EXCERPT: Tarnished


An excerpt from Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military (Potomac Books, September 2015) by George E. Reed.

9781612347233Climate and Culture

Organizational culture and climate are two different but related constructs. Climate equates to how members feel about their organization. Climate is a relatively surface-level, temporary phenomenon subject to direct influence and fairly easily assessed through surveys and direct observation. Culture is much deeper, resulting from shared beliefs, values, and assumptions that are not as subject to direct control.6 An experienced officer or noncommissioned officer can get a fairly accurate read on the climate of a unit after only a short amount of time. How members dress and speak about their unit, the state of the living areas, and even small things such as how salutes are exchanged provide subtle clues. The ethereal nature of climate can be illustrated with an example. Consider a high school sports team that has played well throughout the season and earned a shot at the state championship. Now imagine what the bus ride to the big game feels like: spirits are high, players are exuberant, and those associated with the team are full of expectation. Now imagine what the bus ride home feels like after they lose the championship game. The difference is palpable and easily discerned by even a casual observer. It doesn’t take much to change the climate. Organizational culture, however, is enacted through social interaction over time. It also tends to emerge in unpredictable ways. Culture is a powerful force that has a life span longer than the term of most military leaders. In established organizations there is typically a culture in place before a leader arrives, and one that abides long after that leader departs. Leaders might be able to influence culture, but they do not control it.

Edgar Schein has provided a helpful definition of culture: “The culture of a group can now be defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”7 Culture becomes embedded into an organization, and because it is learned and shared behavior, it can be very resistant to change. Culture is what everyone in the organization seems to know without it ever appearing in handbooks or standard operating procedures. New members typically find out about the cultural norms and expectations when they inadvertently violate them. They get a reaction from other members that lets them know they are outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

When organizations are examined from a cultural viewpoint, attention is drawn to aspects of organizational life that historically have been ignored or understudied, such as the stories people tell to newcomers to explain “how things are done around here,” the ways in which offices are arranged and personal items are or are not displayed, jokes people tell, the working atmosphere (hushed and luxurious or dirty and noisy), and so on.8 

Culture can be tricky to diagnose because it is a deep-level phenomenon that is not apparent at first sight. Diagnosing culture is typically the work of anthropologists, who spend extended periods of time immersed in a group attempting to understand the nuances and meaning of social interactions. Diagnosing culture, as difficult as it is, can be child’s play when compared to attempting to change it. Culture changes slowly, and despite the best of intentions it does not always emerge in a predictable fashion. Leaders who believe they can directly influence organizational culture are frequently disappointed. Surface level compliance and cosmetic changes do not necessarily reflect changes in underlying beliefs and assumptions. It can be easy to confuse the expression of culture through mission statements, office arrangements, rituals, and rights with more powerful implicit assumptions that people carry in their heads.9

Anthropologist Anna Simons spent over a year observing army special forces teams at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.10 Despite a system of training and equipping that was virtually identical across teams, she identified very different worldviews and operating norms in two units within the same group. One team (oda 309) valued and believed in hard work: “If the patrol route took the team through a swamp, everyone filed through the swamp. If the exercise required that the team stay tactical (no tents, lights, stoves, or amenities), the team stayed tactical.”11 The other team (oda 300) valued cunning and would not hesitate to cheat as a group. For them, it was right as long as they did not get caught: “When members of this team went to the field they always tried to carry pillows. Whenever possible too, they would escape the field to carouse in town.”12 Both teams valued mission accomplishment and camaraderie, and both teams were operationally effective. Simons noted that all special forces teams had some common characteristics. They valued unconventional approaches, were adaptive, competitive, elite, and flexible, and they all sought excellence. Different teams, however, developed different subcultures. If one were to accept the cover story presented by command briefings and surface level observations, one would miss some very important differences. One advantage of thinking about organizational culture is that it drives interested observers and group members to a more sophisticated understanding of group dynamics.

Schein suggested a three-stage model for managing learning and culture change.13 Step one involves unfreezing the current state that occurs when there is enough disconfirming data present to cause serious discomfort and disequilibrium, leading to anxiety and guilt. Threats to survival can produce a motivation to change if the anxiety produced by the threat exceeds the anxiety associated with having to learn new ways of doing things. Step two is the stage where the organization learns new concepts, new meanings for old concepts, and new standards of evaluation. There is typically a painful period of unlearning involving denial and resistance. A new way of thinking and working eventually emerges. During step three, the new learning is seated in organizational culture. Schein suggests this occurs when organizational members learn that the new ways work better and are perceived as successful enough to pass on to new members.



6. Walter F. Ulmer Jr., “Toxic Leadership: What Are We Talking About?” Army, June 2012, 47–48.

7. R. Craig Bullis and George Reed, Assessing Leaders to Establish and Maintain Positive Command Climate: A Report to the Secretary of the Army (Carlisle Barracks pa: Army War College/Fairchild Research Information Center, 2003).

8. George E. Reed, “Toxic Leadership,” Military Review, July– August 2004, 67–71.

9. James R. Meindl, Sanford B. Ehrlich, and Janet M. Dukerich, “The Romance of Leadership,” Administrative Science Quarterly 30, no. 1 (1985): 78–102.

10. Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership (Boston ma: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 11.

11. Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen E. Vohs, “Bad Is Stronger Th an Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, no. 4 (2001): 323–70.

12. Denise F. Williams, Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army, Strategy Research Project (Carlisle Barracks pa: Army War College, 2005), v–vi.

13. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).