No Room for Toxic Treatment

No Room for Toxic Treatment

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The general stormed into the command post in a fury, full of profanity and ire. In the middle of my commander’s update, on a blistering summer day in Baghdad, he ordered me outside. At the top of his voice, he stormed, “You were tasked to move me downtown. Your guys never showed up. I want names!”

Quietly I remonstrated, “Sir, that unit doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes. I’ll look into it right away. Meanwhile, my sergeant major will take you where you need to go.”

The general wasn’t having it. Continuing to curse and bluster, he castigated the unfortunate unit, whose soldiers stood 10 feet away. Later, we learned that his aide-de-camp had given the general the wrong departure time.

From its earliest days, the U.S. Army has seen the soldier as its most precious resource. In the 1779 “Blue Book,” the Army’s first field regulations and drill manual, the commander was instructed that his “object should be, to gain the love of his men, by treating them with every possible kindness and humanity, enquiring into their complaints, and when well founded, seeing them redressed.”

Army regulations from 1861, at the outset of the Civil War, emphasized the respect due to the individual soldier: “Military  authority is to be exercised with firmness, but with kindness and justice to inferiors. … Superiors of every grade are forbidden to injure those under them by tyrannical or capricious conduct, or by abusive language.” Treating soldiers with humanity and compassion is not the mark of a “kinder, gentler Army.” Rather, it is the firm foundation of leadership and has been since the service’s beginning.

Call It What It Is

In my long Army career, I occasionally encountered the downside of the hierarchical and authoritarian culture that is the military. Alongside many virtues, military culture often gave scope and opportunity for abusive behavior toward subordinates, usually couched as “tearing soldiers down to build them up,” “teaching soldiers how to deal with pressure” or “keeping them on their toes.” Though we preach, and have for years, that every soldier should be treated with dignity and respect, that dictum is sometimes overlooked.

Even today, this toxic approach has fierce defenders, especially in the training base. I never understood why it was necessary or helpful to hurl abuse and invective at a trainee or student from 3 inches away. Leadership through fear and intimidation is universally condemned in social science, in the private sector, in government and pretty much everywhere else. Deep down, we know individuals are not truly motivated or inspired by harsh or abusive treatment. While a certain personality type may enjoy or feel empowered by wielding authority in this way, it is not only wrong—it’s counterproductive.

Leadership Personified   

I often reflect on George Storck, my West Point lightweight football coach, and his approach to leading young adults. Storck was an Army veteran and a 1952 West Point graduate in an era when the U.S. Military Academy was noted for its almost ferocious treatment of new cadets. His philosophy was different. Relentlessly, he emphasized, “Be better today than you were yesterday.” He rarely raised his voice, and he never insulted his charges. Once, after a foolish play, he took me out of the game and sat me on the bench with a disapproving look. No words were needed.

Storck taught me that high standards and a passion to succeed and excel have nothing to do with belittling or demeaning other people. His leadership led us to a national championship. Other role models reinforced the lesson. To this day, I recall my battalion commander looking at me sadly and saying, “I’m disappointed in you. You’re better than this.” Patiently, he explained my error and poor judgment, closing with, “I’m sure this won’t happen again.” Nor did it.

A Work in Progress          

The Army has made great strides in identifying and eliminating toxic leaders, but this effort remains a work in progress. In any environment where power is given to some over others, there’s the potential for abuse. When it happens, it should never be confused with “strong leadership” or “making things happen.” Leaders can be tough, demanding and uncompromising without insulting or abusing their subordinates. I’m grateful that most of my bosses were like that. On rare occasions, I encountered superiors who could not control their temper and crossed the line into openly toxic and offensive behavior. Once or twice, I reminded them, “Sir, with respect, your rank doesn’t give you the right to talk to me like that.”

Every plebe at West Point is required to memorize “Schofield’s  Definition of Discipline,” which dates to 1879. For leaders at every level, these are words to live by:

The discipline which makes the Soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the Soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.

—Maj . Gen. John Schofield

Col. R.D. Hooker Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank that addresses international affairs from Washington, D.C. A career infantry officer, he commanded a parachute infantry battalion in Kosovo and the Sinai, and a parachute brigade in Baghdad. A former dean of the NATO Defense College, Rome, he served three tours with the National Security Council in the White House.