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Taking the Venom out of Toxic Leadership

The comprehensive guide to the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP)

Bullying is counter to military values and teamwork. Yet, it is frequently a fact of life in the military. In part, this is because rank gives bullies power over people they outrank. In addition, yelling at people and getting in their face is nothing new in the military. This is why there is often a fine line between motivating subordinates and being a bully.


“Sir, I wanted to let you know that I’ve gotten another complaint about SFC Haun. He’s still getting a little out of control, yelling at his squad leaders, and saying some pretty nasty things about them in front of their troops.”

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The comprehensive guide to the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP)

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  • George


    I met a staff sergeant for the US Army via social media, i am a civilian. He wanted to be a part of my life, but it’s hard because he is a victim of identity theft. There are times that he has genuinely bullied me. Made threats to have the local police and FBI come and arrest me in front of my family because I stand up to him. He runs me ragged like I am a soldier, basically treats me like an insubordinate. He has harassed me to the point that he cost me my job, my family’s respect. He goes from Mr Nice Guy to Junior High Buly just like that,

  • Tom


    I remember I was a victim of bullying in basic training, it wasn’t my imagination I was picked on for, islated, and at times brought into the instructors officeand made to speak to entertainhigh ranking oifficials who they brought in because I was 18 and my voice was still high at the time. The problem is if I tried to look them in the eyes they would scream not to “eye ball” them and claimed I was challenging them. They never stopped their attack because when I didn’t give them the reaction they sought I would get smoked and they seem to get their jollies off that. My attempts to complain and even contact my folks at the time got me in further trouble where I was called into meet withall the companies instructors and they basically they had no clue what I was talking about and the events I gave in my records never happened. I was wrote up that day instead in the meeting because I did not do well on my run. I always wondered what else I could have done in that situation.

  • Part-Time-Commander


    Bullying can be a problem in the military. However, I’ve also found that many Soldiers don’t understand that they are in the military, not the civilian world. Many Soldiers are quick to use the term “bullying” or harassment when someone confronts them or tells them to do something, especially if they don’t like what they are being told to do.

    Your job as a leader is to set a good example, to enforce the standards to everyone equally, to get things done through other people, and deal with issues as they arise. You also need to keep a close eye on your subordinates to make sure they are doing the same thing with the people they lead.

  • Mark Gerecht


    I think that you are talking about a different subject “Corrective Action”. I believe the author is talking about leaders that are clearly power drunk or just get off making life difficult for Soldiers. With that in mind leaders that improperly execute corrective training as you describe can be viewed as bullying, or abusing their subordinates. This is either a true statement or at least a perception based on the action of the leader not the Soldier receiving the corrective action. Taking appropriate action with a substandard subordinate is not bullying or toxic leadership. However the method the leader chooses to correct the substandard performance can be viewed as toxic leadership, bullying, or abuse of subordinate. Corrective action is designed to correct substandard performance and get the Soldier’s attention. Unfortunately some leaders including some senior leaders believe that singling someone out in formation with inappropriate language, brow beating, or smoke sessions is corrective training. This is not corrective training it is inappropriate. Now with that stated we all have a learning curve including me. Many leaders think they are doing the right thing because that’s how they were treated. The goal is to correct the Soldier with a level of professionalism that the Soldier understands the correction learns from it, and most importantly the leader gains respect and loyalty from the Soldier. This is best accomplished by pulling the Soldier aside and correcting the issue. Another way to look at this is to “Praise in Public and chastise in Private”. There will be some Soldier’s that test your patience but they should be the exception. Based on experience I can tell you that treating other people like you want to be treated does nothing but help you improve as a leader and more importantly develops your reputation with your Soldiers as a fair and just leader. If corrective action is done professionally rarely will someone accuse you of toxic leadership, bullying, or abuse of subordinates. With the current environment in the Army and the intense scrutiny on leaders I would encourage all leaders to think before launching on a Soldier. The should also ask themselves a few questions when dealing with Soldiers. (1) Will my actions be viewed by a reasonable person as professional? (2) Are my actions based on fact? (3) Is my action void of emotion? (4) Is my action designed to correct and educate? (5) Will other Soldiers learn from this action? (6) Will my Soldiers view my action as professional or vindictive?
    These few simple questions make the difference between a leader that leads by a professional standard and a leader that leads by fear. Don’t be the leader that leads by fear.
    On a side note many leaders like to use physical fitness as corrective training. But few understand how to correctly use this tool. I would encourage all leaders to read AR 600-20 and TC 3.22-20 as they relate to this issue. These items have specific guides about using physical fitness as a corrective training method.
    Bottom-line: Leaders need to be able to take constructive criticism, and 99% of the time can avoid the perception of toxic leadership, bullying, and abuse of subordinate by just treating Soldier like they want to be treated. I know as a young leader I was fortunate to have a few good senior leaders that corrected me and educated me on how to properly correct Soldiers. I was better for it. We all have room to grow as leaders.



    I do not think you clearly defined what is considered bullying and motivation. If a soldier cannot come to formation on time or cannot complete unit runs of course they are going to be getting some personal attention. Some people might think that the soldier is being singled out, or bullied but with all the hype about toxic leadership I think toxic or substandard soldiers should also be addressed.

    • Jo B. Rusin


      SGT Nick,

      You make an excellent point. The difficulties in dealing with substandard soldiers, who resist leaders striving to motivate them to improve, is a real challenge. It’s a subject that I will incorporate into a future AskTop article.

      Many thanks for taking time to add this perspective to the discussion and thanks for giving me a good idea for a new article.

    • Mark Gerecht


      SGT Nick,
      You might want to check out Jo’s book – Move Out it is available in physical copy and EBook from Gipubs.com I bring this up because the books has some excellent examples and discusses leadership from a perspective not usually addressed. It is one of the best leadership book I have had the opportunity to read. It is also written by a retired COL that has a unique view of leadership based on extensive knowledge and experience that few leaders have. I apologize if this comes across as a hard sell. You seem to be actively involved in leadership issues and I thought you might enjoy the read. Also on a side note I see you have made numerous post to the site sharing your expertise. I greatly appreciate this! It’s always good to see leaders actively involved in a constructive way.

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