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Toxic Leaders and Changing Our Evaluation System

August 16, 2011 | Major Frank Tedeschi

No system is perfect, but Army evaluations primarily reward short-term success. Instituting or continuing programs and practices that promote the long-term health of our Army just does not get rewarded, unless it fits neatly into a rating period. The exception to this rule is self-satisfaction and the gratitude of our Soldiers.

It takes a lot of effort (usually unrecognized) to provide quality, rather than just amass a laundry list of “check the block” in the areas of training, health and welfare, but the reward for our Army could be exponential.

Just for the record, I’m talking about the practice of sending Soldiers to Army schools on time or to college instead of hoarding them at the unit for dubious short-term gain. Or running a first-rate unit reception and integration program that makes new Soldiers feel like they are really part of a family. Or providing training that benefits the long-term development of the unit rather than culminating in time for the next change of command or responsibility. Or just recognizing leaders who enforce standards or who exhibit moral courage.

These are all things that surely would help lessen the stress level, improve retention, and increase motivation in a continually deploying Army – and I’m sure smart people can come up with even better ideas. The change could be accomplished by integrating mandatory comments for actions promoting long-term benefit to the Army or by finally instituting the 360 degree evaluation system.

Leaders are human; they will work within the system to achieve the best ratings they can get, but they know what the right things to do actually are – and most actually strive to do the right things. I’m not saying that changing the evaluation system will help rid the Army of toxic leaders, but realigning it so that the best ratings go to leaders who take actions in the best long-term interest of the service – rather than just during their tenure – is surely a step in the right direction.


  • MAJ Bill Nelson
    9/7/2011 11:14 AM
    My name is MAJ Bill Nelson and I am currently enrolled in ILE at Fort Gordon, GA. These views represent my own opinion and do not represent the viewpoints of my CGSC instructors or my peers. Like any officer in the US Army, I have served under many different officers and commanders, each with their own unique leadership style. Some were good and some not so good. How do you measure good leadership? In my opinion, it involves some of the following characteristics: genuine care for Soldiers and their Families; lives the Army values; leads from the front and by example; provides professional development to subordinates; possesses tactical and technical expertise; provides counseling, both positively and negatively when applicable; is physically fit; is fair; remains cool and controlled under pressure; possesses a sense of humor; maintains self awareness ; maintains a positive command climate; and balances a command philosophy that translates to both combat and garrison operations. I have been fortunate to work for some officers during my career that possess these leadership traits. Unfortunately, I have also worked for some officers that possess very few of these traits and provide nothing short of a toxic workplace. I recently worked for just such a commander and will probably never have an opportunity to evaluate the lasting, negative effects he left on the unit. Needless to say, the Army definition of toxic leadership hits home pretty hard for me!
    COL Denise Williams wrote a US Army War College research paper stating 18 characteristics of toxic leadership. Realistically, no one commander could possibly possess each of those characteristics, but even a couple of these traits can create a miserable work environment. The Center for Army Leadership also conducted a survey recently that clearly identified a high percentage of officers and NCOs that have either witnessed or worked directly for a toxic leader. As a result of the research and experience over the past couple of years, I highly support the introduction of the 360-degree evaluation in the hope that it may help eradicate or, at a minimum, cut down on toxic leaders. If GEN Dempsey wants “quicker-thinking and more flexible Army leaders,” then maybe the subordinate officers and NCOs should have a say in whether that leader moves on to his next promotion, where he will once again make life a living hell for those that work for him. For you toxic leaders…the first step is admitting you have a problem. Your superiors may be oblivious to your behavior, but they don’t have the opportunity to witness you at your worst.
  • MAJ Eric Durrant
    5/16/2012 3:15 PM
    I completely agree with both comments made here concerning toxic leadership and especially the evaluations process. The Army’s Officer Evaluation system needs to be revamped. The current system puts too much emphasis on the rated officer to try to please and work for just one person; the rater. Too often the evaluation itself and the effects of the evaluation (promotion, future jobs) are completely dependent on the relationship between the rater and the officer being rated. A bad relationship with just one person can negatively affect the rest of the officer’s career. If a rated officer is lucky, the senior rater may provide a different opinion. But more often than not, the senior rater has limited time with the officer and takes suggested comments from the rater.
    This needs to changes. A 360 evaluation needs to be instituted. Especially for officers that are in command. The Army needs to know what the rated officer’s boss thinks, what the officer’s peers think, and what the people the officer leads thinks. After 13 years in the Army, and numerous classes and speeches about leadership, I still find it hard to believe that the Army does not ask those being led how the officer does at leading.
    Instituting a 360 evaluation system would be a great step forward at identifying toxic leaders. Another potential fix to toxic leadership is to identify those officers that are great and leading, and those that are great staff officers. Throughout my career, I have come across numerous officers that are outstanding staff officers. They work hard for the commander, they are dedicated to the mission, and they produce great products. But for one reason or another, rather it be personality, or just lack of leadership skills, they are not as good at leading Soldiers. Commanders want to reward these staff officers, rightfully so, and they give the staff officer a great OER that could lead to a command job. That officer then takes command and has trouble as a leader of troops, resulting in a toxic environment. The Army needs to institute a promotion/command/staff option that allows rated officers the same opportunities for promotion, but would allow the rater to suggest either a command or staff career route for the rated officer. Just because an officer is a great staff officer, does not mean they will become a good commander and leader of troops.
    MAJ Eric Durrant

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