“What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power, and the power to abuse.”― Isabel Allende

It was a scene straight out of Band of Brothers: a junior commander threatens non-judicial punishment on a subordinate, who in turn elects trial by court martial. As I reviewed the documents in the file folder on my desk, the comparisons were inescapable. A division on the eve of war. A young captain a little too drunk with power. And an abuse of that power that left a mess for others to clean up. The circumstances, though, were much different.

“Tagged” as the investigating officer for this particular lapse in command judgment, the background documents told a story that was absolutely mind-boggling. The captain used a series of draconian policies to effectively restrict the use of leave and reserve the approval authority for any requests. In the case before me, a junior sergeant—who was due for weapons qualification—requested leave, which the first sergeant approved. When informed of the leave, the captain immediately cancelled the leave and reported the sergeant absent without leave for a company-level policy violation. When the sergeant reported to the headquarters, the captain offered a simple choice: accept non-judicial punishment or trial by court martial. The sergeant chose the latter.

If the story ended there, this would be a very short article. It doesn’t.

Thirty days after requesting court martial, the captain called the sergeant to the headquarters to offer a “second chance” to reconsider the decision. Again, the sergeant refused. Another thirty days passed, and again the captain called the sergeant with another offer to reconsider. The captain introduced not-so-vague threats about being compelled to move into the barracks and facing duty restrictions, but again the sergeant refused. Finally, after 90 days of threats, intimidation, and assorted ancillary forms of coercion, the sergeant agreed to accept non-judicial punishment.

I thought I’d seen my share of oddities, but I’d never seen anything like this. Looking for a little advice, I picked up the phone and called the Inspector General’s office to speak to the deputy, who was a friend. “Man, I’d love to help you, but I can’t say anything.” He replied. Then, in a low voice, he added: “The same thing happened to me six months ago and I’m not allowed to talk about it until it’s all sorted out. But that’s some bullshit. That captain is on a total power trip.”

Different Day. Power Trips Keep Going

Now, it’s relatively easy to look at a situation like this and think that times have changed. It was nearly twenty years ago, after all. But, as evidenced in a pair of recent social media posts, this is as much a problem today as it was then. The only real difference is that in 2020, it’s a lot harder to hide a power trip from public view.

When I sat down with the captain to discuss the issues and take his official statement, I tried to keep an open mind. Maybe this was all a misunderstanding. Maybe he had a good reason for taking action the way he did. Or maybe there was something I was missing. Any doubt in my mind was dispelled in the first five minutes of our conversation.

In a 2015 Forbes article, author Mark Murphy described the four classic signs of someone who’s power hungry. First, they are focused on themselves; any dialog is cluttered with frequent use of “I” or “me.” This became painfully obvious early on in our discussion. This wasn’t about a sergeant done wrong—this was driven by people who were jealous of his success as a company commander. Second, they don’t trust others. When I asked why he would withhold approval authority for leave requests, the answer was spot on target: “I can’t trust anyone else to hold people to my standard.” Third, they don’t hear bad news. Throughout our conversation, he dismissed every instance of abuse I described. In his mind, everything he did was justified. He was just building accountability and integrity into the leave process. Finally, they get angry when they’re not in charge. As our meeting progressed, his temper began to flare. He wasn’t in control. The outcome was in my hands, not his. The longer we talked, the whiter his knuckles became and the redder his face grew. People who enjoy wielding power over others do not like to see that power taken from them.

Unchecked Power is Destructive

As I prepared my recommendations to the Chief of Staff, I considered more than just this single incident. This was a pattern of behavior that could easily be repeated—and has been—in the future. How do you rein in a power-hungry leader? What can be done to limit the amount of damage they do to an organization and its people? When I submitted my findings, I included three recommendations that remain as valid today as they did then:

  1. Limit the leader’s scope of authority. In this case, I recommended that we withhold the captain’s authority to assess non-judicial punishment. Abuse of power is typically the single most egregious misuse of the authority granted to a leader. If they don’t possess the maturity or wisdom to manage that authority, then it has to be curtailed.
  2. Increase accountability. Often, when abuse of power is prevalent, a distinct lack of accountability—and transparency—is evident. The captain had “free rein” because his senior commander failed to review his organizational policies or bothered to conduct any type of climate survey. There simply was no system of accountability.
  3. Institutionalize communication processes. Within the organization, and at least one level up, there was no system or process for personnel to seek advise or assistance. Part of that was purposeful; part of it was negligence. People accepted this as the norm and assumed that it was endorsed by leadership. That helped to keep complaints to a minimum and allowed the captain to wield his authority with impunity.

 

I’m really not sure why some leaders feel the need to abuse power. What I do know, and what we still see today, is that left unchecked, such behavior is as destructive to an organization as any other form of toxic leadership.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.