Sunday, February 19, 2012

Toward at Typology of Military Dysfunction

Cross-posted from the Marine Corps Gazette blog.
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. Should his internist have no say as to whether a patient undergoes surgery? Let's recall that it is a stress-physiologist-- the anesthesiologist-- that is keeping the patient alive....the surgeon is a mere meat-cutter; in Britain he's still a "Mr."!

    As to military, let's recall that not too long ago, doctor, butcher, candle stick maker all served-- as in the War to End All Wars and the Greatest Generation's War-- and had to be good soldiers or die. Indeed, combat was an MO reserved for those deemed "unskilled," and uneducated. Currently, rather dull knives with stars compound their inadequacies with PR. Secrecy has been the dark tunnel system through which error travels unimpeded in our military command, making it almost as bad as the French command in WWI. Unlike France, so guilty feel our civilian leaders that they supply our military with everything from war toys that pulverize anything alive to cold beer at the front….big contracts for constituents, of course. And, unmatched medical repair team make dead men into vegetables, permanently alive vegetables we maintain at five times what it costs to maintain a platoon.

    All this doesn't forgive the civilian disconnection because, "ain't my kid going to war." It doesn’t help for reporters to quote “high skill” super-trained, best-of-the-best “specialists” as getting “a rush” from sticking a dagger between a guy’s ribs. Lastly, it doesn't help to have special " few joining, even fewer selected" type specialists telling reporter’s of the "rush" they get from sticking a dagger into a guy's belly in combat. Where will they go post-war? Also, there was an LATimes article about how LA Latino gangs ordered their members to join the Marines and volunteer for Iraq "action" so that they can be "properly trained".....trained for what?

    The military has become a cult because it is no longer an everyman’s army. And so it is the commanders in search of something to do to move up the pecking order that have made the US the no#1 international predator, drones and all. I recall all those USMC Captains who felt "lost" in CORDS-- where the REAL war was, building instead of destroying and all those FSOs who did the yeoman's job at rebuilding Vietnamese villages, alone, just a .48 at their side with a few clips. I doubt if history, on balance, will hold-up Munson's Iraq version of pacification where the military did it all.

    Inevitably, soldiers get fired, laid off. Th unstated fact is that the pink-slips simply state that "we don't need you anymore, you're on your own." Some are lucky. But few got to do anything after Vietnam, the prior loser's war in the eyes of the public. That's the dirty reality; you're wanted for your "rush" from killing people, but then you're quickly deemed an unnecessary financial burden . The price you paid and the promises made to you for when you become a "vet" are totally disregarded as the same people who cheered you in parade now damn you for “favoritism” when you're competing for the same civilian job. The "skill sets" of an officer are not "CEO-type"-- too rigid and too reliant on cover-up, blaming too much on "fog of war." A unit can live without a Lewy but not without its Sarge, and nobody offers the Sarge a CEO job. Killers are suddenly vitally needed for a war and then, just as suddenly, they're deemed a needless burden. Don't let the box seats at the football games fool you, this is nation ungrateful in the future tense!

  2. Very insightful, Pete. And unfortunately, very accurate.

  3. Reading this made me think of James Barber; you might (or might not) find it interesting and/or useful.


  4. Also:

    I thought the impact of a decade of "savage wars of peace" was very interesting; if one acknowledges that there is no business equivalent to that in particular, though, is the picture of the military officer corps any different than, say, parts of the business world?

    Finally, there are literatures on internal labor markets and up-or-out personnel systems; I don't have any names or cites for you, and I don't how useful (if at all) looking at those literatures might be, but perhaps something to consider.


  5. I would argue that this while this is all true, I'm not sure that the "big man" theory or even the "herd of laboring staff drones who need to be culled" theory is unique to either the combat-experienced military or the military in general. This is a problem repeated in all industries, military and non-military.

    I left active duty 12 years ago, to labor on as one of those semi-competent (god, I hope I am at least semi-competent) reserve force types. I left active duty largely due to my frustration with the spotty nature of the leadership. I experienced working for some great leaders, which made the experience of working with the less-great ones all the more poignantly miserable. And very many poor leaders of the pre-9/11 military exhibited some of the exact same traits you describe here (screamers, borderline personality disorder, absolutely overcommitted 7x24 big men who micromanaged constantly, the works).

    So now I've spent over 10 years in civilian industry, and have chosen industries that are (for the most part) completely disconnected from the military industrial complex. I've worked for Fortune 100's, start-ups, mid-sized companies, independent consulting companies, and run my own small business. You know something? Poor leadership and management showed up just as much. Screamers, etc., All of it nearly identical. The only major difference was that if a worker was truly cheesed at a manager, they could (in theory) quit the job and move on. And HR policies/union contracts kept the most egregious abuses in check a little bit more effectively than the UCMJ. The amazing this is that very few people walked away from these crappy managers who screamed at them, belittled them, took away their independence, undercut their initiative. Most people are scared to walk away from the familiar.

    It has felt remarkably similar to the military.

    My experience with a non-combat mobilization to active-duty in 2009/2010 cemented this conviction. Large bureaucracies seem to share very similar distributions of poor leadership traits, with few distinctions between the military and civilian life. The only thing that seemed changed from my earlier experience was the amount of contractor bloat at large commands. Our staffs have swelled over the past decade of war, and in no way has it improved things that I can see.

    The only exception I have seen to this idea that crappy leadership is universal was some very positive experience with early-stage start-up culture, and a few independent, small consulting companies - some were pretty impressively high-functioning organizations. Interestingly enough, the ones that functioned best had very understated management teams - "Agile" software shops and the like - who were very focused on team empowerment and delegated authority for decision-making. The thing they had in common was very high talent, good compensation, and steward leadership.

    So I suspect that fixing the problem by improving the leaders is near to impossible. Large bureaucracies breed the dysfunction you describe, independent of combat experience (though I'm sure this exacerbates things). I suspect that culling is our only hope - dramatic decreases in size of staffs will get people back into "team" organizations - where you can know the majority of people on the staff - and function a little bit more like a team than a disconnected,self-interested herd.

  6. Peter as some one supposedly well versed in Psychology, I MUST say WELL DONE! Your insight for a layman is ..Impressive as I was "BMOC" a bit of a Prima Donna & gifted I understand the pressure to be an Uber achiever, though I now have PTSD from prolonged stress, I still have the drive though less tolerance to achieve it. Some salient points to address though are: Personality Disorders seldom develop "on the job" typically they are life long and notoriously hard to treat. Also you are correct partially that many persons with these various disorders are often found in Senior Management positions; though less frequently than in years past I trust, Often antecedent stressors push the over-stressed Commander and outbursts of seemingly irrational behavior are the result,usually some R & R is enough to turn it around but often there is either too much damage from prolonged stress or as you alluded to there was a lifelong personality disorder peaking out. I think the most important point you make is the collective exhaustion & under appreciation of the Services after so much conflict for so long & there is still miles to go before we sleep. Lastly weeding out the "True Colours"(Testing method look it up) of individuals in any services hierarchy puts the Golds Greens Oranges & Blues in effective places they excel & resources are far better managed & maximized, something the services need to consider more as the demand is to slim down leaner meaner & more efficient means maximizing any and all Human Resources. Again Peter you could have an aspiring future in academia if you were thus inclined GOOD JOB!