In previous posts, I've explored some organizational and incentive factors as to why the military acts the way it does. Actions at the individual level, though, are often the most perplexing. For instance, why would people who have risen to senior levels with 20 years or more of experience in the organization exhibit such toxic personalities as to drive middle managers to homicidal or suicidal contemplation. I haven't actually seen a case of actual suicidal thoughts, but I have heard more than one officer say, "I wish they would just fire me and put me out of my misery." The screaming, belittling, and insecure; the email all-caps yellers (who cc the world); the control freaks; the incompetents; the indifferent... What is the pathology behind this behavior, I wondered. I reached out to some friends to test their reactions to the question, has a decade of the stress of combat operations caused irreparable psychological harm to our senior officers? While the answer is undoubtedly yes in some cases, I think that some more salient factors have contributed to the dysfunction and may move us toward understanding (I doubt rectifying) the situation.
Many of you have no doubt wondered if a senior officer was literally mentally ill. I have personally witnessed multiple superiors exhibiting behaviors that seem to rise to a level of dysfunction that could only be explained by disease. These are not solely personal musings about bad bosses, but rather are suspicions voiced by multiple subordinates exposed, over time, to extremely erratic behaviors. Beyond my personal experiences, I have heard similar stories experienced first hand by trusted sources. When one reads some of the accounts of the rash of Navy commanding officer reliefs, for example, these behaviors shine through in some cases. Applicable personality disorders include paranoid, schizotypal, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. Some of these behaviors are to be expected in the Type A personalities common in the military, however the behaviors I am thinking of rise beyond the level of the abrasive but productive Type A. Furthermore, while these behaviors are not prevalent in the force, they are disturbingly common: most people will run into such toxic leaders on a fairly regular basis during their time in the military.
In an attempt to understand a number of dysfunctional interactions I've witnessed in the past years, I have been wondering if perhaps the stresses of ten years of wartime service have permanently damaged some of our leaders. While no one has been in combat for ten years straight, many senior officers have been in positions of significant responsibility under heightened operational tempos and demands constantly throughout the past decade. In discussing these demands with a good friend, we shared a number of stories. Most of them involved the erratic behavior of officers under conditions of significant stress and extremely limited rest. These included screaming bouts, incoherent phone calls from combat operations center floors, erratic decisions, and fainting spells. These are not examples of personality disorder, but they do demonstrate the toll of extreme stress and exertion and turned a lightbulb on for me. We discussed the episode of BG Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq passing out during a news conference in 2004 and Gen David Petraeus fainting during Senate testimony in 2010.
What discussion of these episodes drove home was that the problem is the "big man" theory of organizational success. Our senior leaders are, for the most part, undeniably impressive individuals. These impressive individuals have met a perfect storm in the past decade, putting them up against "wicked complex problems," with limited resources, and a political climate in which Americans expect their government to be able to forestall every calamity, while seeking to pin the blame for any failure to attain perfection to single individuals. This means senior officials are individually pilloried if they fail to accomplish nearly impossible missions. The flip side of this is the hagiography that imagines that people like Gen Petraeus can single-handedly turn around dire situations with little regard to the surrounding factors and the odds of pulling off such feats again in the future.
This cultural fairy tale trickles down from the top, and we have officers who imagine that the only way to lead is to work 18 hours a day, PT for another 2, and sleep maybe 4 hours. In combat, reduce the sleep factor even further. This certainly produces both acute and chronic psychological and cognitive dysfunction. Even when the formula is less extreme, however, the big man theory is extremely corrosive. It drives the micromanagement we all disdain, it erodes the trust between subordinate and superior, it robs organizations of initiative, it leads to the setting of unobtainable and poorly considered goals, it creates a single point of failure, it inhibits communication, and scuttles collaboration, just to name a few. By promoting supermen to positions of prominence, our organizations chase the myths of omniscience and invulnerability. We imagine we can do anything. As our erstwhile heros have demonstrated, however, there are finite limits to the hours of the day and the ability of the body to defy the laws of physiology, physics, and gravity.
In our commands, then, we have the supermen. Some of these are truly extraordinary, exhibiting not only superhuman endurance and intellect, but also a steady and mature leadership that inspires subordinates. Many attempt to follow in their footsteps, however, and fall short. Acute and chronic fatigue, accumulated stress, and the realization that they cannot live up to the big man theory of leadership weigh down, leading to behaviors that tend toward the personality disorders noted above. Especially prominent are lack of trust in subordinates bordering on paranoia and attempts to portray the big man persona that fall disastrously close to borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders. In the face of such behaviors, subordinates tend toward dysfunction, as well, in attempts to avoid the abuse that is almost certainly forthcoming.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, lies a very different, but no less harmful beast. The explosion of the higher headquarters bureaucracy in the past ten years has created a demand for staff officers that is not met by quality supply. This demand is met both by contractors and activated reservists. I will undoubtedly get into uncomfortable territory with some readers here, but will nonetheless press on. Many reservists and contractors are true patriots, highly qualified for their billets. They have chosen to take challenging jobs, in the case of reservists sometimes at considerable personal, financial, and family hardship, in order to serve the country during a time of war. This is sadly not always the case, however. Too many reservists and contractors work in headquarters because they are unable to find a job that combines such good pay and such low expectations elsewhere. While they are nonetheless subjected to the same stress as the rest of us, too many reservists have been promoted far beyond the ranks at which they topped out on active duty. Too many contractors have slid into positions that they are woefully unprepared to fill. Add to this the at least 10 percent of active duty officers who are habitually worthless. They are quickly sniffed out at lower-level positions and tossed up to the big bureaucracy where demand outstrips quality supply. These individuals can be found at most headquarters these days. You can pick them out watching YouTube or pontificating, coffee cup in hand, while others (both active duty and the conscientious and capable reservists and contractors) scurry around them, trying to avoid the roadblocks of incompetence they throw up. The reason why I take this seemingly tangent rant is both because I need to do it for my own mental health, but also because this is the reality that surrounds many senior officers on headquarters staffs these days. This only further heightens their big man theory - that being that they are surrounded by incompetence and must carefully guide every action. At the same time, it deepens their mistrust and even disdain for the capabilities of their subordinates.
So, at one end we have the big man. At the other end, we have the incompetents, who are often pathological in their own right, deftly avoiding the figurative shotgun blasts to the chest that would send them packing. In between, you have the masses. In this middle falls the range of mildly to extremely capable officers that make up the bulk of the force. They seek to negotiate the rapids that course between the two poles that make their lives most difficult. Within this group are several types. Some are able to swallow their pride, go along to get along, make the "ham sandwich" and generally avoid negative notice and soldier on with their heads down. Others live their days in a smoldering rage at the incompetence that surrounds them, wishing they had a way to fix it, and dying inside a little every day because they cannot. Still others cope amazingly with the dysfunction, seeming to be able to remain cheery in even the most ridiculous of circumstances. These people are often those that immerse themselves in the mythology and ritual of the organization like members of Opus Dei, and say things like "Every day is a holiday" or "I'm living the dream" and have convinced themselves that they truly mean it. This may be the case for more individuals outside of higher headquarters and doing what they dreamed of in the operating forces, but at the staff level you have to be delusional to believe it. The theme, here, is that these are all coping mechanisms that people use to survive dysfunction. More than one of my colleagues has referred to their situation as one of an abused child.
How to remedy this situation? The biggest targets are the two poles of dysfunction: cull the incompetents and reduce the belief in the big man myth. The culling of the incompetents will be taken care of in part by the drawdown of the wars, the drying up of OCO money, and the coming reductions in force. Leaders must take these as a positive opportunity to make intelligently targeted cuts to both individuals and bloated structure. As for the big man myth, leaders must watch themselves and their subordinates for these tendencies and seek to return to more collaborative, trusting, and healthy staff interactions and processes. As for those in the middle, we will continue to gut it out, but leadership must realize that their talent will be looking for the door more and more as the force shrinks and the sense of wartime duty lifts with the end of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The way in which our forces are reset in the coming years will resound in the health of the force in the coming decades.