“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” – Inscription at the Vestibule of Hell, from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
As a young reader of Dante, the Italian poet’s description of Hell in The Divine Comedy has served as a metaphor for much of what I experienced later in life. Whether working on a farm while in high school or training to become an Army officer during my college years, it was relatively easy to imagine myself on one circle of Hell or another. In typical fashion, a little self-deprecating humor – “What did I ever do to deserve this?” – went a long way toward making the days seem a little brighter.
When I began my military journey, I might as well have had Virgil by my side, helping me to navigate my own River Styx. As much as I enjoyed Army life, I couldn’t say the same for some of the leaders I encountered. As I worked to define my own leadership philosophy, I came to see many of them as doppelgangers of those who occupied Dante’s nine circles of Hell. There wasn’t simply one type of toxic leader, there were many.
First Circle: Limbo
In this circle wander the otherwise virtuous souls who never quite manage to actually lead. They’re not bad people, they’re just not all that useful. Many are well-meaning boy scouts who can’t manage to get out of their own way. If there was a circle of Hell for professional staff, this would be it. They get to spend eternity with no aim or purpose, not doing the one job they were tasked to do: lead.
Second Circle: Incompetence
My second circle is reserved for those poor souls who just can’t seem to get it right. They lose property, fail inspections, get lost going to the field, and always seem to show up in the wrong uniform for one event or another. They do, however, keep the focus off everyone else, so their place is just a stone’s throw across the River Styx from Limbo. Their punishment? They spend eternity conducting a change of command inventory, preparing PowerPoint slides, or coordinating the mundane details for a conference call that could have been replaced with an email.
Third Circle: Indecision
In the second circle of Hell are those leaders incapable of making even the most basic decisions. These wretched souls spent their lives in a perpetual state of indecision, making others wait while they dithered over requests for information or updated intelligence reports. Since being in their presence was as equally maddening and frustrating as a wartime deployment to Kuwait, they are doomed to spend eternity wandering the endless night at Ali al Salem, pondering all the decisions they didn’t make.
Fourth Circle: Risk Aversion
The risk averse are only slightly farther downriver from the indecisive in my version of Hell, but their circle is important because of the self-centered nature of their fear of risk. This form of indecision is particularly insidious since it represents a deep-seated desire to avoid accountability. For all the people who suffer due to their selfish inaction, they spend eternity forced to complete risk assessments for the most mundane tasks while they lie a slush of the cold sweat they perspired trying to find ways to dodge the risk they couldn’t pawn off on others.
Fifth Circle: Cowardice
A significant amount of leadership is facing down your fears. Not the kind you face in war – which is entirely understandable – but in day-to-day life. My fifth circle of Hell is populated by those who are afraid to provide honest feedback, who won’t stand up for their people, and who always seem to disappear when they’re needed most. Their punishment is to spend eternity locked in a circular conversation with a demonic version of Bill Lumbergh.
Sixth Circle: Selfishness
Contrary to popular belief, there is a circle of Hell just for those who live by the motto, “Screw you, I got mine!” The boss who makes sure he gets his award, but doesn’t bother with anyone else’s? The commander who consistently departs early, but leaves everyone else working for hours? The leader who never eats last? Their fate is the sixth circle, where eternity is spent trying to turn in a poncho liner, entrenching tool, and canteen to the little old imps in tennis shoes in Hell’s CIF.
Seventh Circle: Anger
It’s not the emotion itself that makes the seventh circle what it is, but the inability to control the emotion. At every level I served I saw someone whose anger was perpetually out of control. They screamed at people, berated subordinates, and fumed over the smallest detail. If you’re that miserable, find another profession. Their eternity is spent as hapless ROTC cadets in a uniform inspection conducted by Lieutenant Neidermeyer.
Eighth Circle: Fraud
As did Dante, I reserve a separate circle of Hell for the chameleons among us whose true nature is never revealed. Here you find the sycophants, hypocrites, and lickspittlers, as well as those with hidden agendas and motives. The souls on this circle only allow you to see of them what they want you to see, and for this they spend eternity experiencing the Karma of being perpetually outmaneuvered by other schemers and marginalized by sneering bosses. What goes around comes around.
Ninth Circle: Treachery
At the very base of Hell, condemned for committing the ultimate sin of selfishness, reside the treacherous. These are “leaders” who knowingly visit evil on others, who lie, cheat, or steal without feeling any vestige of shame. They have no honor, no empathy, no compassion, and no humility. They are the center of their world and will stop at nothing to gain personal benefit. Their punishment? Spend eternity in a Groundhog Day-like Hell where they awaken each morning to the horror that they’ve lost their assigned weapon and there’s no one else they can blame.
That’s my kind of Hell.