O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.
Successful psychopaths comprise about 21 percent of chief executives. They have “clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits,” according to a recent academic study. The rate of psychopathy in the general population is only about 1 percent.
How can such seemingly dangerous people rise so high in an organization? When people are promoted for their technical skills without enough regard to personality features, it leads to the appointment of “successful psychopaths” to senior positions—individuals uniquely talented at specific tasks but whose personalities risk having a negative, even toxic, impact on the organization. The dangers of selecting leaders without considering personality traits should inform the way the US Army selects officers for command. Specifically, how can the Army prevent terrible leaders from staying covered and concealed?
Not long ago, the Army discontinued its only effort to directly address aptitude for command based on personal behaviors and values. The “balanced leadership” component of the Army Battalion and Brigade Pre-Command Course (BBPCC) used 360-degree assessments to describe each leader’s personality style, leadership behaviors, and skills. The assessments were part of a short course that included lectures and classroom exercises to prod the mid-level leaders to ponder their personal values and core purpose in life. A leadership coach helped the new commander unpack his or her 360, put the respondents’ input into perspective, and establish an action plan to sharpen leadership skills.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” taught Socrates. The leader emerged with more candid self-knowledge and a firmer self-identity.
The fact that the balanced leadership 360-degree assessment was de-funded strongly suggests that strategic leaders did not comprehend its contribution to battlefield lethality.
Effective leadership is a key component of combat power. The balanced leadership course directly strengthened rising leaders. Counterproductively, in my opinion, the results of the assessments of leader behaviors were given only to the leaders and their individual leadership coaches at the BBPCC. The Army did not use this valuable information to identify either talented or toxic leaders, or to try to match leader with particular positions in the manner of most well-managed corporations’ executive search committees.
The Army leader-selection process does not reliably identify those officers with desired behaviors to succeed as leaders. On the contrary, because the midlevel leadership tier is an incubator for more senior leadership roles, the flawed process can even spread an infection of bad leadership traits. The Army uses a board selection process intended to promote merit while guarding against bias. The board uses efficiency reports and a record of experience and citations to identify new unit leaders. But the Army’s standard officer evaluation report (OER) reflects the opinion of one rater about current performance and one senior rater about future potential. Thus, the OER is only a top-down view filtered through the opinions of just two people about desirable behaviors.
Opinions, however, can be strongly influenced by the common tendency to equate confidence to competence. If the standard of the filter is flawed, then flawed people will pass through and, in turn, eventually select more similarly flawed leaders—an apostolic succession of faulty leadership that, given enough generations, risks producing an Army-wide toxic culture.
As a coach in the balanced leadership program for its few final years, I worked with hundreds of battalion and brigade-level leaders. Their 360-degree assessments were built on twenty-five leadership behaviors. The respondents were subordinates, peers and superiors, family, community members, and themselves. Because the officers I coached were Army Reserve officers, the respondents also included their civilian career associates.
The comments were usually thoughtful and insightful. The observations often covered a span of many years. The points of view were varied, so the comments could be contradictory. Conclusions were sometimes based on one particular event, a stubborn memory or a superficial relationship. An experienced coach assisted the leader to find actionable information among such feedback and form an action plan to develop skills necessary to succeed in command. It was also clear to me that the board selection process had sometimes chosen the wrong officers for higher leadership.
The OER used by the board is only a slice of all this possible input and may suffer from the worst foibles of personal observation.
The Army, of course, has competing demands for resources, and decision makers may think certain others are worthier of funding than choosing the right battalion and brigade leaders, but battles have been won and lost by even smaller units, and such battles have won or lost wars. Moreover, the lives of individual soldiers might be saved—or lost—within very small units. These commanders are on a path to become strategic leaders, where they will influence the culture of the Army. Meanwhile, they will rate junior officers and, it’s reasonable to expect, advocate for those people who are most like themselves. The Army should enable good leaders to attract more good soldiers, and not let the bad drive out the good.
In comparison, a well-run corporation wants to find the person with the best fit for a specific position. An executive search committee produces a list of specific desired leadership traits for a particular job. The committee starts with the current and future requirements of the position, focusing on the critical capabilities that will make or break the organization. Most of these requirements are behavioral, and not strictly technical. The committee will conduct many interviews of potential executives and often make personality or behavioral evaluations part of the process.
The Army’s reliance on OERs as the primary basis for promotion, by contrast, misses many of the executive search committee’s best practices:
- Who is the “customer” of the rated officer—the soldiers of his or her unit, or the rater and senior rater?
- If counseling by the rater is expected to correct behavior flaws, what if the rater is flawed?
- What is the officer’s “product”—quantifiable readiness indicators, battlefield victory, or an aura of competence?
- Which produces battlefield victory—tactical competence or a successful team?
- What are the specific requirements for success of the leader’s new command, including the character of the people already on the team?
It is unfortunate that the Army did away with the 360-degree assessment, a powerful tool for commanders to better develop themselves as leaders. But equally unfortunate is that all-around assessments have not been part of the promotion and command assignment process. They should be presented not only to the subject but also to the selection board, along with a professional analysis of the contents. The subject can thereby use the analysis to form a professional action plan for skill improvement that includes objectives and accountability for improvement. And boards should consider the current state of the command and its intended future in order to select the best officer to move it forward. Using such assessments will enable more effective midlevel leader development and selection, and that, in turn, will directly increase combat power. The Army should embrace any tool that achieves that outcome.
Image credit: Sgt. Dustin Biven, US Army
I noticed that the author only discussed officers and did not mention non- commissioned officers. I'll admit that my experience is only anecdotal it seems to me that in almost every unit to which I've been assigned many of the NCOs, particularly senior ones, displayed the aforementioned traits to varying degrees. I'm not saying that the entire Army ought to roll over and start being Joe Huggers, but the the NCO Corps which prides itself on professionalism ought to take the same hard look inwards and determine if its leaders are part of this same problem.
JimW…..I agree with you on this. USASMA needs this bad. I am retired 1SG who has seen a lot of bad examples and even the ones ( E8/E9 ), drunk on duty only to be coddled and hidden away until sober
BobV… These topics were brought up during my 11 months in USASMA. At least once a month nominative leaders across the Army visit to address some of the above issues. Believe me when I tell you when you graduate USASMA, you know exactly whats going to cause your demise. Why do some choose to ignore those warnings? Not sure. However, I can tell you that annually an average of 40 CSM/SGMs are remove from position. I agree… 1SGs/SGMs/CSMs should be held to a higher standard without being coddled or hidden away!
The author's son's led a Reserve support unit in Iraq, facing frequent attacks, to accomplish a vital and highly reported mission under the scrutiny of Army Staff and National Media coverage. It was largely accomplished by ensuring good leadership at every level, as the unit had few officers and many NCOs.
The Reserve had flexibility the other components lacked and were forced to treat their people better, having to return to the civilian world with them and their families. They couldn't just PCS and leave their mistakes behind; never to see them again.
Constant PCS and lack of relationships encourages poor leadership. The toxic leadership was so ingrained in the component he reported to that immediately after they returned home, key leaders were recruited in earnest to leave the unit by that component.
Who says there's something wrong with Psychopaths? Psychopath he is just a means of thinking it is not somehow she were evil! You won't affect the people who can get the job done, you want Psychopaths! Guess how many surgeons are psychopaths? Most of them! They don't have the mentality of a general practitioner because they have to do dirty things to make things right. The pansies who wrote that opinion piece needs to get the penises out of his butt in his mouth. Warfighting is not an EOE! You either get with the program or you get gone!
Your comment would make more sense if if it was coherent.
That's along with my thinking
You're kidding? Have uou ever looked up the definition of a psychopath???
Spot on. The 360 assessment tool, while a grammar idea in an institution with a habit of really bad ones, had the o tote trial to weed out toxic leaders. We quickly figured out that it was never considered in the promotion process, and therefore became just another digital requirement that, while mandatory, did nothing to contribute to mission success.
With respect, there are a lot of fallacies in this article. First, MG(R) Symanski conflates psychopathic tendencies with psychopathy itself. It's a spectrum and while many leaders have certain traits or tendencies, they are not necessarily psychopaths. Second, the author resorts to an appeal to ethos, playing up this conflation to convince the reader that all psychopathic traits are undesirable, evoking the readily available mental images of extreme psychopaths such as Ted Bundy. In short, psychopathic tendencies could contribute but do not necessarily make a leader toxic.
In fact, there are certain traits associated with psychopathy that may benefit the army. For example, in an environment that many accept is overly cautious and risk-averse, the impulsiveness associated with psychopathy often lends itself to a higher risk threshold. Similarly, the dissociative ability associated with psychopathy often allows leaders to maintain a cooler head during crises. Empathy is good. Too much empathy might cause fatal hesitation in a leader. For example those leaders who in the fiercest parts of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts would state that their primary mission was to bring their soldiers all home created a paradox of security that increased threats to those same soldiers.
Next, MG(R) Symanski praises 360-degree evaluations while ignoring that they are widely held to be completely unreliable. As Marcus Buckingham states in the article "The Fatal Flaw with 360 Surveys" in the Oct 2011 edition of HBR, "In statistics we call this a 'skewed sample.' Add up all their ratings and you do not get an accurate, objective measure of your leadership behaviors. You get gossip, quantified." In other words, 360s will always provide bad data that when aggregated doesn't provide statistically significant information. His concern about the biases inherent in the OER carry over to the 360s. The Army is better off with the MSAF 360 dead.
I think that MG(R) Symanski is addressing a symptom of a problem and not the problem itself. He wants emotionally intelligent leaders. He wants to ensure that only those leaders rise to the strategic level, which is a good thing. Fortunately, emotional intelligence CAN be developed and grown. We should create a system wherein the accessions into the officer corps weights emotional intelligence traits highly (for example, the Engineer Corps focuses its accessions too heavily on STEM degree-holding JMOs at the risk of emotional intelligence). Then, we should create support systems and leadership development programs at the institutional and organizational levels that help leaders develop and hone that emotional intelligence.
"He wants emotionally intelligent leaders. He wants to ensure that only those leaders rise to the strategic level, which is a good thing."
This assumes that the skills, traits, and performance that we identify at the company and early field grade level are the same as those which will produce the good strategic leader. All to often we see the excellent company grade officer who wasn't a good S3/XO or BN CDR.
The Army has struggled with centralized selection for O-5 and O-6 command since it was instituted in the last 1970s. The system we have is less than perfect, but I'm not certain that adding anything to it will improve the outcomes at this point.
As a retired E7 NBC NCO I spent most of my career in staff assignments and had the opportunity observe many senior officers and NCOs. Being a chemical soldier I spent time in MI,Artillery, ADA battalions. I was fortunate to have spent time on a Division staff three times, served in the 1AD as a brigade chem NCO and as the Chemo when he became the BDE HHC commander. Finally my last assignment was at the Chemical school in the Doctrine section.
I think my service in such diverse units and the fact that I enlisted at 30 years old gave me the opportunity to evaluate people from a different perspective.
I also have the unfortunate ability to say what I think when it would have been better to just shut my mouth, hence my retirement as a SFC.
I was surprised that all the comments were very thoughtful and heartfelt and that just reinforced my belief that soldiers are alot more intelligent than most civilians realize.
The point of all the above made me surprised that no one mentioned the Peter principle. I saw so many examples of it in my career that I became convinced of it's validity.
I'm sure that everyone would agree that the best way to evaluate people is to either work for them or to have them work for you.
As long as the zero defect mentality is the ethos of the army you will continue to create flawed leaders. The leader who is so afraid to make a mistake will be a timid leader who will create a unit with that same mentality. I remember from my time in PLDC that there were 3 types of leadership; Expert, Authoritative and eclectic. From my experience authoritative is the least effective and goes hand in hand with psychopathy.
Instead of worrying about this. They need a reg on how many hrs you can work straight without sleep. You can work over 48 hrs in the army with no sleep. There is no reg covering this. Check and try to find one. And leadership likes to use this as a punishment.
I think you hit the mark on the real problem across the military… there has to be a wholesale restructuring around what the military does on a day-to-day. So much time and resources wasted on asinine tasks, so many exercises, and so many deployments with no real objective. These are the factors that are driving the force into the ground. Often times, poor leadership is the result of the ridiculous requirements imposed across the force… where leaders/supervisors are required to push them to achieve supposed results.
The key to an effective 360 deg. assessment is interpretation by a professional coach. The leader tends to focus on the negative commentary and miss his or her strengths. The experienced interpreter will point out probable biases or contradictory observations produced by differing points of view. The coach will always ask the leader subject, “What does the comment mean to you?” The actionable comments should produce a sound action plan for the leader to build the necessary organizational culture including mutual trust among those he leads.
As a leader ascends in positions of increased authority and scope of responsibility, he or she must grow in mindset, too. The qualities required of a small unit leader are different than of an operational or strategic leader. Some psychologists say that a person usually changes in personality and style about every ten years, although most people do not expect such important changes. Periodic introspection and matching self-perception against others' perception is a very helpful azimuth check.
Also, the symptoms of a psychopath as described in the linked article Successful Psychopaths, is not the same as a psychotic.
General Symanski—very well written and thought provoking article.
Respectfully, wouldn’t this role of “leadership coach” be assumed under the duties of the given officer’s direct superior? It seems excessive to add an additional position to an already overly-bureaucratic management system when assessing how one’s subordinate leads his own followers is already inherent to being a superordinant? If that superior values 360 degree assessment, it should be on him to figure out how to interpret one; conversely, an argument can be made that such an assessment is the statistical equivalent of letting the yellow belts grade a black belt’s technique.
Also, while you acknowledge that psychopathy isn’t the same as psychosis, you haven’t really addressed the points made in earlier comments regarding the possible positive qualities of psychopathic traits in a modern military leader.
For example, you ask ‘Who is the “customer” of the rated officer—the soldiers of his or her unit, or the rater and senior rater?’ Assuming we haven’t completely jettisoned the concept of “mission first,” the answer isn’t that divergent from the corporate system that benefits from such psychopathic largesse. While abuse of subordinates is poor resource management, their welfare cannot be the top priority or the army has lost its raison d’être.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments and trusted (I hope) debate.
The article describes the pitfalls of relying on the assessment of behaviors by only a very few people who have the same point of view; e.g., supervisors. The observations by many people would better identify who are the actual "customers" of the subject leader.
The roles of trainer, educator, mentor and coach are different. A commander can be a very effective mentor who guides the mentee through the known unknowns of a career. A professional coach works with behaviors which are best observed from many directions. Behaviors change over time, and the coach should help to keep them moving in the right direction. Look up the interesting article by Stephanie Pappas, "You May Not Recognize Yourself in Ten Years" in Live Science.
I think it is safe to say through out history you have guys who were great war time commanders that sucked as peace time commanders. But the thing is today it is so much harder to separate the political out of militaries being so much more mobile and visible with the 24/7 press coverage. It is impossible to keep the outstanding brilliant field commanders out of the sight of the media which brings public and political scrutiny. WWII and Korea showed what media getting closer looks can do to brilliant tacticians that didn't handle the political side well. Patton and MacArthur were prime examples. But as a former enlisted soldier I can honestly say I would much rather serve under that brilliant psychopath than a lot of the politically cautious commanders I encountered during my brief career. It is a shame there is not a way to have a bullpen with just brilliant tacticians held in reserve to temporarily relieve the more brilliant strategic politician that make brilliant peace time commanders. We ever get into another long sustain war such as WWII you may need some of those brilliant psychopaths to lead the combat missions and campaigns. I'm my time in you had those in command that were great at one aspect but rarely were they great at all aspects.
I agree. Have worked for and with the politically correct Peter Principle officer that could not make a decision when under tactical stressors to the point of being dangerous. Damn, right or wrong make a decision or we're all going to die here.
I hope 360 assessments are more effective now. When I was a young officer, we were afraid to criticize our leadership in one of these assessments because of the blowback. They always knew who wrote something and, even if they were out of the unit, they had friends who weren’t.
Military needs to develop a way for members to advance without being a commander. Advancement based on technical assessments for doctors, cyber, computer engineers, etc.
Smells like liberal bs to me… were you one of the generals appointed by obama after his mass firing… aka political restructuring of the military cia and fbi?… im sure you're the type that praises our f'ed up rules of engagement, making it impossible to win conflicts and getting soldirlers killed for nothing.
The old old hearts and minds type huh?
Give me your psychological analysis of patton. You probably would have had him discharged if up to you… typical disconnected officer trash…
We dont need psychologists choosing our military leaders… You just worry about how to keep our constitution from getting shreaded from todays socialist asssult on america… cuz look around…. rome 2.0 is almost here… death fron within.
Jason, You actually missed the point of argument or what the article is about. Your dislike for Obama and love for the Republican, Democrats, or whatever political affiliation and rhetoric that appeals to your liking has clouded your judgment. Your response is exactly what the author is describing, imagining how toxic you would be as a leader is no rocket science. How quickly you dragged Obama into this is beyond anyone else's comprehension. You are one of those who truly believe that, anyone whose opinions are not aligned with yours, is a liberal. And non liberals like you, are "supposedly " more AMERICANS. If they liberals aren't patriotic like you, why do you think the General still cares about an institution that he once served in? Differences in ideologies shouldn't be the ground for pointing accusing fingers. What if your ideas are totally bankrupt and to compound matters, you might not even be aware of it. Do you see where extremism with little room for tolerance and respect for the others can leave you stuck with a broken ideas and will still continue to flag a decomposed horse? The Ret Gen, was actually trying to get to the bottom of ratings by just a few at the upper level without considering the perspectives of the subordinates of the rated leader. And lastly, how would you feel, if someone unreasonably described your comments that you are a NAZI or a KKK sympathizer? When in the actual case you are not. Let's learn to debate or have discussions with reasonableness, at the end of the day, we are all brain storming to make US of A to continue to be the best and foremost, let's respect one another. No disrespect intended.
The General talks concepts that were tested and validated under enemy fire by many enlisted and officer observers. Their success is indisputable. Those brave enough to apply them will succeed under fire where others fail.
The 360 was canceled by the former CSA and Sec Army because they assessed it was money that could better be used in modernizing our Army.
I think as a staff sergeant in the United States army the fabric of society has produced A societee of individuals that are confrontational, lethargic which causes leadership styles to change based on what society produces.
I believe that being a major who directs and yet if everything else falls still can stand out can protect the major group and common citizen is suppised too be tough. I also think they are labeld for their strict additude and lack of tolerance when it comes too jepordising safety is a necessity. Too call them crazy and never know them or too say you would have access too thier psychiatric file is like criminal and very revealing of how you dont appreciate what our military does. Our people have been safe from being a homefront warring country for a long time and the cammand is what keeps us all in check too keep a structural and successful environment we have too stick too that regiment. Remember they are not sociopaths they are there too protect us. And without them you would be far worse than you can imagine.
P.s. dont judge someone who makes sure you dont have a bad life and dont forget what they have seen, been through, or why they are who they are today, yestersay, and tommorow.
GEN George C Patton is kicking and screaming inside of his coffin. Motivating men to assault a hill protected with machine guns takes a bit of psychopathy. Today’’s Army wants to become
More corporate. That is the crux of the problem. I’ve seen pathological behavior and suffered its consequences. I removed security clearance of a CSM who walked out on a urinalysis. 1SG gave me 4s on NCOER. That’s all it took. I still retired with 100% VA Disabilty.
The 360 degree assessment was worthless. The individual picked who responded, making it likely you only picked people you liked. Even when I purposely put people who didn't like me they just didn't respond. It also isn't technical competence that is getting people selected for promotion. It is all about top block OER, raters tend to top block people exactly like them. If you have a person in a leadership with poor leadership skills they will often select people with the same characteristics, which to them is the right way to do things. Our system of basing promotion on strictly one person's opinion is what is flawed
The soldiers today are a much different group than in WW2 , Korea or Vietnam. That said, as a veteran and someone who has over 40 years of management experience the concept of 360 degree evaluations is as old an outdated as it gets. Many businesses still use them and still don't get good managers. The problem is the person they are done on has to change. It's still a personal thing. Many times they resent these thoughts from subordinates and feel they are wrong. No organization will ever be "perfect" especially the Army. Commanders are produced for potential combat and war. That can't be quantified. While the system isn't perfect it still produces the best Army in the world. We need leaders that aren't pansies, but understand men maybe lost in battle and aren't afraid to take risks to win which is the ultimate objective.