Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders Why have so many soldiers committed suicide in recent years? The Army is looking beyond post-traumatic stress and asking whether bad commanders and destructive leadership are taking a toll.
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Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders

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Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders

Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a problem many Americans have faced in the workplace: toxic leaders, bosses who make you and your coworkers miserable. Only, our story is not about corporate America. Officials in the U.S. Army have concluded that they have too many toxic leaders. In fact, as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, some Army researchers wonder if toxic officers are partly to blame for some soldiers' mental health problems.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: One of those researchers is Dave Matsuda. And to understand why he's worrying about this issue, you need to hear his story. Matsuda was walking down the hall one day in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. This was back in 2010, in Baghdad. The U.S. Army had turned the palace into its Iraq headquarters. And Gen. Pete Bayer walked up and he said, hey, Doc - everybody calls Matsuda Doc.

DAVE MATSUDA: And Brig. Gen. Bayer stopped me, and he said, "I have a mission for you." And so I replied, "What are your orders?"

ZWERDLING: And here, Gen. Bayer picks up the story. Bayer was the general in charge of getting the U.S. Army out of Iraq, as the war was winding down. He says he told Matsuda that almost 30 soldiers in Iraq had committed or tried to commit suicide, in just the past year.

GEN. PETE BAYER: We got to a point where we were exceptionally frustrated by the suicides that were occurring and quite honestly, feeling - at least, I was - helpless, to some degree, of otherwise good young men and women who were taking their lives.

MATSUDA: And he just said, how do we reverse this trend? How do we stop it?

ZWERDLING: Bayer says that day back in Iraq, he ordered Doc Matsuda to study why have so many soldiers in Iraq wanted to kill themselves?

BAYER: What we valued about Doc, as well as a few others who worked for us, was he didn't wear a uniform. He wasn't one of us, so to speak.

ZWERDLING: Doc Matsuda is not a soldier. He's an anthropologist. The Army hired him to advise U.S. commanders: How do you understand what's really going on in Iraq below the surface? Bayer says now, he wanted Matsuda to look below the surface of the suicide problem in the Army because he says whenever a soldier committed suicide, the Army's official investigators basically asked the same questions: What was wrong with the individual soldier? Did he or she - usually, he - have a troubled childhood, mental health problems? Did he just break up with his girlfriend or wife? Was he in debt? And the answer was often yes. But Bayer says he felt part of the puzzle was missing.

BAYER: We decided that we were going to take a look at it from a different angle.

ZWERDLING: So Matsuda took that look at the cases of eight soldiers who'd recently killed themselves. He met with as many of their buddies as he could.

MATSUDA: I crisscrossed Iraq and interviewed 50 soldiers.

ZWERDLING: And Matsuda says those soldiers told him a more complicated story than the official investigations found. Yes, the victims had major problems in their personal lives. But in addition, every victim had also had a leader who made his life hell - sometimes, a couple leaders. The officers would smoke him - that's what soldiers called it.

MATSUDA: Oftentimes, platoon leaders will take turns seeing who can smoke this guy the worst - seeing who can dream up the worst torture, seeing who can dream up the worst duties, seeing who can make this guy's life the most miserable. When you're ridden mercilessly, there's just no let-up. A lot of folks begin to fold.

ZWERDLING: Matsuda says the evidence did not show that the soldiers' leaders had caused them to commit suicide. But the soldiers' friends said their leaders had helped push them over the brink.

So are you saying that so-called toxic commanders were one of the main reasons that those soldiers attempted or committed suicide?

MATSUDA: Yes. Yes.


ZWERDLING: Of course, the idea that officers can be monsters is an old Hollywood cliche. This is from "Full Metal Jacket," back in the '80s. They're Marines.


ZWERDLING: The scene often made people laugh and wince. But about 10 years ago, the head of the Army decided the idea that that some leaders might be awful is more than a cliche. It's worth studying.

COL. GEORGE REED: Understanding that good command climate is important, the secretary of the Army asked us, what is the impact of destructive leadership?

ZWERDLING: Col. George Reed ran the Command and Leadership Program at the Army War College in Pennsylvania.

REED: Well, the first thing that struck me was what a good question. It was not a question that we had wrestled with before.

ZWERDLING: Reed and a colleague interviewed dozens of officers who were attending the War College. And he says most of them told stories about recent encounters with leaders who they said were toxic. Reed says the soldiers were talking about something worse than incompetent bosses. They said toxic leaders were mean and abusive. They bullied their troops; they didn't listen to them. Reed says after a military journal published their study, they were flooded with emails from other soldiers who complained about toxic leaders they knew.

REED: The stories just poured out, at that point.

ZWERDLING: And did that surprise you?

REED: Well, it was distressing. It was distressing because the Army is a world-class organization. And at some point, you have to ask, no - really? Are we tolerating this kind of leadership behavior?

ZWERDLING: Gradually, some generals started to ask that question. And a few years ago, they ordered researchers to do a nationwide study about the problem. Army researchers surveyed 22,000 troops. Most commanders got good ratings; some got great. But the study found that roughly 20 percent of the soldiers - almost 1 in every 5 - reported that his or her own leader was toxic. Toxic was the researchers' word. NPR has interviewed dozens of soldiers who say they struggled under those kinds of leaders. One of them is Frank Costabile.

FRANK COSTABILE: I'm doing better. Like, after my last suicide attempt, they gave me a new medication.

ZWERDLING: Costabile's job with the Army in Afghanistan was fueling helicopters, tanks, trucks. The Army discharged him just over a year ago, after the third time he threatened or attempted suicide. Now, he's living at a center for homeless vets in Las Vegas. We talked with him as dozens of vets lined up in the cafeteria.

COSTABILE: How's it going, buddy?


COSTABILE: I'll have some of that wing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This has got turkey in it.

COSTABILE: It's not exactly the greatest, but it's better than sleeping on the street or at a Salvation Army, you know?

ZWERDLING: Costabile says he never heard the term "toxic leadership" while he was in the Army. But he says some of his own leaders started tormenting him three years ago in Afghanistan - and it kept up when he came home to Fort Carson, in Colorado. He says they didn't scream at him; they ostracized him. And the more he felt like he was falling apart, the worse it got.

COSTABILE: Like the kid that was picked last for kickball in school or something, you know? I get the jobs that nobody wanted to do. Take out the trash, you're going to sweep the floor, you're going to mop the hallway. And it's like, why?

ZWERDLING: Army records show that Costabile pretty much stopped eating. He lost 30 pounds in a month. His wife found him lying on the bathroom floor after he took dozens of antidepressants and other pills. His officer said, he's faking it.

COSTABILE: And I just had like, feelings - like, that nothing's ever going to change. I'm going to get (beep) every day, and I just don't want this anymore. You know, I just felt like I wanted to kill myself.

LT. GEN. DAVID PERKINS: If we don't do something about toxic leadership - I mean, in the end, not to be too dramatic but it does have life-or-death consequences. And quite honestly, we owe it to the American public.

ZWERDLING: That's Lt. Gen. David Perkins. He runs the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas. They train the Army's officers to fight wars. And back when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Perkins led the first troops into downtown Baghdad. He knows what kinds of commanders you need.

PERKINS: I can just tell you from experience - I mean, gone into units - that if you have toxic leadership, people will get sort of what we call the foxhole mentality. They'll just hunker down. And no one is taking what we call prudent risk - they're not being innovative, they're not being creative. And some people who are toxic leaders, they might be able to get some short-term results and get an immediate mission at hand done. But in the process, they are destroying the organization and destroying their people.

ZWERDLING: Think about this for a moment. The Army's not the only institution with destructive leaders. Corporations have them, too. But when was the last time you heard one of your own bosses say publicly, "We have too many toxic executives in our company"? Perkins says the first step in the Army was to define the problem.

PERKINS: Page 3, I think, subparagraph 11.

ZWERDLING: Last year, the Army revised their leadership bible. The official name is Army Doctrine Publication 6-22. It officially defined toxic leadership for the first time. Perkins reads an excerpt.

PERKINS: (Reading) Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves - yeah, so we're not really mincing any words, I don't think, there.

ZWERDLING: Then, the Army recently took a second step toward dealing with the problem. They did a pilot project on a new way to evaluate officers. Until now, the Army has done what most companies do. The big bosses evaluate the leaders below them and if the big bosses give them a good rating, then the subordinates generally get promoted.

But in the pilot project, they asked subordinates to evaluate their bosses anonymously. The pilot project was tiny; they rated only eight commanders. But the Army plans to expand the system late this year. Meanwhile, top officials have kicked a small number of commanders out of their jobs for being toxic, and the issue is becoming part of the national conversation.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Senator from New York.

GILLIBRAND: I rise today to speak about...

ZWERDLING: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said just a couple months ago that destructive leaders are one reason why the number of sexual assaults in the military is so high.

GILLIBRAND: And you just heard from these victims, there are too many command climates that are toxic.

ZWERDLING: Some of the Army's first researchers who ever raised the issue of toxic leadership say this is clearly a new world now. Still, they're concerned that the Army's leaders aren't moving fast enough.

On a zero-to-10 scale, when you think of what the Army could and should be doing to tackle this problem of toxic leaders, where is it now?

WALTER ULMER: In terms of the Army's making these necessary changes, I guess I give it maybe a 6.

ZWERDLING: That's a retired general named Walter Ulmer. He led forces in Vietnam. Today, the Army uses his writings about toxic leadership at their command school. Ulmer calls toxic leadership an institutional cancer. He says the new system of evaluating officers sounds like a promising way to begin treating the disease. But it's just one step.

For instance, according to the Army's plans, they will ask subordinates to evaluate roughly 1,100 officers anonymously by October. But there are more than 100,000 officers in the Army, and Ulmer says just changing the way many more of them are evaluated is going to be a huge challenge on that zero-to-10 scale.

ULMER: Knowing the bureaucracy, I can't much go above a 6, and I hope that I'm wrong on that one.

ZWERDLING: So the Army's doing more about toxic leaders than any time in the past, but...

ULMER: A long way to go.

ZWERDLING: We began this story talking about the Army's study three years ago, about soldiers who killed themselves in Iraq. Remember the researcher, Dave Matsuda, found that eight soldiers who committed suicide all had toxic leaders; and those leaders, in effect, helped push them over the brink. Now, Matsuda would be the first person to tell you his study was small, anecdotal. But it raises a big question: Have toxic leaders played a role in many more suicides?

The Army and the National Institutes of Health have launched the biggest study yet of why soldiers kill themselves. One of the study's directors told me that they're only just starting to ask whether there might be a link with toxic leadership.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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