When Toxic Leadership and Service Culture Collide: Impacts of Masking Personal and Organizational Motives

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  • By Victoria L. Bobo

What is the function of a mask? A mask conceals the wearer’s true identity, protects them with anonymity, and distorts their appearance, covering what lies beneath. We all wear masks, often donning them to protect others from negative emotions we have experienced, whether hiding emotional pain from our children or covering up sadness with a smile to strangers in passing. Some individuals and organizations, however, wear a mask for a different purpose. They conceal their intentions and motives, creating different perceptions based on the “face” they put on during interactions with others, and changing this face based on what a particular person or organization can do for or to them.

Whether as a service as a whole or on an individual scale, masking true priorities and character—especially if done with nefarious or self-serving intent—can be damaging for those involved. When individuals are exposed to those in authority who don masks to create positive perceptions for their superiors—only to become the target of their abuse when these masks are lifted—their belief in the institution represented by their leader can fracture.1

Through my own testimony, I hope to bring transparency to this dilemma, one Carl Builder investigates on an organizational level in his book, The Masks of War.2 Builder proposes that the “masks of war” are what military institutions present to conceal their “less than noble, but legitimate” motives or self-interests. To be clear, Builder acknowledges that “it is the institution that holds up the mask of war to cover the pursuit of its self-interests, not the warriors within it.”3

Though we cannot assume the individual adopts every idiosyncrasy of the organization, I would suggest that the influence of these institutional masks can affect the individuals who are brought up within its ranks, conditioning them to the preferences and priorities of their own service’s mask. When a masking of individual motive and intent collides with a toxic leadership style, this combination results in a loss of trust of not only the individual leader, but also, to some degree, the institution that leader represents. As Builder argues, only by shining a light on the shadow under the mask can we expose true motives, bring attention to the practice, and encourage reform.

Masks of Service Culture

The human mind and a person’s perception of their situation and the world around them are influenced by many factors, including past experiences, education, cultural norms, and understood roles as well as one’s expectations and assumptions.4 In a similar manner, what Builder refers to as the “personality” of a service can be defined in terms of its deeply-rooted organizational dynamics, which often contribute to the service’s mask.:

Like all individuals and durable groups, the military services have acquired personalities of their own that are shaped by experiences that influence their behavior. And like individuals, the service personalities are likely to be significantly marked by the circumstances attending their early formation and most recent traumas.5 


Builder suggests services become culturally and mentally stuck in their glory days—conflicts where their particular service was glorified by the nation for the protection and peace secured. People, similarly, get stuck in their best years and combat their insecurities by reminding people of their past successes and concealing their shortfalls, believing that successes garnered in the past justify their actions and expectations in the present.

For years, we have been attempting to create a stronger Joint, interoperable force, but we can no better implement these changes than we can articulate them to Congress. With military services vying for the same limited funds, each one, while praising the idea of Jointness, is in competition to maintain relevancy as the United States’ premier fighting force.

As such, we condition our leaders to jump on the bandwagon of latest trends to maintain service relevancy to retain budget and billets, even if that requires wasting resources on fleeting initiatives that do not aid the service’s reason for existence. Whether creating budget buzzwords or reaching for shifting cultural values, we yearn to maintain relevance in the minds of the politicians funding our endeavors, even if that means dedicating funds to purposes that only aid the maintenance of the mask. The military services, at times, leave malignant and misaligned priorities unaddressed in favor of a perception of cooperation, and as a result, our services tend to condition generations of military members to put on the mask of their service. Builder theorizes that only removing the masks of war and exposing the “legitimate, but less noble, motivations and interests” of the individual services will drive change of behavior, service culture, and thus, the way the services train their leaders.6

In writing about the future implications of the services’ masks of war, Builder explains that the sheer force of historical projections and ambitions of each service is so enormous that unless there is some catastrophic loss or humiliation endured, the culture and desires of the service are unlikely to change, apart from bending to national norms.7 This “glacial” resistance to change is the very thought that is so demoralizing to those seeking unmasked cooperation in the pursuit of Joint operations. Builder notes that without the catalyst of catastrophe, the only motivating force that can produce change to service culture is to educate stakeholders on the masks of the players at the table.8

To illustrate theory in practice, I offer the following first-person account as an example of toxic leading exacerbated by a military service culture.

The Setting: Kuwait, 2019

In 2019, I was tasked to deploy as an individual augmentee (IA) to Camp Kilocharley, Kuwait, for six months as a planner/programmer.9 At that time, I had nine years of active-duty service and had most recently acquired a year’s experience as an Air Force Materiel Command programmer for a career-broadening assignment. With a one-sentence duty description to prepare myself, I expected that I would be advocating for the operation’s mission, creating briefing products, and presenting options to leaders to champion our cause and justify the current and Future Years Defense Plan budget request.

US Air Forces Central (AFCENT) organized a predeployment course for individual augmentees tasked to the operation’s staff. This course was the most beneficial requirement prior to my deployment, linking all the Air Force IAs that were deploying to support the operation at Camp Kilocharley and the supported forward operating locations. In anticipation of augmenting the Army-led organization, we spent most of the time interpreting and writing operations orders as well as discussing expectations for supporting other services in a Joint environment. Something we did not discuss were service-specific cultures and what to expect of our sister service leaders.

First Impressions

At the time I departed for my deployment, my husband had resigned from his job to create stability at home for our six- and one-year-old daughters. The walk from my last hugs goodbye just outside of airport security through the terminal was one of the longest and loneliest of my life. This was my first extended time away, having never been on temporary duty longer than two weeks prior to this deployment. I could not have mentally prepared myself for the anguish and guilt I felt in leaving my family behind.

After two days of travel, we arrived at the local airfield, and I was met by the Air Force captain I was replacing as well as our directorate’s Army senior enlisted adviser, who both graciously assisted me in finding my temporary quarters when we arrived at Camp Kilocharley. The first few days were exhausting, but after gathering my bearings, I reported to the office to meet the team and learn more about my position.

I noticed early on that our directorate was physically separated from the rest of the headquarters offices. The other directorates were centrally located around the operations center so planning teams from the various directorates could easily meet and converse. Communication is difficult, even in an ideal setting, but physical separation and multiple trips per day between buildings in the sweltering heat made it harder, and I was curious why ours was the only directorate that was disconnected.

Our team consisted of myself, a Navy O-5, two civilians, an Air Force E-6, a Marine Corps E-5 and O-2, an Army E-4 and O-3, the Army O-4 director of operations (DO), the Army E-7 senior enlisted adviser, and our director, a female Army O-6. Having previously worked for two strong, emotionally intelligent female leaders in the Air Force, I was excited about having a female director in this unfamiliar setting. My hopes waned quickly as my expectations went unmet and alarming trends began to emerge during my first two months there.

I learned in my first few days that my Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) had been mismatched and was not the equivalent to the Army Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) the leadership had been expecting to receive. This was discouraging, but I went straight to work learning as much as I could about a job for which I possessed no qualifications or experience. I was frustrated trying to learn and understand my primary duties, feeling like I had little to contribute until I could practically learn a different AFSC and another service’s execution of that job. I felt as if I had been set up for failure and sensed frustration from my leadership for having received another Air Force augmentee without the experience and training they expected.

Masking Personal and Organizational Motives

I was caught off guard from my very first meeting with the O-6 when she asked me what I “wanted to get out of my deployment.” Thinking with my Air Force team mentality, I responded that I wanted to support her, the team, and the mission the best I could. Yet it became apparent during my time there that what she likely meant was what did I personally stand to gain from being there? It also became apparent that many others seemed to act to advance their own agenda over the good of the unit.

Our leadership team held discussions behind closed doors, and it seemed as though they would withhold information from the rest of us, either to maintain the perception that they knew more than we did or to maintain power via knowledge. Our weekly staff meetings were dreaded events where our director would publicly demean the Navy O-5 and Army O-3, speaking to them as if they were children.

Staff meetings would begin with an update from our DO, who looked to the O-3 to brief the director on the work done, instead of providing the update himself. The director would commonly express her disappointment with a scowl, and her arrogant demeanor caused considerable anxiety at the thought of interacting with her. Whenever she would address someone’s shortfall, her words were accompanied by a smirk as an added jab of malice. Our director ensured that the staff in the office—apart from her E-7 and DO—knew they could not do anything that would meet her expectations. The atmosphere in our small, stand-alone building was overwhelmingly negative, and the discrimination we felt due to our service affiliations, lack of experience, or our individual values created a sense of dread coming into work.

Two months in, I had learned enough about the Army budget process that I was granted authority to approve multimillion-dollar resource management actions. With my newfound responsibility, I was tasked with planning a project for our directorate, and after days of work and coordination, as well as vetting the plan through our DO and E-7, I briefed our director on the plan we had developed. But she was unsatisfied with the solution presented and directed me to provide her with a different option. After I expressed my frustration to our DO, he went to speak with her and briefed her on the exact plan I had just described, which she then approved. I could not understand how what he had said was any different than what I had described to her moments earlier.

During briefs to leadership, our director would adopt a professional, caring façade—her mask—and reserve the briefing role for herself. Higher echelons of leaders, including Air Force leaders, seemed blind to the treatment her subordinates were enduring. After months of walking back and forth between our office and the headquarters building, I wondered if our office’s isolation was likely not an unfortunate coincidence but an intentional move on the director’s part to minimize supervision and higher leadership oversight.

I considered approaching the Air Force Inspector General multiple times; however, I was unsure if the director’s behavior was just characteristic of a deployed environment or perhaps Army culture. I felt that because she had successfully demonstrated her expertise to leaders, it would unlikely do me any good to create extra tension in the office.

Sadly, three weeks before I was scheduled to return home, my deployment was extended by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The remainder of my deployment constituted the most miserable months of my life. When we received word of the stop movement, our director called us in and with a staunch lack of empathy, passed word that we might be there until August. We felt a bit of relief mid-summer, when the director redeployed and the position was filled by an Army O-5 who had rotated in a few months earlier and had also experienced the full wrath of the outgoing O-6. This O-5 had been subject to her mistreatment along with the rest of us. Having seen the impact of her actions, he was empathetic to our distress and made several positive changes in the office before we redeployed in June.


In hindsight, I wish someone had told me what working with another service might look like, possibly recommending Jeffrey Donnithorne’s study of the service cultures, Four Guardians, to better prepare me for the challenges posed in this Joint environment. These ideas might have challenged my expectations and assumptions about Army leadership based only on my Air Force experience. Looking back on the deployment now, I find that the exact words and details have begun to fade in memory, but I will never forget the smirk on the director’s face and the way she made me and others feel like a disappointment. I was not responsible for my AFSC being incorrectly matched to the MOS they desired—something we made certain to correct during my tenure for future rotations—but I was made to feel as though I was a burden to the team.

In his examination of the Army’s service culture, Donnithorne asserts the Army sees itself as “a robustly apolitical entity” and “a faithful extension of the American people.”10 While it is apolitical, he proposes that the Army perceives itself as eternally justified by its reputation as America’s sacrificial servant force, historically carrying out and finishing the messiest jobs to ensure freedom for the American people. Because of the pride that the Army takes in its ability to “finish the job,” the service conflates task completion with achieving the mission and end state, independent of the effects of the other services, which in turn creates a service perception of superiority that is propagated via the training and education of the Army’s personnel and officers.

If the Army’s service superiority complex had been ingrained, and even incentivized, during the developmental years of the O-6’s career, it would explain some of the decisions made as well as the rejection that many of the sister service members felt in that unit. While this newfound understanding of the so-called Army mentality may explain this leader’s actions, it does not justify them. The nonverbal feedback given to the director during meetings clearly communicated frustration, confusion, and despair. Instead of using this feedback to increase clarity, she boldly disregarded it, seeing it as ignorance or weakness. If her expectation was to be disappointed with the contributions of any IAs assigned to her, then her actions perfectly matched that expectation.

The notion that hurt people hurt other people was important to my rationalization of this experience. In the middle of misery, it was difficult to understand how anyone could treat people in their charge the way we were being treated. Yet it is likely this person had perhaps experienced her own misery that may have predisposed her to the behaviors she exhibited. Perhaps she had been influenced by her own toxic leader in the formative years of her career. Maybe she was convinced that this behavior would serve her well, or maybe she was just taking advantage of going unchecked.

The Human Impact

Every toxic leader claim has two participants: the toxic leader and the individual(s) making the claim. For true reform to occur, one must examine both sides of this issue. While much attention is given to the attributes of the toxic leader, one must also examine the attributes of the victim. Admittedly, I was in an emotionally vulnerable position. This was my first deployment and my first time away from my husband and young daughters. I had no precedent with which to compare my experience, and fear gripped me when the situation devolved after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and when the onset of the pandemic dashed my dream of going home.

As a wife and mother, I was overwhelmed with worry for my family, and this exacerbated the bitterness I felt toward what I perceived as an unnecessary deployed position as well as my unempathetic leader. The lack of trust and confidence that I was shown vastly amplified that feeling. The mental anguish of being trapped halfway around the globe where my only personal justification for being there was to do important work in the name of freedom, only to be made to feel completely useless, disturbed me to the point of hopelessness.

As George Reed mentions in his book Tarnished, what distinguishes a toxic leader is a trend of behaviors that derail the culture of the organization they lead.11 A few weeks after the stop movement was ordered due to the pandemic, the only other Airman in our directorate reported to the newly assigned Air Force first sergeant for suicidal ideations. The morale in our small office was in shambles, and most of us were struggling to hold it together.

After coordinating his travel home, the first sergeant came over to our office to speak with our leadership and collect some information from the Airman’s colleagues. I shared my experience with her, and after gathering the details she needed, she pulled me aside and told me that the energy in our office was so negative it was palpable. Her remark reassured me that my concerns were not unwarranted and that toxic leadership is what had been unraveling our organization for the last several months.

Toxic leadership is an issue in every military service. The Army has published its own scholarly work on the topic. In 2012, the Army added the definition of toxic leadership, now termed counterproductive leadership—defined by abusive, self-serving, erratic, and corrupt behaviors—to Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership and Its Profession, to highlight the service’s own toxic leadership trends after an increasing trend in suicides and mental health-related incidents.12 The service clearly recognizes that, to some degree, harm was shaped by some preference of individuals within the organization.13

Chapter 8 of ADP 6-22, “Leadership in Practice,” closes with this:

All Army members who witness these behaviors have a responsibility to prevent, intervene, counter, or mitigate them. Soldiers and DA Department of Army Civilians must be willing to confront and address these behaviors in their units and should leverage their chains of command to assist and involve relevant installation resources where and when necessary.14


This language is a necessary measure to counteract both toxic leadership and to combat the negative impacts of deceptive service masks; however, it will require individuals of moral bravery to confront these leaders and expose these behaviors. Four years ago, I allowed another person to make me feel insufficient and inconsequential. Today, after a great deal of recovery and reflection, I read this charge and more fully understand the role we all have to play in the accountability of our leaders.

Conclusion: Unmasking the Problem

What else can be done to expose the masks of individuals and organizations who have outwardly made a commitment to protect and defend, but inwardly care most about their own promotion and power? Whether on an individual scale or across a service, masking true priorities and character can be damaging for others interacting with that person or organization and basing their own vulnerability on their initial perceptions of the mask. After (mostly) reclaiming my sanity, I prayed that the abuse I and others experienced under the hand of a masked, toxic leader could be shared and used to help others, at least to let them know they are not alone. Others see the masks and are, one testimony at a time, trying to expose what lies beneath to eventually change individual and organizational behavior.


Major Victoria Bobo, USAF, is a director of operations at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. An appendix detailing parallels between Jeffrey Donnithorne’s description of Army service culture and excerpts/examples from the author’s testimony can be obtained by request at victoria.bobo@us.af.mil.


1 Victoria L. Bobo, “The Devil Wears Prada - Miranda Priestly as a Model for Transforming Toxic Leadership” (Air Command and Staff College, 2021), 4.

2 Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 7–9.  

3 Builder, Masks of War, 14.

4 Michael Michalko, “Why We Cannot Perceive the World Objectively,” SOTT Signs of the Times, 13 November 2011, https://www.sott.net/.

5 Builder, Masks of War, 7.

6 Builder, 206.

7 Builder, 202.

8 Builder, 203–206.

9 Some names and locations were omitted/altered in this article for purposes of maintaining anonymity.

10 Jeffrey W. Donnithorne, Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 86–87.

11 George E. Reed, Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

12 Daniel Zwerdling, “Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders,” NPR, January 6, 2014, https://www.npr.org/; and Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA), Army Leadership and the Profession, Army Directorate Publication (ADP) 6-22 (Washington, DC: HQDA, July 2019), 8-7, https://rdl.train.army.mil/.

13 Donnithorne, Four Guardians, 82–104.

14 HQDA, ADP 6-22, 8-7–8-8.


The views and opinions expressed or implied herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. See our Publication Ethics Statement.