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US Army Ambushed by Toxic Leaders

US Army Ambushed by Toxic Leaders

Post: January 9, 2014 10:40 pm
Author: David S. Wilson         Source: TVOL

A National Public Radio news investigation on toxic leadership in the military inspired me to write a commentary on my blog with Jonathan Haidt. Here is how the US Army defines toxic leadership:

Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers' will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale..

The problem is surprising not only in its extent--an estimated 20% of soldiers suffer from toxic leadership—but the degree to which the US Army was taken by surprise. It wasn’t even noticed until an investigation of high suicide rates revealed toxic leadership as a major contributing factor. Army soldiers who take their own lives often have personal problems, but toxic leaders push them over the edge by making their lives a living hell, or “smoking” them in military parlance. It is not an exaggeration to say that US casualties due to toxic leadership rival casualties due to enemy combat.

Why was the US Army ambushed by this problem? From an evolutionary perspective, it is obvious that self-aggrandizing behaviors of the sort that define toxic leadership are often favored by genetic and cultural evolution. Special conditions are required for them not to evolve. An ounce of evolutionary thinking would have made the US Army more aware of the problem lurking in its midst, which one retired general calls “an institutional cancer”

This article supplements my essay by providing resources for understanding the nature of toxic leadership from an evolutionary perspective--in the military or any other modern human social organization..

• The problem of toxic behavioral strategies of all sorts follows from the basic dynamics of multilevel selection, as covered by numerous articles in TVOL in addition to the academic literature (e.g., 1,2,3).

• Toxic leadership pervades the animal world, as graphically depicted for hyenas and lions in the National Geographic documentary Eternal Enemies. Note the toxic interactions that exist within species, in addition to between species.

• Humans are unique among primates in their ability to suppress self-aggrandizing behaviors, as argued by Christopher Boehm in his books Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. We can even be defined as the species that (largely) solved the problem of toxic leadership at the scale of small groups.

• Evolutionary social psychologist Mark Van Vugt synthesizes the vast literature on leadership from an evolutionary perspective in his book Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership, which shows how toxic leadership and other self-aggrandizing behaviors are an ever-present danger in all groups unless protective mechanisms are in place.

• Barbara Oakley’s Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend provides a fascinating account of toxic social strategies at all scales, from families to nations.

• The idea that toxic leadership is an “institutional cancer” is more accurate than the retired general probably imagined. Cancer cells growing at the expense of the body, leading eventually to their own demise, reflect the same dynamic as toxic leaders benefiting themselves at the expense of their groups, often leading to their own demise. Go here for more on this comparison.

I am repeatedly asked how an evolutionary perspective adds value to the study of human-related topics that have been pondered by the best and brightest minds, sometimes for millennia. The fact that the US Army was ambushed by the problem of toxic leadership provides a good answer. It is in front of everyone’s faces. It is costing lives. Nevertheless, whatever worldviews predominate in military life render it invisible. Einstein was right when he said that the theory determines what we can observe. Peer through the evolutionary lens, and that which was invisible leaps into view.


Post: January 10 2014 7:05 pm By: Skye Marthaler

This is very much a problem but your impact dwindles when the photo to this article is of Navy basic training.

It shows a lack of basic knowledge.

Post: January 15 2014 8:40 am By: Chico

You are wrong Skye.  Those are soldiers in the Army Combat Uniform adopted in 2005 and now being phased out.

The “U.S. Army” on the drill sergeant’s nametape should have given you a clue.

Post: January 24 2014 7:02 am By: ANNZALA PITT

To Whom It May Concern,
I was the immediate supervisor for SPC Annzala Pitt at C.Co 225 BSB. In the time that SPC Pitt was part of my squad she encountered numerous difficulties which I believe were entirely due to being mistreated by her senior leadership. When SPC Pitt arrived at 225 BSB she had a medical situation that required attention prior to her deployment to Iraq. When she voiced her concerns to 1LT Riglick not only were her concerns dismissed but her private health information was erroneously released to multiple parties. SPC Pitt filed a complaint for the HIPPA violation against the offending party, 1LT Riglick. A few months later 1LT Riglick was assigned to C.Co as our Platoon Leader. This is undoubtedly the situation that caused SPC Pitt to be labeled as a problem soldier by C.Co leadership. SPC Pitt was not protected from reprisal and was treated badly for the duration of her time with C.Co 225 BSB.
The result of filing her HIPPA complaint against 1LT Riglick was having a stigma placed on her by the very leadership that was supposed to be protecting her. She endured rumors, attacks on her character, and even attempts at discrediting her intellectual capacities. She was even accused of having inappropriate relationships with multiple senior Non-Commissioned Officers by our Platoon Leader 1LT Riglick. SPC Pitt continuously sought only to do her job as a mental health specialist and as her first line supervisor I pushed for her to be moved from the company to the Troop Medical Clinic. When SPC Pitt was sent to the Troop Medical Clinic to preform her duties as a mental health specialist C.Co leadership made sure to let the incoming social worker know what their impression of her was. SPC Pitt then worked with Major Ball, who had already been told she was a problem soldier, and was subsequently treated horribly to include having to undergo a mental health evaluation without provocation.
SPC Pitt requested on numerous occasions to be moved from C.Co 225 BSB to another company, battalion, or division to get out from underneath the stigma placed on her. These requests were heard by our Company Commander, 1SG, Platoon Leader, Platoon Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major, and even Division Command team but nothing was done. Instead of helping the soldier 1LT Riglick and Major Ball ordered me to counsel her for their perceived insubordination. When I disagreed with these orders it was made clear that my military career was also in jeopardy. I was ordered by 1LT Riglick to counsel SPC Pitt for not properly using her chain of command to which, I informed the command that she had done exactly what procedures are outlined. The result of my not counseling her for this was to have my MEDPROS status changed to non-deployable by 1LT Riglick. This retaliation against me for defending SPC Pitt would have ended my career if I had not already been found deployable and fit for duty by the Medical Review Board in 2008.
Despite her outburst which finally concluded her time in C.Co I would still recommend that she be retained by the United States Army. SPC Pitt endured being mistreated for months and still maintained a positive attitude. Her intellectual prowess combined with her willingness to work make her a viable asset. I believe that if SPC Pitt had been able to move to another command away from the toxic leadership of C.Co 225 BSB her military career would have flourished.

SGT David Trapolsi

Post: January 26 2014 1:38 pm By: Coco the chimp

Yes… and not only that, the staff sergeant featured in this picture is none other than John R. Diggles, 2006 recipient of Fort Benning’s Drill Sergeant of the Year. By including this picture, is this article suggesting that Staff Sergeant Diggles is anything less than a non-toxic leader? I for one will not sit idly by while the good name of Diggles is besmirched.

Post: January 28 2014 8:58 am By: AP

Imagine working for a psychotic abusive officer; that associates with the higher commands that are aware that the officer is toxic but turn a blind eye. It is nothing more than an American Horror Story or Tragedy because as a soldier the open door policy will be closed to you. They are all friends that has dehumanized you due to the rank structure. You can not get help not even IG will assist properly. These officers and NCO that prey on other soldiers should be penalized. They should be jailed; instead the lower ranked soldier ends up committing suicide or losing their career and time of service or at worst their freedom for trying do defend their self. It is sad and horrible; but it happens each and everyday

Post: January 28 2014 9:00 am By: ANNZALA PITT

Well said, now we just need the president to start letting go or jailing division, brigade, battalion and company commanders. Along with LCSW (Major Rebecca Ball and Captain Kristina Zerga), psychologist and psychiatrist that file false mental health referrals to create false mental health records and for giving soldiers out dated mental health instruments such as the MMPI-2 1989 pencil and paper version; so that it can be manipulated to state a soldier has a psychological condition, issue and or disease. Military personnel that engage in this type of behavior must go. So, many soldiers are mistreated in this aspect. That, they are driven to the point of wanting to give up. The policies and procedures that are put in place to assist soldiers are nothing more than a waste of literary terms that has no usage. The 25th ID command, SJA and all commands that fall below them along with their LCSW, and psychologist practice maltreatment of soldiers. They jail soldiers to keep them quite. This is abuse not just toxic

Post: January 28 2014 9:02 am By: ANNZALA PITT

I have read all of the comments and realize how terrible it is for Americans’ to look at the military for employment and are torchered by other Americans; this is 3rd world behavior. Many soldiers are treated as if they are indentured servants; however “the state of voluntary or compulsory subjection to a master; the condition of being bound to service; the condition of a slave; slavery; bondage; hence, a state of slavish dependence” is not what they signed up for. Many soldiers never have the opportunity to “Be ALL That Can Be” due to the toxic command claimant . Yes, congress and the current president as well as all previous presidents are aware to how difficult it is mentally on soldiers and just do not care. Soldiers have written millions of letters to congress and the president; just to have IG to pretend they have investigated or to have division commanders like General Kurt fuller to state they have investigated the situation-when they can careless.