Sunday, February 19, 2012

Toward a Typology of Military Dysfunction

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.  


  1. I think it's probably simpler than that. The military culture is unique in that accountability drives people to point fingers, and the person who wins is the person who yells the most at the greatest number of people. The quiet or conflict-avoidant are quickly identified as easy scapegoats. So long as you can yell at someone else, you've deflected blame and so have protected your career.

  2. While the stressors you note in your blog post represent what you see on the inside of a military organization and unique in context, the phenomenon you are describing is (unfortunately) not exclusive to the military.

    Any leader worth their salt in a commercial, non-profit or government agency (non-DoD) should be able to recognize this pattern at play, whether in their current organization or one that they have worked in recently.

    I believe that our current views on what leadership is, how a leader is made (really, developed) and how we can tell how effective leaders actually are (at all levels of an organization are) need a complete overhaul. Current thinking *celebrates* the "big man" and encourages people to act and aspire to be like that example, regardless of how it fits with what is theirs to lead.

    There are ways of addressing this, but it'll require addressing both the means by which leaders are developed and the culture in which they work. I'm very interested in hearing more about this, as you move forward with your career and writing.


  3. Awesome article, I was able to put a name with each example of horrible leadership mentioned which got me laughing...then crying...then back to making a "ham sandwich".

    A 360 evaluation system would help out a bit I think. Then promotion boards wouldn't just see the fitreps of truly horrible officers with glowing marks from hoodwinked RSs & ROs, but the real way they are in the form of reporting from their subordinates.

  4. Matt,
    I think 360 evals are a good idea in the abstract, but I just don't see them ever happening. It is hard enough to get the RS and RO to submit their fitreps on time. Then there's the problem of "spear evals." If it were to happen, I think that maybe the RS/RO get to see the 270 evals from on the side and below, then use that to arbitrate?

  5. What a thoroughly conscientious reflection. Very cogent, fair, and even handed - IMHO. What I would like to respectfully offer is that you’ve accurately described conditions, but offered too little perspective and some incomplete causation. First, to your question (and the inferences that followed): “Have the stressors of war has a decade of the stress of combat operations caused irreparable psychological harm to our senior officers?”

    I think the more pertinent question might be “are *too many* of them irreparably damaged goods?” (Otherwise the answer to your question is just naturally yes…even for the well adjusted, who will be lumped in with the rest by the uneducated “the eye of the beholder.”) I can’t say I know the answer or would even take a stab. The question I ask myself is first off framed in the context of what high-stress does to people and what’s reasonable to expect from the organization in such conditions. (You’ve limited your context to the past decade, but before that we had the Balkans, which is where most of the current crop of most-senior leaders rose to prominence.)

    Are the personnel condition’s you’ve described reasonable to expect after a decade of war…should we be expecting better? (And before we answer, I would propose that we would need to agree that “reasonable and satisfactory” is likely the best we could hope for under such conditions, lest we digress into an examination of the human condition.) Despite the fact that I found myself screaming “amen” throughout your post (Iron Major – 2004-2009), I think today’s personnel conditions are reasonable and satisfactory. I don’t think the dimwitted outnumber the bright any more than they did when I was a company commander in 2000 (and arguably somewhat more professional and bright than the 10 to 20 years before that). The price is higher and so the impact is greater, but I don’t think those factors fundamentally alter the equation about what you can get or develop from what is *available.*

    So…I think the more pertinent question becomes: “are we doing all we can to positively affect the things under our control to prevent the worst of the conditions you've described?” (The standard of “reasonable and satisfactory” proffered above applies again.) One writer has struck upon one of the most common refrains (peer evals), but you’ve effectively addressed that one.
    Next, “Kengon” writes (and you seem to infer) that we need to end: “Current thinking [that] *celebrates* the "big man" and encourages people to act and aspire to be like that example, regardless of how it fits with what is theirs to lead.” Do I need to say that this sounds like burning the village to save it? The alternative sounds quaint, but it’s not within the realm of achievable. First of all, “big man” (even as abstract as you defined it) is synonymous with any hierarchy, and the military’s very ethos is grounded in hierarchy. The myths will *always* come with the package, because the myth is in the eye of the beholder regarding anyone who stands atop the heap. There’s a lot I don’t like when I look around, but how we build, organize, and cull the herd is something that deserves and has received careful-enough attention too nuanced to address here. My point is not that those efforts haven’t produced great evolutions in our thinking in practices, but that the end result (what you’ve described) has not (and arguably will not) change.

    Lastly, as to “broader context” involving reserve component officers, HEXSAW provided a thoughtful reply @ that underscores the observation I’ve made above about what is reasonable to expect for any organization under such stressors.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post. Standing by to be rebutted!

  6. Mark,
    Your points on incomplete causality, etc, are well taken. My excuse (taking full account of the well known aphorism) is that this is a blog post put together in one draft rather than an article honed over the course of weeks or months. I'm finding, though, that blog posts and the comments they provoke, like yours, help in the process of honing and pointing out where I've left my thoughts unsaid.

    What I did not fully develop is that I think there may be some individual causality from combat stress, that question only led me to the idea that the "big man" theory is at blame. I also did not explain as well as I should have that I don't really think that the big man can be taken out of our hierarchical organizations. What I think is critical, though, is recognizing those individuals that overreach in trying to be the big man and cutting down the mythology of the big man in such a way that we recognize that individual leaders are critically important, but that supermen are mythological.

    We need to focus more on how individual leaders create and cultivate teams, trust those teams, and are able and willing to step back, leave the JOC floor for more than a few hours a day, encourage trial and error, promote initiative, recognize limits, etc.

    Hexsaw's comments were a bit disconcerting to my "grass is greener" hopes for my future, but then again, it has become very clear to me that I won't be happy in a massive bureaucracy, whether in private or public sectors... In the meantime, I'll keep thinking about how to make things even slightly better. A refrain that I and many of my peers have when looking around us in our various staffs (this is by no means isolated to my experiences or my service) is "What is wrong with these people?" We can't figure out why things need to be as dysfunctional as they often are.

    1. Pete -
      I almost feel like I should offer apology everytime I post a reply in one of these blogs. I admire the courage you (and others take) in posting the issue for discussion with MUCH more than a casual swipe. You did that in spades, really. I hear you on the rest; "iron sharpens iron," and all that.

      So back to the anvil. I concur 100% with your comments about what we should celebrate; I just question whether that gets us what we desire. We like know many officers who are VERY effective at doing all that you suggest, but are not good at the things that they need to be good leaders at senior levels: excellent writers, extemporaneous speakers, inspiring personalities, engaging briefers, quick thinkers, and just plain thinkers. Our best senior leaders have it all, but that (as you and many before us have pointed out) doesn't fill the demand...I would dare say, by a long shot. We (all of us - military, business) are inextricably drawn to metrics. "Mission first, people always" is a well worn credo, but we both know that the latter almost always unavoidably appears as a proverbial watermark in actual execution. (Again, the best don't do this; we're not talking about them.)

      RE: Hexsaw's comment. I think what you may find is that the grass is greener, but it's different grass...with the same challenges...some FAR worse than others. (Love this analogy. So many can relate.) Ever have Kentucky Bluegrass and then move to a place that has Zoysia? Woof!

      To your question about dysfunction, I think your comment that "you (and I) are not alone" is an understatement. Dysfunction is the bane of middle management, no? I don't mean that in the perfunctory way it is too often used. I mean that those who escape it either repeat it or fix it BUT are replaced by new middle managers who love (or grew to accept and adopt) the methods of dysfunction that they likely mastered in their hoop jumping to get where they are now. Sounds like a hopeless OODA loop at first glance, but history shows that we know how to advance the football. Enough of the great performers make it through to make a difference...there's just a lot of damned casualties along the way.

  7. While reading this my thoughts drifted to Evans Carlson and his banishment of outward displays of rank. I wonder if the effects of toxic leaders would be as bad if they were just another member of the team, albeit the one with the final word. In Carlson's Raiders, everyone knew who was in charge and who would make the call in any situation. But there was no way to "lead with your collar" if your collar bore no rank insignia. The effects of toxic leaders might be exacerbated by the cult of rank when the team is too afraid to challenge them on even the slightest of issues.

  8. Oh ya, 360 evals will never happen in the Marine Corps. (The crazy pills I was taking during that last post have worn off now. I need to lay off the meds when dropping comments on blogs.)

    Seriously though, I think that if an officer is toxic enough the word will get out both up and down the chain. Some will still slip through and get promoted of course, but you'll always have that happen no matter how hard you try to eliminate it.

  9. Ok; I'm not as articulate as some (I had to look up typology, opus dei, hagiograhpy, perfunctory, etc.), but I'd like to think I'm not stupid.

    Ever wonder if maybe you are not thinking a bit too hard about this? Or 'reading into' it too much?

    What I mean is;

    I've read your (Pete) articles [and similar others] in the Gazette, as well as your blog, and thought to myself....hmmm....was I in the same Marine Corps?

    I'm not so blind or foolish as to say I didn't have Commanders (or subordinates, or peers) who I didn't like; but, I never saw things as bad as one would be lead to believe by these writings.


  10. Scott,
    I don't know what or when your experiences were. Not all of my experiences have been as bad as this post would seem, but to me it is reprehensible that leaders like this are allowed to exist in the places that they do. A lot of people are living the dream outlined in this and my other writings daily. It tends to be worse, often a lot worse, above the battalion level and especially outside of the fleet operating forces, by this I mean outside of the MEFs. I really think the bloat and grind of the last decade have seriously affected these commands. A very respected retired Marine leader who still has a venue to know intimately what is going on states that the leadership and command climate has definitely gotten worse in his eyes over the past decade. Additionally, I know a lot of Marines in environments like this, very respected high performing Marines who are contemplating getting out before 20 and others who are over 20 and are planning to retire ASAP whereas they had plans (and the ability) to stay on much closer to 30 years. I've heard multiple LtCols say in complete seriousness that they wish they'd just get fired, because it would be easier than having to deal with the dysfunction. So, I am just one data point, but I've incorporated many data points into my outlook. I have had the honor of working for outstanding leaders in healthy commands. For the most part, these experience color my sense of the way things should and could be. I'd be happy for something short of completely insane in those commands that are plagued by dysfunction. Finally, I don't get a whole lot of people saying that I'm out to lunch or that they've never experienced such things. Quite the opposite.

  11. Pete,

    Thanks for the response.

    Middy 85-89. Commissioned 89. 20 years, almost to the day, active service. I've done tours with Inf Regt HQ, Arty Bn, Division HQBN, AWS student, I&I, MCB, MEU, EWS schoolhouse & Navy Group staff. I got out at 20 because I wanted to actually be able to spend time with my kids before they flew the coop. I am still actively involved with the Corps as the Regional Chief Instructor for the EWSDEP in WestPac.

    I believe that you may not get many 'counter-arguements', as those types of personality are less likely to engage (call it the "silent majority", if you will) in debates of this fashion. Additionally, I think folks tend to focus more on negatives than positives. Sort of like how you almost never hear when someones day was good, but, you certainly hear about it when they had a bad day.

    1. Scott,
      Maybe it is more prevalent in staffs outside the operating forces. I note that most of your time was either in the operating forces at Div and below or schools. My experiences there have been a lot healthier. Still, the sense I got from nearly everyone I talked to, even in the operating forces, was that the dysfunction and stupidity has grown significantly over the past decade.