of all, they will avoid it  if they can. Or faced with it, they will rationalize it away, ‘Oh, they don’t know what I’m up against,’ or ‘Yeah, but I had to because of this situation.’ They will dismiss the results.”

For the Army to fix the problem, it must clearly delineate what is acceptable and what is not, Reed said. When a people in authority treat each other with a lack of dignity and respect, the  institution has to form a response that signals how clearly unacceptable this is.

In an all-volunteer Army, commanders must take matters into their own hands and be aware of their troops’ thoughts and motivations.

“If you’re going to be an enlightened leader, you have to care about the people in these formations, you have to care about the people in them, because the Army is a people-centric organization,” Reed said. “It’s good if its people are good, and it’s bad if the people are bad.”


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  1. C. A. Mc Afee on

    You didn’t include ‘Toxic’ civilian leaders, of which there are far too many. They ‘hang’ around long after toxic military leaders move on or are relieved. Problem is that toxic civilian leaders are often not fired and simply promoted to move them on to another command.

  2. In the case of toxic leadership in the Army, I can personally tell you that it thrives more than what anyone wants to say. The funny thing is how most of these “leaders” seem to get promoted and move up in the Army. When I first came in the Army 10 years ago, it was something I fell in love with, now these days it seems like something I can’t wait to get out of.
    There are still amazing leaders and Soldiers in the Army, but it takes only one bad leader to mess up the whole system. I had a platoon sergeant that would constantly belittle his squad leaders in front of the Soldiers, and would never listen to any type of input from his squad leaders, nor take any intiative to develop them.
    Now I also had probably one of the best CSMs for 2 deployments, who is now my Garrison CSM, his replacement though is so toxic that 1SGs are either being constantly rotated through, or they are just asking to be re-assigned. He has the NCOs affraid to do their job. Our last CSM stressed training and the importance of taking care of our Soldiers, the new CSM instead of stressing the importance of devloping Soldiers to become better leaders, has you just ART15 them and then process for chapter, him and the BN CDR.

  3. Toxic leaders will always remain within our ranks as history has shown for generations of leaders. Here’s our best bet to cleanse the ranks and purify its leadership. Send in General Odierno with a staff that he selects. Let the General and his staff start cleaning house. Soon you would find that the problem leaders would iether run for the hills or they would be shown the hills…

    If we so desire to clean up our military leaders that are toxic, we first need a pure and untoxic leader like General Odierno to draw his sabre’ and his own ” Long Grey Line.”

  4. i remember comming back in right after 9/11 and asking for infantry. after a 12 yr break in service, i had a SQ leader when i got to my active duty post who regulary spit in my face, demeanded me in front of others, would lose my LES when i got promoted just so i wouldnt know that i did..amongst other things. just to many people who think that w/a 2 cent cloth on their chest allows them to act god like and not be hled responsibale.

  5. I am ELATED to see some truth come out! The Army wasthe most serious let down of my entire life. It is about time that some changes are made. There are so many abusive, ignorant, narcissistic, belligerent individuals being promoted that the Army has become a joke. Wars are not the cause of suicide. The regular abuse stateside is.

  6. The reason that leaders behave in ways that would never be tolerated in a professional environment, is that the subordinates are locked into their assignment, and have to take it. The only other option is AWOL. If the army was a company that I could quit or find another job, I would have had resume’s out long ago. Add in that leaders in the military have legal authority over their subordinates (or ability to recommend legal actions) and the subordinates just have to shut up and bear it.

  7. Richard Johnson on

    Rationalizing that commanders can’t identify toxic leaders is crap. The Army is a closed society where reputations are well known. To fix this problem officers must “man up” and purge the Army of this problem. Gen Dempsey must take the lead and start firing toxic general officers. Commanders at all levels must clean their own houses. To believe that a revamped OER will solve anything is to close your eyes to the inflation and dishonesty that every revision of the OER has engendered. It is incumbent upon the officer corps to stop worrying about ruining other officer’s careers. It is 250 years past the time we should have put the nation and the Army above careerism. Tyrants, buffoons, and the incompetents should never be allowed to prosper.

  8. I am an old Army Soldier who took a 9 year break in service and decided to re-enter after 9/11. I couldn’t believe how much the Army’s leadership had changed! In my unit the senior leadership didn’t care about the Soldier’s under them and used them to their means to get a job done to make them look good. I myself was reprimanded publicly, cursed at, harrassed and even stalked by my senior NCO! Morale was a non-existant component in my unit. You dared not challenge them either, hence you would be Article 15 and sent packing. The Commander was the worst of all because he would not even want to hear a Soldier and stuck up for the senior leadership. I guess he didn’t want to put his career on the line, after all, he would be getting promoted and leaving for a new assignment soon. When it came to awards and promotions, the only people that got anything was them. There is nothing more disheartening to a Soldier than to work your butt off to achieve a mission and watch your senior leadership gloat after they were the ones that were pinned with the “fruits of labor”. Rid the Army of toxic leadership? It will take years after someone goes through every unit with a fine tooth comb to weed them out! Good luck with that!!

  9. Jon Hartsock on

    I am currently a student at the Combined and General Staff College at Fort Lee, VA. Having served under a few “toxic leaders” myself, I was elated to hear that the Army is finally realizing that we must take a hard look at who we place in command of our Soldiers. It is also comforting to know that someone is actually listening to the responses of the thousands of online surveys that the average AKO user has received over the recent months.
    I agree with George Reed in that for the Army to fix the problem, it must clearly delineate what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Now that we have identified that we have toxic leaders in our ranks, the problem is now how the Army determines exactly who is a toxic leader? In addition to looking at other possible measurements such as Command Climate Surveys and reenlistment rates to measure whether or not a leader is toxic, I recommend that Officer Retention be seriously considered. My experience shows me that the amount of company grade officers who make the decision to leave the Army in a given unit is directly correlated to the quality of the commanding officer. In one previous assignment of mine, over 30% of a Battalion Commander’s company grade officers decided to leave the Army in less than two years. Yet, this commander was promoted and commanded at greater levels of responsibility. Talking with my classmates, I hear stories of other commanders that were much worse. Historically, officer retention is not considered in evaluating a commander’s leadership. If the Army is serious about finding its toxic leaders at the Battalion and Brigade levels, it must consider officer retention in the equation.
    –MAJ J.T. Hartsock, USA
    The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

  10. RC, LTC (ret) on

    I always viewed these individuals as learning experiences. You learn from some leaders by example and from others by counter-example. These individuals are easily recognized by observing certain trends. When everyone is trying to leave a particular section of the organization, you will find a toxic leader (even rats will leave a sinking ship). These are the “leaders” of organizations where the civilians are transferring or filing ULPs and grievances with the union, officers are transferring, enlisted troops are volunteering for anything and everything that will send them somewhere else, and there is a sudden spike in misconduct. Sometimes these “leaders” are able to spin the situation as “cleaning house” but, frequently, the house wasn’t dirty until they arrived.

  11. Toxic leadership is: having subordinates clean the leader’s weapon, zero the leader’s weapon, pack his bags for deployment, over hear him say “Once you learn it’s all about you, the rest is easy” – absolutely disgusting.

    1-61 CAV has a current leaders who literally does not care for his Soldiers whatsoever. It has be made blatantly obvious, repeatedly. He spends foo funds to gain things for himself, steals other people’s belongings (hats, eye pro, etc.) and thinks because of his rank, said behavior is permissable. It is the epitome of why over 60% of the squadron refused to reenlist, why there is 0 morale amongst the troops, and why this squadron is the laughing stock of the brigade.

  12. River Gunner on

    While it is unique that our Army has announced its intention to find solutions to toxic leaders we must come to the reality that…there is no timeline given…there is no guideline or written plan that clarifies who and what is considered toxic. So, before any of us start thumping the drums be assured that the Army may takes years to turn the next page in toxic leadership. Further, the Army may allow what some clearly see as toxic to stay because one or two feel they aren’t. Remember that there are 80,000 plus wounded TBI Vets that until just this spring were denied recognition for their wounds even though criteria and regulations clearly verified their recognition dating back to the 1960’s. Good to know someone has decided to cleanse our toxic leaders, also understand that this will likely happen over the course of a decade and some that are targeted will stay due to a few who keep the in.

  13. What a coincidence! I’m here at home just thinking about the same things posted in this article- what is wrong with my Army? Before I even knew of this article I had come to the conclusion that the lack of leadership, threat of punishment, and ineffective promotion system. When I say leadership, I mean brigade commanders and brigade command sergeant majors. The reason I picked these two people is because in the real army, all issues are solved at the brigade level or lower. Therefore, the leadership style and standards must be set with them. These two people must have a way of letting the real leaders underneath them know that they will go to bat for you when their actions and intentions are in the right place. Threats and fear of punishment is the current style of leadership these days. We all know what happens to people who are threatened or have fear of punishment, they will just start doind what every they are told even if it means walking off a cliff. The reason threats and punishment works so well is because leaders at the top an middle truly believe in the old sayin” crap rolls down hill.” Let the most justifable subordinate leader take the fall.

  14. I must be on a rool, because I hit the “submitt” button to early! The final reason is promotion system. Literally, a person can max their PT test, shoot expert, get awards for their PT badge, pcs’s and numerous details, have a degree in basket weaving, cheat their way to maximum correspondence courses, have a DUI at the ranks of E1 and E4,have a photographic memory, been on no deployments, and still be promoted to either SGT or SSG with a cutoff score in the 750″s. But when you ask that person how to lead soldiers or MOS competence, you find out they are clueless. How can the army say the new promotion system is better? If I am a 92A trying to make a cutoff of 798 for SSG, that has not changed in over 14 years, I must have 30 months (basically 3 years) of combat deployments in order to get promoted. That’s something soldiers have almost zero control over. I’ve got two, so hopefully we start another war soon! While I applaud the army for being the best institution in america, it still has a long way to go.

  15. It’s stellar that the Army wants to clean the ranks of toxic leadership but we need to face the reality that it has reached epidemic proportions over the years. The only sure way to do it is to place the responsibility on the shoulders of someone whose actions and compotency epitomizes the standard for non-toxic leadership. That person and a hand selected staff needs to begin at USAREC, where corruption and dishonesty have become commonplace, in the name of meeting command quotas. Next they need to, no they must pick through TRADOC with a fine tooth comb, as this is where basic soldier standards in both conduct and leadership are learned. Having been assigned there (192 ITB ) for two years, I have witnessed the chronic mistreatment trainees endure at the hands of toxic DS’s. I don’t mean corrective training but things like total sleep deprivation the night before a ruck march or one 1SG who gut checked soldiers for not greeting him when they walked past.
    From there, every command, from squad level and up needs to be checked against a set, clear standard and soldiers whose leadership, in the view of command, their subordinates, and the evaluating authority, is not in line with those expectations should be given two options. One, take training to fix themselves and demonstrate to the aforementioned groups they have rehabilitated (with annual surveys of command and their subordinates) or two, they should be separated. There is no room for debate with them. Their actions are destroying the ranks and in MY Army, there is no room for it.

  16. Here is a little food for thought. I hear a lot about these “toxic leaders”, and yes I agree there is indeed a serious issue with leadership, but we also need to take a hard look at our soldiers. The Army isn’t a charity, that anyone can or should be a part of. In my opinion it takes someone of moral fiber, who is highly disciplined, trained and cares.
    At the very beginning of our training with the Army, you are taught about the Army Values (LDRSHIP), the Soldiers Creed and the Warrior Ethos. These are things that should be ingrained in our mind and should be living on a daily basis. It appears that in a lot of cases, these newly enlisted soldiers forget what they are taught, don’t think it applies to them, or just don’t care. These “bad apples” are then assigned to a unit where they now cause problems and issues not only with their leadership and command, but try to pull others into their charades.
    Every Soldier is different, and we as leaders, knowing our Soldiers, should know which ways are most applicable to dealing with that Soldier. Counseling is the proper place to begin. This tools allows us to define what the standards are, how to achieve them, to give credit when things are accomplished, but also to as a corrective tool when Soldier fail to achieve the standard. As I stated previously, knowing your Soldiers and what method of corrected action needs to be taken based on what the Soldier did wrong or failed to do it the best way to develop them and help them progress.

  17. I’ve been in the Army 12years and i’ve seen good leaders and bad leader. A toxic leader will always exist in the military until our senior leadership take actions in their hands. If you have a BN CDR that allows a CSM abuse his rank for his own benefit and to look good by making Soldiers complete a task that is irrevelant to the mission then the Army has a problem because who is going to interfere or address the issue and I can keep going. The Army allows units to complete a command climate survey to address many issues affecting the organization but for some reason the issues never get fixed. Senior Leadership MUST stop trying to be politically correct all the time, accept new ideas from subordinates, and start taking care of Soldiers. I love the Army but is going the wrong direction.

  18. C. A. Mc Afee has a great point; I served for over 22 yrs in uniform and have certainly seen good leadership take a turn for the worse. I now work for Army Civilians-some of the leadership toxicity is appauling to say the least. It seems so much worse on smaller posts. Fixing problems is not the Army way of doing things these days, its about trying to cover up and sweep under the rug. Sadly, it always come back to haunt them. If they at least made some attempt at fixing issues FROM THE TOP DOWN! Well, the Army would be heading then in a better direction. I somehow doubt that anything will be done. You have to remmemer too that juniors arent stupid either. Tools like ‘youtube’ and other media are well used-at at time should be to expose toxic leadership and mismanagement.

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