In an effort to tackle widespread ethics scandals and rid the military of so-called “toxic leaders,” the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff next month will begin beta testing a new officer review process for flag and general officers known as the “360-degree review.”
The U.S. military in recent weeks has been rocked by a series of cheating scandals involving Air Force and Navy nuclear forces, drug probes involving some of those same units, major contracting crimes, sexual assault cases, complaints about the way senior officers conduct performance reviews, and a rash of misconduct cases involving senior officers dating back several years.
The incidents have raised concerns at the highest levels that the stress of more than a decade of war, combined with other societal issues, may have created a “systemic” ethics and leadership problem that is trickling down from the senior officer corps throughout the ranks. To counteract the spread of so-called “toxic leaders,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has instituted changes to the way senior officers are reviewed, including new peer evaluations that will include character assessments.
Richard R. Osial, a spokesman for Dempsey, told FedScoop the new review process will enter initial beta testing in March and is scheduled for full implementation this summer. Osial said the Joint Staff is working with the Army’s Center for Army Leadership to develop the specifics of the new review process. In addition, although all general officers and flag officers occupying joint service billets — commands made up of forces from multiple services — will be subject to the new Joint Staff 360-degree review process, each branch of the service is developing its own program and schedule.
“Acts of crime, misconduct, ethical breaches, command climate and stupidity each require a distinct solution,” Dempsey said at a Pentagon press briefing Feb. 9. “But the overall solution is attention to who we are as a profession. And that’s my focus.”
Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have been at a loss to explain the root cause of the ethical and leadership failures. Although both have been questioned repeatedly if the stresses of a decade of war may be to blame or if there are more fundamental societal issues at play that may be seeping into the military’s culture, neither Dempsey nor Hagel has been willing to blame any one factor for the lapses in ethics.
“The 360 reviews are just one developmental tool,” Osial said. “When implemented, they will assist in managing the military as a profession.”
Linda Henman is a leadership and management consultant, and the author of “Landing in the Executive Chair” and the soon-to-be released “Challenge the Ordinary.” For more than 30 years, she’s worked with executives and boards in Fortune 500 companies, as well as the Air Force and Navy. She said the large number of scandals and their severity is alarming from a leadership perspective, but results from the 360-degree review process are not likely to reflect that.
“I think the 360-degree assessments will show great loyalty to the general officers,” Henman said. “Although there are exceptions, the scandals that have been in the media recently usually reflect a breakdown in protocol further down the chain of command. Of course, ultimately these breakdowns reflect negatively on the most senior leaders.”
Richard J. Hughbank, is a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College Center for Strategic Leadership and Development, and a former Army officer. He said the willingness to identify flag officers as the persons responsible for such events is normal and possibly appropriate, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
“One could also make an argument that responsibility falls on the senior leaders at the operational [and] organizational level or simply keep the blame with the officers and senior [noncommissioned officers] that made poor personal and professional decisions, which clearly demonstrate a lack of integrity,” Hughbank said. “Usually, it is a combination of all of the above to a certain extent.”
Henman is not convinced the scandals that have made headlines recently are signs of a systemic leadership crisis.
The military “is experiencing change, which often feels like a crisis,” Henman said, referring to the drawdown from combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The military does a better job of preparing leaders than any civilian organization does, and I’ve worked with some of the biggest and best,” she said. “Their leadership preparation needs improvement, and some of their protocols related to things like reporting of sexual misconduct need some updating and revising. But there is no crisis.”
In a recent exclusive interview with FedScoop, James Burch, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for investigations and the head of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, said he wasn’t particularly surprised or concerned about the number of fraud cases his office has been dealing with.
“People are stealing,” Burch said. “It’s that simple. Whether it’s DOD or a bank robber, people are stealing trying to get something for nothing.”
According to Burch, procurement fraud is what keeps his investigators busy. He oversees a global force of 350 investigators who are currently working 1,700 open cases involving procurement fraud, health care fraud, illegal technology transfer and cyber-crime.
“Sometimes, you’ll come across coalitions of people,” Burch said. “Usually, it’s representatives of companies coming together to try to fix prices or eliminate [competitors]. Sometimes, you’ll find a systemic issue where there’s a weakness. But sometimes, it’s people just lying, stealing and cheating.”