“Excellence” Without “Competence:” Why Toxic Leaders Keep Getting Promoted
by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Faint
We’ve all seen them: grossly incompetent individuals promoted to the highest levels of our organization. Bad leaders. Bad managers. Bad people. Promoted. Rewarded. Advanced. Time after time. But how does this keep on happening?
The question is simple, but the answer can be complex. Sometimes it’s nepotism. Sometimes it’s identity politics. Sometimes it’s the “good ol’ boy” network. Sometimes the wrong person is simply in the right place at the right time.
I’ve been in the military a long time, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of both good leaders, and bad leaders. Back in the day we referred to the latter as “dirtbags,” “spotlight Rangers,” “perfumed princes,” or, simply, as “bad leaders.” The buzzword these days—one I think is far more accurate and descriptive—is “toxic leaders.” In the current vernacular, toxic leaders are ones who poison their units and everyone around them through incompetence, malfeasance, malice, and/or neglect. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of them these days, and many of them keep working their way up.
A former work colleague of mine and I were recently reminiscing about a former boss of ours—a textbook toxic leader—and wondering aloud about how the Army’s advancement system worked. It seemed utterly inexplicable that our former boss would get pulled out of their current position early and moved on to an even more-prestigious and more-demanding job, despite a miserable performance in our unit. Unable to handle the responsibility at our level, we both concurred, our old boss would be completely incapable at their next job. So why a promotion, when, if anything, a demotion was called for? My colleague opined it was because our former boss delivered “excellence” without “competence.”
It took a while for me to understand what my colleague was saying; how could you have “excellence” without “competence?” Doesn’t the former require the latter? In a word, no. Our former boss was a terrible leader, and was regarded as grossly incompetent by nearly everyone in the organization and many people outside of it. Our boss was a petty tyrant, who hoarded information and played favorites. Our former boss was afraid to make decisions because, you see, decisions are risky, and our boss didn’t want to do anything that might get in the way of the climb up the military promotion ladder to those stars.
Our boss divided everyone and everything into two camps: “high risk” and “low risk.” High risk was anyone or anything that involved a flag officer (i.e. general or admiral), or might make them look bad in front of a flag officer, or could help or hurt the boss’s chances of eventually becoming a flag officer. Everyone and everything else was low risk. High risk events involved multiple useless rehearsals, product revisions, “happy-to-glad” changes to documents, and stressful “spin-ex” iterations. Low risk events, and people, were utterly ignored.
Our former boss, whom most of us agreed is probably a sociopath, seemed utterly incapable of connecting with another human being at any meaningful level. Every relationship and every interpersonal engagement with them was superficial and transactional. If a person or situation could be used they were valuable; if they were a threat they were important; if they were neither valuable nor a threat, they were useless. Those facts were transparent to everyone who worked with our old boss regularly.
I have never been in a more-dysfunctional unit that the one lead by my former boss. All of the basics—physical fitness, soldier skills, training, schools, awards, talent management—were sacrificed at the altar of “high risk” events. “Mission Command,” the Army’s leadership principle, was not practiced. There was no tolerance for risk. There was no room for individual initiative. There was no trust. There was no shared understanding of what was going on in the unit. There was only the mission, which was, to that boss, to get to that general’s star. People inside our unit actively avoided meeting with our boss, because such encounters were invariably unpleasant. People outside the unit regularly asked us what our boss’s problem was. Members of the unit sought to leave as soon as they could, and actively discouraged others from coming.
Our boss was a terrible briefer and public speaker. Anytime they could shuffle off a brief or product onto a subordinate, they did. In the rare cases where our boss had to actually brief, a subordinate would have to completely script out something for the boss to read—not brief—at the presentation. And the boss was known to fly into a rage if the subordinate did not accurately anticipate every possible question that could be asked about the information presented.
In short, our former boss was a terrible toxic leader. Yet that individual is now in a more-prestigious position, with even more responsibility, and left our unit in less than half the time they were supposed to stay (which usually only happens when someone gets fired). How the hell did that happen?
As it turns out, what our boss did do a good job of was shining in the spotlight, and finding ways to get into the spotlight multiple times, for very brief periods. Our former boss was very, very manipulative and very, very good in social settings. If you met this person in a social setting, without knowing what was behind the mask, you would probably like them. If you saw their unit perform, you would think that their success was because of that individual’s leadership, not in spite of it, because you never bothered to ask any of that person’s subordinates about how things were going or to do routine inspections or things like command climate surveys. You would only see the smile, hear the fancy words, and see the types of very public spectacles that you think only high-performing units do. Our boss was terrible. We all knew it. The adjacent units that worked with us regularly knew it. But higher-ups only saw the leader doing “X, Y, and Z” which totally covered up the “1, 2, 3” that should have been happening, but wasn’t. Because we performed well as an organization in the few areas that our higher-ups saw, they assumed that everything below the surface was going well too.
But they were wrong. Our boss was focused on style over substance, and projected excellence to mask incompetence. It was brilliant. And it worked. That’s what toxic leaders–or even worse, radioactive leaders–do.
As it turns out, there are several different flavors of toxic leaders, and they are unfortunately so prevalent in the military that the Army has listed them out by type. Army Regulation 600-100 describes the “toxic self-centered abuser” as follows: “These leaders are also usually bright and energetic, as well as goal-oriented and boss-focused. Capable of producing spectacular short term results, but are arrogant, abusive, intemperate, distrusting, and irascible. They are typically distrusting micro-managers never burdened by introspection.” This described our former boss perfectly, except for the fact that they were not, in fact, bright. Our boss was actually not smart at all, despite their educational pedigree. The word I would use instead is “cunning.” While unable to grasp the nuances of our highly-technical work environment, our boss nonetheless cunningly deceived our superiors into thinking that they were excellent, when our boss was, in fact, completely incompetent.
The 2018 version of Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 7-0 describes something called the “band of excellence.” To paraphrase that document, the things that happen in the band of excellence happen after the things in the band of competence are complete. Usually you have to work through the competence layer to get to the band of excellence, but toxic leaders are great at making people think that they, and their organizations, are excellent. For example, our boss made sure everyone very publicly received signed birthday cards, but never once did mandatory performance counseling. Our boss made sure that our unit had a good showing at supposedly-not-mandatory events that no one wanted to attend, so that the unit would look good in front of our higher headquarters, but that same boss couldn’t be troubled to come to our own internal training meetings. And our boss made sure to secure their next job, after less than a year in our unit, without once asking any other officer, NCO, or soldier what they wanted to do next, or to help them get there.
Our boss was great at signaling that we were operating inside the band of excellence, but we were not. None of the basics were getting done. Re-enlistments weren’t happening. Awards and evaluations were months overdue, if they made it out of the boss’s office at all. Decisions that had major impact on subordinates’ careers were either made arbitrarily, or ignored entirely. But that boss’s style outshone their lack of substance.
So with these types of toxic leaders, outsiders looking in see “band of excellence” activity happening, and assume away everything inside the “margin of competence.” It’s a natural reaction, but one that is very dangerous to the long-term health of an organization. The only person that kind of assumption benefits, is the toxic leader. Most times, it’s not even obvious there is a problem in the organization until the new leader comes on board and starts figuratively turning over the organization’s rocks and seeing the rot that lies beneath. That’s one of the ways toxic leaders manage to dodge the accountability bullet and keep moving up.
It’s important to note that toxic leaders and the “band of excellence” concept are not unique to the Army, or even to the military. People are people, and toxic leaders exist throughout the spectrum of human endeavors. The Enron scandal immediately comes to mind; by focusing on style over substance and ignoring the basic things that the company was supposed to be doing, everyone thought Enron was a highly-functioning organization and that its leaders were geniuses. They weren’t. They were toxic leaders who ruined their own company and the lives of their workers and investors. The same concept might apply to an assembly line, an institute of higher learning, a nonprofit organization, or a law firm. The settings might be different, but the technique is the same: hide the truth, game the system, climb the ladder.
Signaling “excellence” is one way that toxic leaders do to mask their malice and incompetence, and to continue climbing the organizational ladder. But there’s another big reason why toxic leaders keep moving up, and that’s because no one is willing to do anything about it. That was part of the problem in our case; everyone was complaining our former boss during the time they were in charge of us, but no one took action while that person was our boss. While our organization eventually did file a formal complaint against that boss, it was too late in the game to change anything. Our former “leader” ruined our organization, as well as numerous others before ours, and will now cause more ruin in even higher-level assignments. I consider that a personal failing on my part, and I regret my inaction.
So if you’re in a unit with a toxic leader, don’t be the majority of people: do something about it. Document everything. Make the changes you can, take care of what you can take care of, utilize the chain of command / IG / Congressional system if you need to. It won’t be easy. But keep hope—as my former colleague and I know from our own experience: this too shall pass.
Originally from Alabama, Charles (Charlie) Faint is a career Army officer currently stationed overseas. He holds five undergraduate and graduate degrees, the most recent of which is from Yale University. Educated in fields ranging from engineering to communication to international relations, his research interests include conflict and negotiation, civil-military relations, and the impact of nonstate actors on the international system. He served seven tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and over the course of his career was assigned to units including the 101st Airborne Division, the 2nd Infantry Division, the 5th Special Forces Group, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Joint Special Operations Command. He also served as an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point for five years, and was the head of West Point’s “Officership” capstone program for two of those years. Widely published in a number of blogs and professional journals, he is a Fellow with West Point’s Modern War Institute, and his most recent publication is co-authorship of the book Violence of Action: The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror. His views expressed here are his own, and are not necessarily reflective of the policy of the US Army or the United States Government.