Worst ‘Toxic Leadership’ in 20 Years Costs Leader Her Status and Rewards
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Leaders are usually not self-aware and rarely want to know anyway that their thinking is rotted and it’s being revealed in behavior, negatively impacting their people.
Without effective oversight and corrective action, that compromised thinking and behavior is being enabled. The damages to the people being led can be significant. It’s not just them, however. If the leader is exposed, however that might happen, it’s not an uncommon experience to witness reputation destruction, job demotion or job loss, career misery and longstanding resentment, shame and suffering of different kinds.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Jennifer Grant was driven by ambition and highly successful to the point of obsession. It worked well for a long while. She was confirmed as a general in January, 2019.
Less than two years later, her name and career are in reputation crisis. What happened?
A witness said that Grant was passionate about becoming a general and when the Senate cleared it, she “became very nice.” Problematic was, before that she was blind to, or didn’t care about her approach with people and her ability to lead through experience, confidence and influence instead of aggression and abusive tactics. Grant focused on a strategy of regularly, destructively hammering on and humiliating people. The result, not surprising:
Inspectors Said Her Toxic Leadership Was ‘Worst Seen in 20 years.’ She Just Became a 1-Star (by Gina Harkins, Military.com)
Grant was found to have fostered a “culture of fear” at the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, near Colorado Springs, Colo., sinking morale, ending any sense of psychological safety and shutting down relationships and communication with the people she was entrusted to lead.
She burned trust and credibility and her reputation is shattered. Grant remains an officer, now assigned to Air Force Headquarters, serving as chief of the Space Superiority Division with Plans and Programs.
Leadership dysfunction and abuse is not news. It not being identified quickly and thoroughly and promptly and fully corrected isn’t either, not even in the military.
“Leaders need to be afforded some degree of latitude in executing their individual leadership style; however, there are limits,” says Gene Moran
founder and president of Capitol Integration and a retired U.S. Navy Captain, and former commander of the USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) and USS Laboon (DDG 58).
Moran, who also served on the Navy Staff and Joint Staff in Washington, DC over the course of a 24-plus year career, adds that the military trusts leaders to do their job. They are not badly micromanaged.
“Beyond initial entry boot camp, the services are not nearly as regimented as those outside the service perceive. Those limits and expectations of leaders generally derive from the broader service culture of professionalism, as well as through established norms and in some cases specific policies,” he says.
Grant declined an interview with Military.com for Harkins’ story yet an Air Force spokeswoman released a statement with Grant’s comment.
“I remain gratefully committed to serve, lead and grow and I remain dedicated to our nation, our people, and our mission,” she said. That comment lacked courage, forthrightness and humility in the face of personal crisis.
It’s fair to question if Grant’s superiors own some level of responsibility for her shortcomings and the widespread and deep damage done.
Responsibility moves up a chain of command in conflict, disputes and crisis.
“Senior enlisted, immediate officer subordinates and immediate seniors share an obligation to the service member, the leader, the command and the service,” Moran says. “Rogue styles can be, and usually are, checked by those around the individual leader.”
A “rogue style” might be what Grant was employing to lead and accomplish personal career goals as the inspector general found she “repeatedly undermined and criticized her immediate commanders and subordinates in a way that stifled mission-essential reporting, two-way communication and trust. Her method of questioning people during public briefings regularly devolved into accusatory language and perceived personal attacks as the questions turned from the topic at hand to the person presenting,” Harkins writes.
It was not a small sample size as 85% reported negatively on Grant’s communication style, investigators wrote.
Grant didn’t like that attached to her name and instead of revealing the type of character the military and society expects of people, instead told investigators that her interpretation was that people were “weaponizing the (inspector general complaint) system.”
She was blame shifting, not owning the complaints, the severity of them, her errors and contribution to the problems. Grant chose absolving herself of the issues and decided on defensiveness.
It wasn’t all negative as her technical leadership was lauded, with one comment being she “definitely made this wing a better place in terms of its warfighting capability for the joint command downrange.”
It might not have fully sunk in to Grant the harm she self inflicted on herself and career. Moran sees it though.
“A strong hit to one’s reputation is generally not recoverable within the service, particularly when cemented in such compelling language of an I.G. report,” he says. “There simply isn’t the time or opportunity to correct the behavior and demonstrate a change of pattern before being considered for the next career assignment. The more common pattern here would be a quiet retirement from service and transition into a subsequent career of the individual’s choosing.”
Her future in the military might be irrevocably harmed yet that doesn’t mean opportunity for personal development and new career success isn’t possible or likely.
“There are many successful business executives who left the service after an unfortunate turn of events during their military career and turned it around in a post-military civilian career,” Moran says.
The military’s objective, he says, will remain “readiness” for the safety of a nation yet there are still clearly defined leadership expectations about how that gets accomplished.
“That does not come at the expense of any individual’s dignity,” Moran says of the mission of “readiness.”
When leaders fall short on expectations or are abusing authority and exhibiting low-caliber character, questionable professionalism, poor guidance, shaky teaching and bad decision-making, the responsibility he says then falls on the those being led to step forward regardless of risk and fear and act professionally and boldly, truthfully communicate.
“Speaking truth to power requires courage, not superhuman strength,” Moran says. “Have the courage of one’s convictions to speak up when something isn’t right.”
Grant is another cautionary tale of what can happen when the mind and behavior are dangerous to reputation and the well-being of other people, mission and career. With her intelligence, experience, accomplishments and confidence, there is significant hope for her future, even if it is far different than she always desired and planned.
For now, a commitment to fully acknowledge her errors and persevere humbly to develop through and past weaknesses, including skillfully, morally, thoroughly problem-solving relationship failings, would be a sign of wise, strategic, noble and respect-worthy leadership.
Michael Toebe authors and publishes the weekly Red Diamonds Newsletter, Red Diamonds Features and Red Diamonds Essays (all on Medium) and hosts the Red Diamonds Podcast. He is a specialist for reputation, professional relationships communication and wiser crisis management.