Female USAF Generals & “Toxic Leadership”: Are They Setting Their Own Trap?

Wishful

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Recently I have read of the reassignments of 3 USAF female generals due to founded toxic leadership charges. I want to make clear that my intentions are not to bash these women in any way, or belittle the experiences of their subordinates. Being promoted to general is a continuation/culmination of a very, very successful career. I’ve read that out for every 100 Coronals, seven make 1 star. Seven. For women, I’ll assume that bar is even higher. For these 3 women in particular, (Goodwin is the other: her charges have been the subject of prior posts on the SA forum) as for everyone else who becomes a general, it is a true accomplishment. This also does not reflect in any negative way towards the other 97 Coronals who had the admittedly large obstacle of attaining that rank: The job only needs 7. And to get a 2nd star...as one female achieved...you get the point.

I want to examine the leadership style that seems to be able to get 2 of these women to 1 star level, 1 to 2 stars, & not only no higher, but reassignment. I watched this YT video of The Devil Wears Prada Miranda Priestly's leadership style (link below). To summarize: there are 3 types of perfectionism. Miranda's is defined as having the other-oriented perfectionism meaning: “Expecting perfection from others & being highly judgemental of their performance.” The next day I read the Gen. Grant article (link below) & the charges made against the general fit the definition other-oriented perfectionism to a "T". When I shared my thoughts to my wife, she asked if it was the 1st time her leadership style was ever questioned. IDK but it’s hard to believe that it would be the case. It got me thinking. Why would a leadership style be able to get you past Coronel but no further? Why could you achieve that specific level of success then fall? Hypothetically, if the following offer was made to 100 Coronel’s: promotion to 1 star but you’ll have a toxic leadership scandal, lose the command, but not the rank, would you sign on for that? I would.

Could it be one of these scenarios: “I wouldn’t want to work for them... but I’d want them working for me!”
I wonder if this saying applied to these women? Their style was supported/tolerated/ignored/unaddressed by their supervisors happy to have a “hard charger” subordinate making them look good. They just have to keep it together for 2 years, just hope that it doesn’t all blow up...But it does blow up at the 1-2 star level. Why then?

Did these generals ratchet their perfectionisms up as they were promoted?
An understandable reaction, maybe unconsciously performed? The closer one gets to the apex of the pyramid, the competition exponentially increases. If my style got me this far, why on earth would I ever want to change it? If it isn’t broken, why fix it? Were the screws tightened until they broke at the general level?

Maybe the answer is in the last paragraphs' quote of an individual interviewed for Gen. Grant’s investigation:
"I don't challenge her intelligence. I don't challenge her vision and her direction she wants to take the wing," one person testified. "... Col. Grant has definitely made this wing a better place in terms of its warfighting capability for the joint command downrange. However, [her] leadership style has limited her ability to take the wing to where it could have been." Lastly, today in the NYT Book Review section, a reviewer of a WWII leader mentioned, "The very qualities that accounted for XXX’s astonishing rise were also what brought about his ultimate ruin.” Two sides of the same coin perhaps.

PS: Yes Male CO’s lose their commands, but I don't recall any who did over “toxic leadership” specifically due to perfectionism issues.

https://link.defensenews.com/click/...3Rhci5odG1s/5e6a8181e3a98c5ec87168d6B4713d677

https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2020/08/17/maj-gen-dunlop-created-toxic-environment-in-top-secret-program-office-ig-finds/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=EBB 08.18.20&utm_term=Editorial - Early Bird Brief

 

BrightSide

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I'm not sure I can say this without being flamed, but what I saw in corporate America may be at play here.
Sometimes there is an unspoken directive that in a given case where 10 promotions are being announced, so many must be women, X must be so and so category, y must be such and such category. When that happens, the pool that fits the category may not be deep enough to get quite enough people that are going to excel at the new level of responsibility. The first one chosen might be the best out of everyone, but the second may not really be ready.
Is it possible that the same things happen in the military and some of these women were the last ones tapped?
Does promotion in the military involve quotas? Please don't get aggressive, it's a fair question.
 

OldRetSWO

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PS: Yes Male CO’s lose their commands, but I don't recall any who did over “toxic leadership” specifically due to perfectionism issues.
Has happened to Naval Officers, usually well before flag rank. One that was a flag who was rather publicly "handled" was VADM Joe Sestak who was later a Congressman from Pennsylvania. Lots of carnage among Pentagon folks who served around him. Another was RADM Len Picotte who I had the opportunity to observe from an "up close and personal" spot that was luckily (for me) not working for him.

Promotion for Navy flag officers is often a very mysterious process and for many, it is one (or two) jobs as a flag and then *BOOM* Retirement
 
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Capt MJ

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I worked for several infamous male flag “screamers” in the Navy. It’s far less tolerated today, because it’s a lot easier to get word out in an age of email, texts, iPhone recordings, photos, etc.

It’s always hard to separate out nuggets of truth in these cases, and often truth looks different to different people with their baggage of bias, past experience, personality type. It’s one thing to cheat on a travel claim or sleep with someone you shouldn’t or wander around naked after having too much to drink, but leadership style, toxic environment, negative command climate, loss of confidence to command effectively, and other bag-it-all-up-together labels can cover a multitude of sins, often very subjective.

I have always said too much of a good trait can be a bad thing.

Colonels (Army, Air Force, Marine Corps) and Captains (Navy and Coast Guard) who would never act a certain way while at that rank, occasionally drink too deeply of the heady elixir of GOFO rank and suddenly feel their jokes are funnier, they are always right and their leadership style is setting the world on fire, not to mention thinking their sex appeal has skyrocketed.

We are still getting accustomed to combatant commanders who are women in the GOFO ranks, as heretofore they were 1-2-3 stars in admin, manpower, logistics, training, intel, computer systems, etc. I always have to ask if a man would get fired for the same behavior or leadership style. If so, I’m fine with it.

Finally, it is a fond hope of mine that one day it will not even occur to any of us to bring up that decades-old trope about perhaps a woman or minority was promoted because of some unspoken quota. One day, we simply won’t care. I am sure there have been grounds for that perception here and there, but it is a disservice to all the women and minorities who have worked hard and excelled to achieve their rank and assignments to splatter that paint in a general way. There was an inner fury in me that burned fiercely and drove me to excel, when I would get the little digs about “well, of course they had to have at least one woman,” the meant-to-be-overheard comments about “yeah, I heard they had to pick a few women, so they dropped Joe and Mike off the list,” “you’re one of the best female officers I’ve worked with,” “I’ll never rank you over a male officer because you’re just in the Navy to find someone to marry,” and from a CO I respected, “I am ranking you number 1 of 34 LTs assigned, but you cannot tell anyone, because I will never hear the end of it. You ran circles around them, but they’ll believe it’s because there was some pressure on me or insinuate something personal.”

One incident brought me to incandescence. It’s a longer story, but I’ll cut to the chase. A male USNA Brigade Commander assumed I (a USNA BattO) had directed a newly-selected male Batt Commander to swap out a male staff officer for a female at my direction, when that was not the case. The male selectee was asked to be a Company Commander, which he preferred and his Company Officer was thrilled by the choice. Incoming Batt Cmdr just happened to choose a female mid as the new staff choice. I approved the updated batt staff slate as a matter of routine. The Brigade Commander buttonholed me after the daily morning brief and decided he needed to bring my grievous error to my attention, as it was the talk of the Brigade. I kept my game face on, best senior officer icy level voice tone, asked him to do a full investigation based in fact, and then asked him to think why he had jumped to that conclusion, why he immediately believed it when others told him, and whether it would ever have come up if I was a male BattO, and where he had learned to think that way. I invited him to address the issue as my guest speaker at the Batt All Hands I intended to call. I happily noted the “uh oh” expression forming on his face. I had gotten enough of this stuff from seniors and peers over the years, and now to be accused of doing it by someone 5 ranks junior? Did I say incandescent? 🤔 From my point of view, the All Hands call went well, and to his credit, the Brigade Cmdr presented it as a mini-case study in leadership, and presented it well, with a respectful apology to me. My Batt Cmdr was furious at the nitwits who had added 2+2 to get 5.

And there’s more! But that’s a special XXL sea chest of YGBSM sea stories.

Rant respectfully concluded. I fully concede I have my own full set of baggage, biases and experience.
 
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CatDog99

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Double standard in play?
I don’t think this is evidence of a double standard. All services have relieved male and female leaders for creating hostile command climate. With advent of 360-degree feedback instruments and with the anonymity that social media affords, the problem is now harder to ignore by the chain of command. Here is a short article that I found interesting:
 

BrightSide

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[QUOTE="Capt MJ, post: 759]
Finally, it is a fond hope of mine that one day it will not even occur to any of us to bring up that decades-old trope about perhaps a woman or minority was promoted because of some unspoken quota. One day, we simply won’t care. I am sure there have been grounds for that perception here and there, but it is a disservice to all the women and minorities who have worked hard and excelled to achieve their rank and assignments to splatter that paint in a general way. There was an inner fury in me that burned fiercely and drove me to excel, when I would get the little digs about “well, of course they had to have at least one woman,” the meant-to-be-overheard comments about “yeah, I heard they had to pick a few women, so they dropped Joe and Mike off the list,” “you’re one of the best female officers I’ve worked with,” “I’ll never rank you over a male officer because you’re just in the Navy to find someone to marry,” and from a CO I respected, “I am ranking you number 1 of 34 LTs assigned, but you cannot tell anyone, because I will never hear the end of it. You ran circles around them, but they’ll believe it’s because there was some pressure on me or insinuate something personal.”

Rant respectfully concluded. I fully concede I have my own full set of baggage, biases and experience.
[/QUOTE]

Thanks for the military perspective, always great to have insight into your experience. As a woman who achieved (not in the military), I also bristle at the insinuations. But realistically, those quotas do exist in corporate America (and in university admissions) and until we stop diversity for diversity's sake, the trope will continue and honestly, rightfully so. The women and minorities who would have achieved anyway are the most hurt by the situation. I'm ready to end quotas so that it can be understood that what I achieved, I achieved.
 

Capt MJ

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Lest anyone think I have omitted “female flag screamers” for whom I have worked, during my entire time in the Navy, I had one and only one female officer for whom I worked or who was in my chain of command. I was often sent to be either the first or second woman in many billets as the Navy rapidly expanded line officer career paths for women, so female officers were non-existent above me. I certainly heard about those who were less than pleasant as bosses. Same as in the corporate world, nasty bosses come in all flavors.

Oh wait, I did have a company officer at OCS who was a woman. Then not one until my final tour in the Navy.
 
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[QUOTE=" But realistically, those quotas do exist in corporate America (and in university admissions) and until we stop diversity for diversity's sake, the trope will continue and honestly, rightfully so. The women and minorities who would have achieved anyway are the most hurt by the situation. I'm ready to end quotas so that it can be understood that what I achieved, I achieved.
[/QUOTE]

Funny, given that women are the majority of the population, they should already be holding a majority of the leadership positions in the world, and especially in our particular "enlightened" society. The fact that they do not speaks more to the negative impact of paternalistic discrimination than any negative effect of "diversity".

Just sayin'.
 

UHBlackhawk

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I do think the term “toxic leadership” is thrown around too much today. I’ve lived through a toxic leader. He was so bad that, after being put out of the Army for non selection to O-5 they considered bringing him back on active duty to court-martial him after some of his actions came to light. His redacted fitness report was actually used as an example of a really, really bad fitness report for future commanders.
I’ve seen the “toxic leader” charge thrown at several officers who were not yellers but had the gumption to actually counsel people and sometimes give incompetent performers poor fitness reports. I’ve almost gotten to the point where I am skeptical of any leader who does not have at least one IG or congressional investigation.
It’s gotten to be so bad that it seems as if many officers just lay low in fear of “upsetting the cart”. The case of Clifford Currie exemplifies this issue. He literally had to set someone on fire before the leadership took action.
I also see a difference in attitudes still toward female and male officers. A “type A” male officer is usually universally admired while a female “type A” often is perceived as toxic. Ironically, this attitude seems to come more from fellow female officers than male officers.
Just my 2 cents.
 

Tex232

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He was so bad that, after being put out of the Army for non selection to O-5 they considered bringing him back on active duty to court-martial him after some of his actions came to light.
Lol that would have been interesting
 

Soldiergriz

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I do think the term “toxic leadership” is thrown around too much today. I’ve lived through a toxic leader. He was so bad that, after being put out of the Army for non selection to O-5 they considered bringing him back on active duty to court-martial him after some of his actions came to light. His redacted fitness report was actually used as an example of a really, really bad fitness report for future commanders.
I’ve seen the “toxic leader” charge thrown at several officers who were not yellers but had the gumption to actually counsel people and sometimes give incompetent performers poor fitness reports. I’ve almost gotten to the point where I am skeptical of any leader who does not have at least one IG or congressional investigation.
It’s gotten to be so bad that it seems as if many officers just lay low in fear of “upsetting the cart”. The case of Clifford Currie exemplifies this issue. He literally had to set someone on fire before the leadership took action.
I also see a difference in attitudes still toward female and male officers. A “type A” male officer is usually universally admired while a female “type A” often is perceived as toxic. Ironically, this attitude seems to come more from fellow female officers than male officers.
Just my 2 cents.

The "you're toxic" movement is par for the course...

Once we allow the led to determine the manner in which leadership is delivered, skilled leaders' influence will cease. Winning matters.. experience matters.

It also costs leaders nothing to lead boldly - treating everyone fairly and with dignity and respect. It's really not that hard.
 

Casey

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I also see a difference in attitudes still toward female and male officers. A “type A” male officer is usually universally admired while a female “type A” often is perceived as toxic. Ironically, this attitude seems to come more from fellow female officers than male officers.

I think you hit on two really good points here. HBR and other respected journals have published numerous studies about the differences in the perception of women demonstrating the same traits as men in leadership position.


I remember getting grabbed very early on into my first PL gig by my 1SG. We were sitting in her office talking about the difficulty I was having with my PSG. Nothing I was doing was making a connection with this guy, and from day one, he was outright disrespectful to me in public, despite us having zero previous interactions and by all accounts, he had never had such issues with the male PL I was replacing. I got a very blunt talk that in my 1SG’s opinion, 95% of my issues with this guy were that I was female. Her and the commander saw nothing wrong with how I had approached integrating into the platoon. The PSG was just of the nature that he could not take instructions or work together with a woman without it eroding at his ego subconsciously. We eventually fired the guy as some other things in his leadership came to light, but it was an eye opening experience for me because I really had run into zero issues of my gender playing a role with co-workers at the Academy. There, if you could do your job, 99% the community didn’t care what you were. It also made me smarter though about how my own leadership style could be taken negatively even if male peers could get away with the same thing and helped shape my toolbox to have other ways to influence folks when I would run into more dinosaurs in the shape of old salty WOs a few years later. I hate when I have to do it, but it has definitely made me a more effective leader.

The other point you make that I very much agree with is that women can be the worst in treating other women. I think it comes from two sides primarily where one, because women still are a minority in many of these populations, that single women can be representative to the male population of the entire female population so if another women sees an underperforming woman, they will usually be the hardest on that person knowing that they will also be judged by that other’s capabilities regardless of competence. That was true at the Academy as well as what I have seen in the force. An underperforming female becomes representative of the whole if they can’t run fast enough or aren’t smart enough tactically versus an underperforming male is much more likely to just be written off as a one off dud.

The other side of the coin there that I’ve seen is how stupid competitive women can be between each other. I think again it ties into many feeling a chip on their shoulder to prove themselves, but the competitiveness can turn into cattiness and unwillingness to help bring up the next generation. I don’t get it, but I’ve seen and felt it happen. Thankfully, I have yet to work for a boss that operates that way, and I’m blessed with some fantastic rock star female O5 mentors that I can blast for help when I’m doing dumb things
 

Capt MJ

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I think you hit on two really good points here. HBR and other respected journals have published numerous studies about the differences in the perception of women demonstrating the same traits as men in leadership position.


I remember getting grabbed very early on into my first PL gig by my 1SG. We were sitting in her office talking about the difficulty I was having with my PSG. Nothing I was doing was making a connection with this guy, and from day one, he was outright disrespectful to me in public, despite us having zero previous interactions and by all accounts, he had never had such issues with the male PL I was replacing. I got a very blunt talk that in my 1SG’s opinion, 95% of my issues with this guy were that I was female. Her and the commander saw nothing wrong with how I had approached integrating into the platoon. The PSG was just of the nature that he could not take instructions or work together with a woman without it eroding at his ego subconsciously. We eventually fired the guy as some other things in his leadership came to light, but it was an eye opening experience for me because I really had run into zero issues of my gender playing a role with co-workers at the Academy. There, if you could do your job, 99% the community didn’t care what you were. It also made me smarter though about how my own leadership style could be taken negatively even if male peers could get away with the same thing and helped shape my toolbox to have other ways to influence folks when I would run into more dinosaurs in the shape of old salty WOs a few years later. I hate when I have to do it, but it has definitely made me a more effective leader.

The other point you make that I very much agree with is that women can be the worst in treating other women. I think it comes from two sides primarily where one, because women still are a minority in many of these populations, that single women can be representative to the male population of the entire female population so if another women sees an underperforming woman, they will usually be the hardest on that person knowing that they will also be judged by that other’s capabilities regardless of competence. That was true at the Academy as well as what I have seen in the force. An underperforming female becomes representative of the whole if they can’t run fast enough or aren’t smart enough tactically versus an underperforming male is much more likely to just be written off as a one off dud.

The other side of the coin there that I’ve seen is how stupid competitive women can be between each other. I think again it ties into many feeling a chip on their shoulder to prove themselves, but the competitiveness can turn into cattiness and unwillingness to help bring up the next generation. I don’t get it, but I’ve seen and felt it happen. Thankfully, I have yet to work for a boss that operates that way, and I’m blessed with some fantastic rock star female O5 mentors that I can blast for help when I’m doing dumb things
Yes yes and yes!
 

cb7893

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I heard this riddle 30+ years ago:

"A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”

Explain.

I admit I couldn't answer it then. Maybe it's because my father was a surgeon, there were no other female Surgical Residents during his training and only three women out of 80 in his 1940 medical school graduating class. The thought of a same sex couple openly raising a child was even more far fetched.

Confession time. I still have a gender bias.

I have read @Casey 's posts for several months, "liking" them almost every time I read them. We have exchanged PM's several times. Only 15 minutes ago did I learn, when I read her post, that she is a "girl". All this time, I thought she was a high achieving, exceptionally mature "dude" in his middle 20's. Knowing that @Casey branched Aviation, I was picturing a twentysomething @UHBlackhawk . @UHBlackhawk , don't tell me you're a woman as well. My head would explode.

I better go back and reread The Undoing Project. It's all about confirmation bias.
 

Capt MJ

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I’ve received many PMs over the years expressing surprise when I “turn out to be” a woman. In recent years I’ve shared more stories relating to my experiences as a military woman, so any regular readers know that. I think it’s human nature to wonder about the people behind the posts. It’s always instructive when people “turn out to be” not quite a match for the mental picture.
 

UHBlackhawk

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The "you're toxic" movement is par for the course...

Once we allow the led to determine the manner in which leadership is delivered, skilled leaders' influence will cease. Winning matters.. experience matters.

It also costs leaders nothing to lead boldly - treating everyone fairly and with dignity and respect. It's really not that hard.
I do agree. Belittling and degrading people is not leadership. At the same time, however, we don't live in Lake Wobegon. Everyone is not above average. Some people reach their peak level of incompetence and need to be told the truth. That seems to offend people today. I kid about it, but really the only way to improve is to know your shortcomings and weaknesses. As a pilot, I am continuously evaluated. When I flew for the Guard and the airlines I had 4 checkrides each year.
I heard this riddle 30+ years ago:

"A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”

Explain.

I admit I couldn't answer it then. Maybe it's because my father was a surgeon, there were no other female Surgical Residents during his training and only three women out of 80 in his 1940 medical school graduating class. The thought of a same sex couple openly raising a child was even more far fetched.

Confession time. I still have a gender bias.

I have read @Casey 's posts for several months, "liking" them almost every time I read them. We have exchanged PM's several times. Only 15 minutes ago did I learn, when I read her post, that she is a "girl". All this time, I thought she was a high achieving, exceptionally mature "dude" in his middle 20's. Knowing that @Casey branched Aviation, I was picturing a twentysomething @UHBlackhawk . @UHBlackhawk , don't tell me you're a woman as well. My head would explode.

I better go back and reread The Undoing Project. It's all about confirmation bias.
Don't feel bad. I think every person has some sort of bias or preconceived notions. The trick is to not let them become prejudice and affect your interaction with people.
 

Wishful

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Lol that would have been interesting
No need to bring someone back on AD status as a military retiree is subject to the UCMJ for the 1st 10 years of collecting a military pension. There's a case challenging this working it's way up to the Supreme Court, but they recently refused to hear a similar case (about 1-3 years ago) letting the current situation stand so... Current case, if I recall, concerns a retiree acting as a military contractor overseas (Okinawa?) thought he was meeting a 15 y/o who he chatted online with. Turned out he met NCIS!...the real one's, not the TV stars!

 
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UHBlackhawk

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Oops. Somehow I started a post, thought the better of it and thought I deleted it. Then posted something else and somehow the old post got in there.
 
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