The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Capt Marie Black
/ Published August 20, 2021
Leadership plays a vital role in the military and mission success. Toxic leadership may not only negatively impact subordinate performance but may also negatively impact mission success. For example, a study of individuals from all services attending Air War College (AWC) indicated that 57.1 percent of students (96 individuals) seriously considered leaving their agency or the service due to a supervisor treating them poorly.1 The AWC study was duplicated at the US Army Command and General Staff College. In this study, more than half (61 percent, or 102 individuals) endorsed considering leaving their service or agency due to being mistreated by a supervisor.2 Considering that individuals who attend war colleges represent the highest echelons of the military, these are surprisingly high numbers.
According to Army Publication Doctrine 6-22:
Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the organization’s climate, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.3
There are a variety of ways to define toxic leadership. However, several converging themes include lack of self-awareness, interpersonally challenged, and tendencies to “treat others in ways that are not in the long-term best interests of world-class organizations like the military.”4 One way to view leadership is on a spectrum from effective leadership, ineffective leadership, mediocre leadership, to toxic leadership. Ineffective or mediocre leaders may not have the same negative impact as toxic leaders on morale, mission success, or retention. The negative long-term effect of toxic leadership often affects multiple areas, including employee motivation, productivity, creativity, and engagement.5 Given the dwindling numbers of interested and qualified recruits and the cost of recruiting a single individual, it would likely benefit the Air Force retention rates to identify more effective ways to address ineffective and toxic leadership concerns. However, this goes beyond retention rates and dollars spent recruiting individuals. According to Major Genl JP McGee, we will win by having and retaining talented individuals and talent wins.6 Therefore, hiring, retaining, and growing talent will be critical and will likely continue to impact organizations seeking a competitive edge.7
Recently, to effectively identify commanders, decrease toxic leadership, and make better decisions regarding critical personnel selections, the Army implemented a new requirement for officers being selected for battalion command. This program is called the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP). It is a four-day event that assesses officers for a battalion commander slot. The BCAP selection board (the interview panel) comprises experienced panel members: a major general, two brigadier generals, and two former brigade commanders. There are also three non-voting members on the committee, including a panel moderator, a command sergeant major, and a senior operational psychologist. A range of assessments is administered to help the board gain a holistic picture of the individual. Participants undergo a series of physical, cognitive, non-cognitive, communication (written and verbal) assessments, and an interview with an operational psychologist. All this data goes to the board. The board also gains insights from the candidates’ peers and subordinates. Finally, the candidate completes a double-blind interview with the above-listed panel of senior Army leaders. The program intends to understand better each individual’s strengths, potential, areas of improvement, fitness for command, and more precisely, make data-informed decisions about who will be selected for battalion command-level positions.
This information leads to several questions: 1) Is the Air Force using the best selection process possible to select commanders? 2) How can the Air Force improve the current board process or develop a new process to pick commanders?
Currently, Air Force squadron commanders are selected through a board process. First, the candidate’s packet (records) goes to a selection board. In an attempt to address potential bias, some information is masked. For example, not all career fields require specific degrees or board certification; this information is masked. The board also practices grading several practice packets before officially starting. Finally, the committee decides, and the applicant is either selected or rejected for squadron command. However, this entire process is only a records review. There are several flaws with the current procedure, including limited time for board members to review applications effectively. In addition, while the reviewer analyzing the applicant’s packet may have a valuable subjective perspective, this may not take into consideration other valuable information (e.g., how the applicant performs under pressure, how the applicant deals with conflict resolution, whether the applicant would be effective as a squadron commander, etc.). No other data is considered or gathered as part of this selection process. A more objective and thorough approach may enhance the Air Force’s commander selection process, thereby increasing the quality of selected applicants and their ability to be effective Air Force leaders.
There are several courses of action (CoA):
For CoA 1, no changes are required. For CoA 2, possible ways to strengthen the current selection process include adding a peer and subordinate feedback phase, conducting structured interviews, and cognitive and personality tests. According to Reed, ineffective and/or toxic leaders tend to “kiss up while kicking down.”8 This results in the individual looking good to superiors while treating subordinates poorly. Adding a peer and subordinate feedback phase to the current process would help prevent toxic leaders from being selected for a command position. Structured interviews may also be beneficial. Compared to unstructured interviews, structured interviews are more valid, reliable, and a better predictor of job performance.9 Additionally, research has shown that using unstructured interviews leads to poor predictive accuracy of actual on-the-job performance and provides less reliability than cognitive tests, aptitude tests, or personality tests.10
For CoA 3, through developing a more effective squadron commander selection process, the right individuals will be selected to serve in one of the most critical leadership roles in the Air Force. According to the Air Force & Space Force Almanac, there are 149 wings and approximately 700 groups across the Air Force. Additionally, as of 30 September 2019, there were 9,777 Lieutenant Colonels in the Air Force.11
For 2018, more than 500 individuals were selected for squadron commander positions.12 An assessment and selection (A&S) for over 500 people would require several things. First, approximately 10 individuals would be needed as core staff. Second, three weeks twice a year would be needed to run the A&S. Twenty operational psychologists would be necessary to administer psychological testing and complete a psychological interview. Third, 20 individuals would be essential as observers and note-takers during leadership exercises and simulations. Finally, three to four senior leaders (e.g., senior Noncommisoned Officer (NCO), colonels, generals) would be needed to complete a double-blind interview of the applicant. There are several second and third-order effects of this proposal. For example, needing operational psychologists for three weeks out of the year would take those individuals away from their units. In addition, senior leaders are extremely busy and may not be available for three weeks out of the year to conduct the double-blind interviews. However, there are also possible positive effects, including a decreased number of commanders being relieved from duty, increased retention rates, and increased mission success. While developing a program would require many resources (e.g., time, money, TDY), this would be a better and more effective way to select squadron commanders.
In conclusion, the suggestion to review the current selection process may improve identifying, addressing, and preventing toxic leaders from negatively impacting the organization, unit service members, and the mission. Running a squadron commander A&S may be costly (in terms of time and money), but there are many potential benefits. Taking a closer look at who is offered a prestigious opportunity to lead America’s sons and daughters is well worth the resources.
Captain Marie Black
Capt Marie Black is a clinical psychologist assigned to the 27th Special Operational Medical Readiness squadron at Cannon AFB, NM. Capt Black provides mental health services, consultations, supervision, coaching, and assessment feedback in the mental health clinic. Additionally, she is currently serving as the Wing Clinical Oversight Manager for True North. Her perspective for this piece stems from a desire to learn more about what makes leaders effective and ineffective and identifying ways to serve better the individuals we lead.
This paper was written as part of the SOS Air University Advanced Research (AUAR) elective
1 George E. Reed and Richard C. Bullis. “The Impact of Destructive Leadership on Senior Military Officers and Civilian Employees,” Armed Forces & Society, 36 no. 10 (October 2019): 5–18.
2 George E. Reed and Richard A. Olsen. “Toxic Leadership: Part Deux,” Military Review 90 (2010): 58.
3 US Army. Army Publishing Directorate (ADP) 6-22. Army Leadership and the Profession, 31 July 2019, https://armypubs.army.mil/ .
4 George E. Reed, Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the US Military (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 26.
5 Marco Tavanti, “Managing Toxic Leaders: Dysfunctional Patterns in Organizational Leadership and How to Deal with Them,” Human Resource Management 6 (2011): 127–136.
6 The US Army, “Battalion Commander Assessment Program: Documentary,” YouTube video, 30:04, https://www.youtube.com/.
7 Anais Thibault-Landry, Allan Schweyer, and Ashley V. Whillans, “Winning the War for Talent: Modern Motivational Methods for Attracting and Retaining Employees,” Compensation & Benefits Review 49, no 4 (September 2017): 230-246; Devina Upadhyay, Anu H. Gupta, “Morale, Welfare Measures, Job Satisfaction: The Key Mantras for Gaining Competitive Edge,” International Journal of Physical and Social Sciences 2, no. 7 (2012): 80-94.
8 Reed, Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the US Military, 19.
9 Julia Levashina, et al., “The Structured Employment Interview: Narrative and Quantitative Review of the Research Literature,” Personnel Psychology 67, no. 1 (2013): 241-293.
10 Jason Dana, Robyn Dawes, and Nathanial Peterson, “Belief in the Unstructured Interview: The Persistence of an Illusion,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 5 (2013): 512; Iris Bohnet, “How to Take the Bias Out of Interviews,” Harvard Business Review 16, 2016.
11 Air Force & Space Force Almanac 2020,” Air Force Magazine 103, no. 6, 30 June 2020, https://www.airforcemag.com/.
12 Kat Bailey, “Squadron Command Selection List Released for 2018,” Air Force Personnel Center, 18 December 2017, https://www.afpc.af.mil/.
13 Edgar E. Kausel, Satoris S. Culbertson, and Hector P. Madrid, “Overconfidence in Personnel Selection: When and Why Unstructured Interview Information Can Hurt Hiring Decisions,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137 (November 2016): 27-44.
14 Colonel Jason Lamb, “Why Toxic Senior Leaders Survive—and Sometimes Thrive—in the Military,” Air Force Times, 4 September 2020, https://www.airforcetimes.com/.
15 Anne E. Mueller and Daniel L. Segal, “Structured versus Semistructured versus Unstructured Interviews,” in The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology (John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2014): 1-7.
16 Raymond S. Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology 2, no. 2, 1 June 1998, 175-222.
17 Vicki Webster, Paula Brough, and Kathleen Daly, “Fight, Flight or Freeze: Common Responses for Follower Coping with Toxic Leadership,” Stress and Health 32, no. 4 (2016): 346-354, https://doi.org/.
18 Barbara M. Wildemuth and Yan Zhang, Applications of Social Research Methods to Questions in Information and Library Science (Libraries Unlimited, 2009): 222-231.
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