Editorial | Toxic Leadership at the MDA – Director’s Style is Detrimental to the Agency’s Mission

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The defining technical challenge facing the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is about as daunting as it gets: Intercepting a missile, it’s often said, is like hitting a bullet with a bullet. Success requires a straight shooter at the helm, and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly fits the bill in many respects. But according to a May 2 report by the Pentagon’s inspector general, the MDA director has a destructive flaw: a hair-trigger temper that frequently has him turning his guns on his own.

The report cites numerous incidents in which Lt. Gen. O’Reilly verbally abused, bullied and insulted his subordinates in both private and public settings. Several alleged incidents are recounted in graphic detail, including one in which, according to multiple witnesses, he launched into a 10-minute tirade in a hotel, browbeating an employee into admitting, in profane terms, having erred in booking accommodations that included the word “resort” in the name. In at least two others, he allegedly expressed a desire to “choke” subordinates for unspecified shortcomings.

Several senior MDA staffers said they felt reluctant to speak up during meetings for fear of being yelled at. Others left the agency rather than continue to be subjected to abuse.

Given the opportunity to respond to the preliminary findings of the inspector general’s investigation, Lt. Gen. O’Reilly denied having screamed at subordinates — multiple witnesses testified otherwise — and questioned the objectivity of many of the witnesses. However, he did not deny that his behavior left some staff members reticent to chime in during meetings.

Also noteworthy is the fact that, even after interviewing four additional witnesses whose testimony was requested by Lt. Gen. O’Reilly, the inspector general’s office did not change its overall finding that his behavior was inconsistent with both Army and Defense Department standards for people in senior leadership positions.

Leadership has many intangibles, but the qualities typically sought in leaders include an air of authority and command of respect. Fostering a climate of fear earns neither, appearances notwithstanding.

Lt. Gen. O’Reilly’s failure to treat subordinates with dignity and respect, as required by Pentagon and Army ethics regulations, is a huge problem in and of itself. But it’s much worse than that: If the inspector general’s report is to be believed, Lt. Gen. O’Reilly is undermining the MDA’s mission.

Conventional wisdom among management experts holds that an organization’s greatest asset is its employees. It’s part of a leader’s job not only to retain the most talented ones — those whose skills likely are in demand elsewhere — but also to bring out their best. The corrosive work environment described in the inspector general’s report does just the opposite.

The reluctance of senior staffers to speak up for fear of incurring the wrath of their boss is especially problematic. It increases the chance that legitimate technical concerns that might hold up a high-priority test or production program — one that’s under pressure to stay on schedule — won’t get aired until it’s too late.

Nobody is questioning Lt. Gen. O’Reilly’s experience, technical expertise or commitment to the MDA’s mission. In fact, most of the witnesses vouched for his high intelligence and program management skills. But that’s only part of the equation for success, and it’s more than offset by his penchant for abusing and alienating his subordinates.

The report recommends that the secretary of the Army “consider appropriate corrective action” for Lt. Gen. O’Reilly. A formal reprimand might have been the answer had the inspector general uncovered a few isolated incidents in which the director’s temper got the best of him. But this report depicts a longstanding, entrenched pattern of behavior that contradicts the military’s own values and could compromise the MDA’s mission. The appropriate corrective action in this case is to relieve Lt. Gen. O’Reilly of his duties as MDA director.

 

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