Two military leadership researches say the U.S. Army has failed to address what they call “toxic” leadership in command training. Ethics consultant Joe Doty and Army Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason authored an article in the Military Review earlier this year, defining leaders who are narcissistic, rude and disrespectful to their subordinates as “toxic.”
In fact, the researchers say, leadership of that nature is not helping and could be partially at fault for a spike in military-related suicides in the U.S. That’s partially because of the sheer number of military leaders who seek personal gratification through their military rank and titles.
“It would be very, very rare if you could find a soldier who’s been in the Army 10 years or more and has not experienced that type of leadership,” Doty said.
The researchers pointed out that narcissistic toxicity must be distinguished from simply not agreeing with a military superior. In some cases, they say, soldiers may believe a leader is making decisions that are not in the best interest of the unit, but may either not understand the scope of those decisions or their effect on other units or soldiers in the field or on base.
On the other hand, Fenalson says, when those leaders force unit focus on themselves, allowing for the degradation of soldiers’ morale, toxicity is both present and can be deadly.
“I can disagree with my boss or my leader,” he said. “I can find things about them that I don’t agree with, but that’s critically different than toxicity – and especially narcissistic toxicity – where the focus is solely on the leader and their actions and behaviors in such a way that it destroys unit cohesion.”
This year, military officials announced a spike in suicides beginning in 2005. Last year, just fewer than 350 soldiers committed suicide, and private researchers say the majority of self-inflicted harm in the military is not related to combat stress.
Doty and Fenalson, argue that, instead the actions of a unit leader may have an impact.
“Anytime someone kills themselves (the cause) is a very complex thing,” Doty said. “But if the leadership in an organization, and some of the leaders are toxic, or narcissistic or selfish then arguably they’re not part of the solution if there’s a soldier with a problem, and they can be part of the problem.”
The researchers pointed out that, as a result of studies like theirs, the Army is institutionalizing a 360-degree feedback mechanism that will allow for the temporary, respectful supersession of rank to report on direct supervision leadership.
Doty says that is important, because often leaders who fall under a toxic description lack the empathy to understand how their actions affect those around them.
“In the army, we used to say the Army isn’t a thing, it’s people,” Fenalson said. “If you take away all the people, you don’t have an army. Therefore, when you keep people as the centerpiece of everything you’re doing then you will get rid of the narcissistic leader over time.”