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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Army suicides point to 'toxic leaders' as a factor

Friday, January 24, 2014 | 4:42 p.m. CST

Dave Matsuda, an anthropologist studying suicides among troops in the U.S. Army at the Army's request, is pointing at "toxic leaders" as part of the problem.

Matsuda was hired in 2010 by then-Brig. Gen. Peter C. Bayer Jr. (now a major general) to try to help U.S. commanders understand what was going on below the surface in Iraq.

Bayer was supervising the Army's draw-down in Iraq at the time. He wanted Matsuda's help figuring out why almost 30 soldiers in Iraq had committed suicide or attempted suicide the previous year.

After studying the cases of eight of the dead soldiers, Matsuda found that while they did have complicated personal lives — generally given as the reason they had committed suicide — there also was fault to be found among the military commanders who had led them.

In each of the cases, he discovered a leader, or leaders, who had contributed to creating a "toxic" environment for the soldiers.

Much of Matsuda's story was told this month on National Public Radio. He said the evidence does not show the leaders caused the soldiers to take their lives, but his report said that suicidal behavior "can be triggered by ... toxic command climate."

He described platoon leaders taking turns to see who could "smoke" the soldier the worst, finding the most extreme tortures, duties and other annoyances to make that grunt's life miserable. It was psychological warfare at the soldier's expense.

And often, when the soldier responded as you would expect, the leader turned up the heat.

'Cancer' in the Army

A retired general who led forces in Vietnam, Walter Ulmer, called bad leadership an "institutional cancer" and said he would give the Army a six on a scale of 10 in efforts to eliminate it.

The problem is as old as the nation's military forces, which were organized in 1775. What's new are the efforts to identify it, label it, open up a discussion about it and eliminate it.

In one recent effort, the secretary of the Army in 2003, Thomas E. White Jr., asked for help from researchers at the Army War College.

"Given an institutional objective to establish and maintain effective command climate, how can the Army effectively assess leaders to prevent those with destructive leadership styles?" was the question White asked.

Students at the war college provided a description of toxic leaders that Col. George E. Reed, then-director of Command and Leadership Studies at the college, wrote about in Military Review, the Army's professional journal, in 2004.

"Destructive leaders are focused on visible short-term mission accomplishment," the students' report said. "They provide superiors with impressive, articulate presentations and enthusiastic responses to missions. But, they are unconcerned about, or oblivious to, staff or troop morale and/or climate. They are seen by the majority of subordinates as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible and petty."

They come in all shapes and sizes, Reed noted. "A loud, decisive, demanding leader is not necessarily toxic. A leader with a soft voice and facade of sincerity can also be toxic."

Destructive leadership

In 2009 and 2010, the Center for Army Leadership at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas surveyed more than 22,000 troops to get a more global understanding of the problem. Those researchers found that about 20 percent of soldiers said their own leaders were toxic and 80 percent said they had observed a destructive leader in the previous year.

In 2012, armed with three years of research, the Army revised its leadership manual to identify toxic leadership and followed that up with a tiny pilot project, involving eight commanders, that allowed subordinates to evaluate their leaders anonymously.

There are plans to expand that process this year, and the Army expects to have anonymous evaluations of about 1,100 battalion and brigade commanders by late next year.

The Army also has removed some officers from their jobs because of their destructive leadership style. For example, three brigade commanders were removed or disciplined in 2011. A brigade consists of about 5,000 soldiers.

The Army's efforts have not escaped the attention of lawmakers.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a leader in the congressional effort to reduce sexual assaults in the military, commended the Army.

"Military leadership is absolutely right to proactively work on identifying bad leaders within its ranks and to improve military command climate in this way," she said. "And it's all the more impressive that this is an internal process not compelled by outside pressure."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who also has been active in the effort to reduce military sexual assaults, pointed at toxic leaders as one reason for the high number of sexual assaults in the military.

Macho doesn't mean being a bully. Leadership doesn't mean picking on the little guy or woman. Fighting the enemy on the outside is a tough enough job. Soldiers shouldn't be fighting the enemy on the inside, too.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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