Poor Leadership in the Military and in Corporate America

An article written last year in Fast Company discussed the effects of poor leadership in the military causing more members to hang up their uniform and leave the military.  The article refers to results of a survey conducted among Army NCO’s and officers about their desire to remain in uniform after completing their service obligations.  The survey revealed that some members of the military are citing ‘poor leadership’ as a reason they are leaving the military.

More than the hardship and strain caused by repeated deployments to combat zones, poor leadership is the main factor in driving active-duty enlisted soldiers from the Army, according to [an] Army Times article, citing research results.  Poor leadership is the third-most popular reason for leaving the service among the active-duty officers surveyed, the article states.  Among noncommissioned officers, leadership concerns were a greater motivation to quit than the relentless pace of deployments.[i]  Although the survey is nearly a year old, I am sure the results would be quite similar, or maybe even higher, as a result of the stress and strains of military life over the past few years.

As we’ve discussed here at Command Performance Leadership, toxic leadership is a very real problem in our military.  Although I believe it is isolated and infrequent, it does still pose a harmful threat to the morale and effectiveness of our fighting men and women in uniform.  And, of course, this isn’t exclusive to the military ranks.  Corporate America is also fighting the battle of poor leadership.

Here is the article, with some follow-up opinions to follow:






Poor Leadership In Companies Goes Straight To The Bottom Line

By Roberta Chinsky Matuson – July 27, 2011

It’s no wonder that the movie Horrible Bosses is playing to full theaters all across America. Everyone has either had a terrible boss at some point in his or her career or they know someone who has been in this situation. Poor leadership is an epidemic that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

The problem of poor leadership isn’t just reserved for the private sector. In a recent survey by the Army Research Institute, 26 % of sergeants and staff sergeants and 23 % of lieutenants and captains surveyed planned to leave the Army after completing their current service obligations. Of those, 35 % of enlisted and 26 % of officers cited the quality of leadership at their duty stations as a reason for leaving. Among noncommissioned officers, leadership concerns were a greater motivation to quit than the relentless pace of deployments.

Here is how this is playing out in organizations around the world.

Employees are being placed in positions of authority based on seniority, rather than results. Sgt. Kevin Doyle, a two-tour veteran of Afghanistan recently wrote the following on the Army Times website. “Instead of promoting those who create results, we keep in dinosaurs that meet an easy standard and continue to slide under the radar.” The same thing happens in Corporate America, where seniority and internal politics often trumps employee performance and results.

People are promoted into management positions before they are ready. In an effort to save money, organizations are turning towards internal promotions or relying on inexperienced leaders to train new managers. The results can be disastrous if the promotion doesn’t come with training or coaching from a more senior person.

I recently learned of a situation where my 19-year-old nephew is training the boss’s son to take on a newly created management role. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my nephew dearly, but at age 19, how much can he really know about management? My heart goes out to the son of the owner, who will be expected to fly high the moment he is set free in the organization. And then we wonder why most family businesses don’t make it to the third generation.

Lack of role models. If you’ve been fortunate enough to have a good boss then you are usually one of the lucky ones. Getting two or more of these is equivalent to winning the lottery.

We model our behavior on what we observe. If most of what we see is poor leadership then it’s unlikely we will be much better without an intervention.

It’s no secret that people leave their bosses. We also know that employee turnover has a direct impact on the bottom line of organizations. Many people believe that leadership is a trait we all possess. That may be true for some, but for others leadership is something that can be taught. Isn’t it time that we put our knowledge to good use to resolve this problem?


Louis Johnsick, one of the members of my LinkedIn group, Command Performance: Military and Corporate Leadership, posted a comment soon after I posted this article last year in the group’s discussion board.  He said:

“There is poor leadership everywhere for sure. For the most part, the corporations and military are shooting themselves in the foot by placing the wrong people in charge and for all the wrong reasons.

I think this happens for a few different reasons. The top two that I can think of would be: 1) “It’s how we’ve always done it.” 2) “Their a good person and they deserve a chance.” If these folks aren’t ready for a leadership role, then they aren’t ready for a leadership role. I have known some great people, but their leadership ability and management style were sub-standard, but they were still put in charge or recommended for promotion. It would be much better for the individual and the organization to continue grooming them and get them to a higher level, rather than see them flounder and fail; just because we like them or we don’t want to hurt their feelings. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

As a military retiree and working in the civilian sector, I have seen these scenarios play out in the military and corporate worlds. In order to ensure organizational success, performance has to be a prerequisite for promotion; not just seniority. That was always one of the great things about the military, if you worked for a bad boss, just wait 18 months or officer rotation or 3 years for senior NCO’s to rotate. No such thing is the corporate world.

So what’s the bottom line? Agree with the article, in that, we need to get real and take a hard look at how things are being done and do some serious internal analyses and find a new starting point and develop some measurable metrics for success. Ensure we identify the key performers and train and coach them for future leadership roles. Maybe adopt the mantra, “It’s nothing personal, just business.”

Louis’ comment is echoed by General Martin Dempsey (at the time, Army Chief of Staff) in the May 2011 Army Times article.  In the article, Dempsey blasted the pace of promotions, suggesting that it puts people in leadership positions before they are ready.  “We’re promoting 95 to 98 percent of captains to major, 93 or 95 percent of majors to lieutenant colonel. We shouldn’t be satisfied … because 98 percent of captains don’t deserve to be promoted to major. Statistically, that’s an infeasible percentage. And we’ve got to do the same thing on the noncommissioned officer side.”  Too many soldiers are promoted based on seniority instead of merit.

So, is toxic leadership the new fog of war for our senior military leaders?  Do most not see that this is a poison among our military ranks?  What will the Pentagon do to eradicate toxic leaders from the military?  Is it a matter of eradication, or is it a need to have remedial counseling and training among leaders who possess traits of a toxic leader; to train them to be more empathetic towards their subordinates?

My personal opinion, as stated in other posts, is that fundamental leadership training, and the awareness of what toxic leadership is, and how to avoid being a toxic leader, should start early and often in a person’s career in the military.  Because the military is unique, in that it requires people at all levels to take on certain forms and levels of leadership, I think that what we are seeing in the results of the survey is a lack of training and, dare I say, prevention, early in one’s career.  As important as the training on sexual harassment, I think toxic leadership awareness should be an integral developmental focus of our future leaders, both in the military and in corporate America.  And, I think the results of this survey, and the subsequent departure of some very fine soldiers (and sailors, airmen and Marines), is ultimately the result of our senior leaders either ignoring the facts about toxic leadership, or not knowing how to recognize the signs that toxic leadership is affecting their ranks.  So, the training should be both how to avoid being a toxic leader, and how to recognize one.

I know what you are thinking…more training about things unrelated to killing our enemy.  But, topics like sexual harassment, hazing and toxic leadership, among other things, do have a tangible and lethal effect on the esprit de corps of our teams, and ultimately has an effect on our fitness to fight our Country’s wars.  It all ties together.


Related Articles –

Survey: Bad Leadership Drives Soldiers to Leave (armytimes.com)

Bad Leaders are Destroying our Military (militarygear.com)

Antecedents and Consequences of Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army: A Two Year Review and Recommended Solutions (usacac.army.mil)

Leadership Effects (A Guest Blog Post from the Front Lines) (commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com)

(Hard) Lessons Learned About Leadership (commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com)

Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained (commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com)

Toxic Leadership (commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com)

Schofield’s Definition of Discipline (commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com)

What Inspirational Leaders Do – Conclusion (cedricj.wordpress.com)

Footnote –

[i] “Survey: Bad Leadership Drives Soldiers to Leave” – Published: May 21, 2011 – http://www.stripes.com/news/army/survey-bad-leadership-drives-soldiers-to-leave-1.144230 – Accessed 8 March 2012 – Stars and Stipes – http://www.stripes.com/

17 Responses to “Poor Leadership in the Military and in Corporate America”

  1. Dale,

    Interesting post. Unfortunately, all of this is far to common.



  2. Great article(s). Highly informative, pithy and great sourcing. Thanks for the time and effort you put into this. Best.


  3. Great article, from the private sector side, I’ve even seen companies that a good or even semi-good leader will leave very quickly, because management has been completely taken over by an accounting department wich can’t see beyond the quarterly balance sheet.

    I’m pressed for time right now so there will be another comment coming, where I’ll expand a bit. This company (and some others have become a laboratory for bad leadership. To the point that the entire community knows that if you can get job (for ~75% of the pay) you’ll be far better off.


  4. Jose LugoSantiago - Craft Your Journey! Says:

    The issue of leadership driving people out of a company or the military merits crucial attention. One of the reasons is because you can’t replace good people once they leave. It takes years. That’s why we spend a considerable amount of time training our forces to develop the core capabilities. In combat leadership inspires trust. And trust provides the venue to act without hesitation. Both of these two (leadership and trust) are pre-requisites to make all other things happen.


  5. Great post Dale!!


  6. A number of Soldiers are getting out because of poor leadership or just the atmosphere of leadership and the way that everything has changed. Both on the NCO and Officer side. Most feel that they can not make a positive impact outside their span of control because the higher echelons of the Army pay little or no attention to line leaders at the platoon level even with a team effort attitude. They may “hear us out”, but most of the time it is to no end. I love the Army and I love Soldiers. I will never bad mouth the military, but the truth being what it is, I must say that the higher echelons of the Army care about numbers on a conceptual level and they are concerned about maintaining a positive image of the Army. The issue is that in the past some have felt the need to maintain this image at the expense of integrity when negatives issues arise and these individuals with authority choose to not air “dirty laundry” when it comes out in the wash anyway. Choosing to deney what becomes public knowledge hurts individual Soldiers involved as well the Army’s image. There have only been a handful of incidents that have made the news, but quickly forgotten except by those invloved. It would have been far better to just come out with it and deal with the issue anyway. Line leaders care about Soldiers on a personal level because we interact with them daily and we live the Army image through our actions, both good and bad, but we are honest with one another. Their problems are my problems. There are far too many people in the military that are only concerned about a career or self recognition rather than service to our country and one another.
    With regard to coporate America, I made a post on my blog site to this end, comparing industry with the military, sadly the military is starting to show trace signs of following the rest of business:

    “Self-less Service
    Most in any industry seem focused only on their “end numbers” with regard to profits. That is the goal of business in general, but now they’re out for “self” rather than our nation and economy. There is a vast difference between who we are in the military and those in the coporate world and how they conduct business.
    Imagine if every business only implemented just a little “self-less” service. I’m certain even just a small amount would have prevented all of the “out-sourcing”, employee layoffs, and down sizing. Nice going all you folks in the upper echelons of coporate business………….keep cheating us. Now it’s starting to back fire on you a bit. You needed the government to bail you out because you thought that out sourcing your manufacturing would turn more profit. Now you have to pay to have your products sent back to the states and since the parts were made overseas, the crafstmanship went belly up. Like Maytag…………not many want to purchase their products. Their parts repair service is substandard and at times the parts are so poorly made, they do not even fucntion with the model it was originally designed for. Way to go. Levi Strauss is right up there with the rest of them.”
    When your profits are more important than your employees, you have failed as an American business. The CEOs and Presidents of companies do not make to multi-millions if it’s done at the cost of hurting their employees by eliminating their jobs or retirement benefits. The truthful fact that the do means that they have no idea what self-less service is and could care less about this nation.

    SSG David Hickman
    C CO, 2-11 IN REG
    Ft. Benning, GA


  7. Great timing for this article as my Navy officer daughter just called and told me there’ll be some breaking news about her CO being removed from his post on a brand new LPD. She is disappointed, but in truth, my experience in private sector says poor leadership is everywhere. She shouldn’t leave thinking the grass will be greener. The only great leadership is in self-employed!


  8. […] Poor Leadership in the Military and in Corporate America […]


  9. Jacqui,
    I must disagree with your last sentence, “The only great leadership is in self-employed.” “Self” requires no one to lead. Should you be undisciplined, you’re the only one who suffers. What many do not realize is that leadership is not about the leader, their respective careers, or an “appearence” in the eyes of others. Leaders serve others that are below them and that service willoften have no recognition by thse whom they lead. Sound leaders are comfortable with this. but sadly in all branches of the military and certainly in the civilian world, “self” will show up and the needs of others fall to the side. Look at the oil industry, auto industry, and tire industy, just to name a few. Being self-employed also requires you to be a leader to patrons, though you may not be aware. Your community will regard you for your actions and services or they will not, causing you to fail to met your endstate. Your end-state provides either a service or some form of goods to help the community. If it did not benefit in some way or form, there would be no need for you. Much like my Soldiers should they find that I will not help them, I will be of no use to them and the organization suffers. So you’re still leading even though you’re self-employed. You still must interact with other organizations who may be your patrons. If those respective organizations have poor leadership how then, in turn, will that effect you as being self employed with whatever end-state goal you’ve set for yourself? Overall, everyone must interact with some organization that requires one or more to lead others.

    SSG David Hickman
    C CO, 2nd BN, 11th Infantry Regiment
    Ft. Benning, Georgia


    • Well said, SSG. My head was more wrapped around the concept that if you are self-employed, you need only put into the job what you want to (including those leadership traits) where a boss often dictates what is included in your job description. But, you are right. To do ‘self-employed’ well requires an abundance of leadership.

      On a separate note, my son just went through Ft. Benning, 2nd Brigade, but 46th Infantry Regiment–graduated in June. He’s in Kuwait now with the Signal Brigade. What an experience Army boot camp is! Talk about leadership.


  10. Only wanna admit that this is very beneficial , Thanks for taking your time to write this.


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