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Toxic AND a Leader **TW: Self-Harm**

18 February 2023:

This next story is one that I've held closely. While I've shared it with family, close friends, my mental health professionals, and my current leadership to help me with my own introspection and healing, I did harbor fear of what the possible consequences for me could be if I shared what happened to me as an Active Duty Service member. My fear of possible consequences is no longer larger than the impact toxic leadership and furthermore toxic work environments create for our Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Guardians. I am sharing this with the hope that it inspires individuals to look within themselves and to be able to identify any toxicity that lies within or in their environment and have the courage to standup for themselves and others to combat it. For it was this experience with toxic leadership and a toxic work environment on top of the personal stressors I was already seeking care for, that created the catalyst for my suicide attempt in July of last year.

In March of 2022, I began the transition from filling in as the Director of Operations (DO) to the Assistant Director of Operations (ADO). While the DO job was above my paygrade (I was a Captain while the DO job was for a Maj), I filled in for eight months as there was a manning gap. A few weeks prior, I had been told by a past leader that the plan for me was to be the source of continuity in the Squadron up until 1 August 2022, in order to support all of the summer leadership changeovers. I also was told that I was appreciated for all the work I had done, that after serving as the DO for as long as I had, I will have outgrown the ADO position and that I will need to do a job that is commiserate to my new rank as a Major. That I, "deserve that for my own development." I was then told by this leader that I need to "start looking for where I want to work." During this same discussion I learned that a leadership position I had been strongly encouraged to take by this same leader, even told that, “out of the 18 people who applied for the job, I was the most qualified,” and I later expressed interest in the job, I learned I was not hired for by coincidentally seeing a list of the names of inbound officers posted on a large computer monitor visible on a wall in this leader’s office; and nor was I provided any reason as to why I was not hired. This leader listed off organizations that could potentially be options for me and by the end of our discussion I left with the understanding being that it was on me to start looking for jobs of where I could work during my second year here in Korea.

I called a good friend of mine who worked at a neighboring unit here on peninsula and asked her for some advice. She used to be a functional manager which provided her with a confident understanding in how to navigate the "talent marketplace" system which is what our career-field uses to apply for jobs when we are eligible. No jobs were available to view for the summer 2023 Vulnerable Mover List (VML). As we talked on the phone, she just so happened to see an announcement for a job on the USAF Women Officer Forum: Korea Facebook page. The organization was looking to hire locally for an executive officer position for a General Officer; a job I had never done before. I reached out to the Lt Col who posted the add to see if I could get more details on it, expressed my interest then approached my leadership about the opportunity.

My direct leadership initially declined in allowing me to apply for the job because the start date would require me to leave at the end of March. After pleading my case two more times, my leader agreed to let me ask my senior leadership to apply and participate in the interview with the caveat that "if selected I would need to start in August due to operational manning constraints." This leader helped me draft the push note statement for the senior level leader endorsement that Friday.

That Monday when I arrived to work, I was informed by my leader that the both of us had a meeting with the senior level leader. When I entered the office the leader said to me, "I understand you want to apply for the executive officer position." I replied, "Yes sir/ma'am," as I sat in the chair opposite of their desk, ignorant of what was coming. They then went on to say, "I'm going to tell you all of the reasons why I'm going to NOT recommend you for this job." They lifted up the paper they had their notes from and began to proceed.

"First, this is the SECOND time I hear about you out here looking for jobs from someone outside of my organization. The first time was from a Commander out in [name of location] for [the job my direct leader, the senior leader’s subordinate, encouraged me to accept]. And I don't like that."

"Secondly, you are FAR FAR FAR from what I would expect of a DO in a milestone assignment (O-4 leadership job). I know you are a JOCCP graduate and the Company Grade Officer of the Year at the Wing but the Air Force has a tendency to do this "Halo Effect" (note: The Halo effect is when a service member demonstrates a strong, high performance early in their career and as a result opportunities/accolades are handed to them for their reputation rather than the members actual performance in their current role). "You need to focus on blooming where you are planted as an ADO. YOU need to work on your competency, and YOU have A LOT more to prove.

"Finally, the relationship with your peers is important. That’s how you get hired for jobs. You need to work on your relationship with your peers."

I then was asked if I had any questions. I responded with no sir/ma'am, and was dismissed. My leader, who told me to “start looking for where I wanted to work”: for "jobs," the one who encouraged me for the job that I was not hired to take and I confided in about seeking the advice of a mentor outside of our organization (someone I received mentorship from as a 2d Lt) for mentorship on this opportunity, said nothing during the entire meeting. Not a word.

By the time I arrived back to my desk, I had a break down. My Operations Superintendent closed our office door, heard me out. Was pissed, then told me to go home. Thankfully, I already had a mental health appointment that same day (remember I'm already working through stressors with family issues and a new marriage) so I shared with the Psychologist what happened. His response was shock and disappointment. He said to me, "They shamed you. All of that is a method of control. I'm sorry that happened to you." As we continued to talk, the Psychologist went on to ask me what my career goals were. He asked did I see myself making this a career or if I considered other options. I shared with him how my goal was always to make this a 20-year career and that I hadn't considered anything else. He looked down then looked at me and said, "this place, the Air Force, is TOXIC."

The next day I tested positive for COVID and was placed in isolation. My only connection to the outside world was through my phone. I called my mom, talked to her about what happened, then next thing I knew my dad wanted to talk to me and just hearing him, triggered me. I realized in that moment that I had not healed from the truth revealed in August of 2021 that led to our estrangement.

The week prior to meeting with the senior leader who delivered the painful feedback to me, I met with a leader who accompanied me in that meeting for feedback. This leader shared how I did "ok" in the job. How, because of my internship, I was just getting back into leading people again (insinuating that I was rusty). How they wish there was "less stress" in the organization. How I need to "improve my relationship with my peers," and while they weren't willing to tell me who, when, or what the issues were [I asked but was told to not put them in a position to name names], I should consider becoming a Mission Operations Commander (MOC) in order to improve that relationship. They concluded that it was evident that others had poured into me (mentorship wise) and it was time for me to pour into others.

I left that meeting feeling extremely confused. When I first arrived to the Squadron, I wanted to qualify as a MOC and expressed to my leader. I was told directly by them not to do it. My leader specifically said, “You don’t want to be a MOC. All they do is make decisions.” This leader also explained how they did not want me to train as a MOC as they were currently trying to get our sister squadron to train more of their officers to become MOCs as they mission responsibility belonged to them and not us. I had repeatedly been told that I was doing well in my job, then was told I was just "Ok". I didn't know how to interpret the comment about, "now is the time to start pouring into others." I thought to myself, "Isn’t that what I've already been doing? I’ve been leading, inspiring, taking care of and serving others my entire career. Really, the majority of my life. I haven't just been receiving mentorship, I’ve been giving back everything I have. Am I missing something? I also wasn’t aware of the issues with my peers. So in the days that followed (Thursday, Friday and Monday) I met with them to get feedback. What I received was kind of all over the place. "I think some people are having a difficult time receiving tasks from you as the DO vs you as Kristin, their peer." "You come off as very strong, its ok to ask us for help. I know you gave me a task a few months ago that I didn’t know how to do, but you can ask the group of CGOs for help… I also never saw you on the ops floor unless it was an event. You need to go on the floor more." "You asked me what a SOC was. That’s something you should know. I know you did that JOCCP program, but it didn't help you know this job. I think being a MOC would have helped you." "You were toxic. I felt that I was being interrogated every time I spoke to you. I like how the new Major requests information from me more." What hurt me the most was not what was said, but more so that all of this was allegedly told to my leader and apparently the senior leader, but no one EVER gave this feedback to me.

So back to my room while I sat in isolation with COVID, my head could not stop the negative thoughts. I was in pain from being sick, but I was in an insurmountable amount of emotional pain. In my mind, I felt that I am doing shitty in my job, my peers don’t like me, my leaders see me poorly, I don't know my dad, I keep having conflicts in my marriage, I'm tired of being the negative sad one and don't want to burden my friends with my endless problems, I am alone. Why do I keep trying to persevere?

While I sat in isolation, I attempted to repurpose my pain by harming myself. That was the first time in my life I had ever done that before and unfortunately, it would become my go to method for coping with what I was experiencing at that time.

In the weeks and months that followed I kept my head down. I hid my annual award trophies in my desk as I didn't want to bring any attention to myself. I felt that there must be some kind of perception that I am just out here for myself and my own interest and not for others. I made myself disappear as much as I could and only did the things I was told and tasked to do.

During this time I would participate in a weekly stress management class with the medical mental health office. I got to meet other people who were struggling with their health too. I was nervous at first as I was consistently the only officer in the group but when I asked my fellow group members if they felt ok having me there they said yes. They said they liked the perspective I gave. Everyone there had different issues. Some were battling childhood trauma that resurfaced with being in a new environment, some were getting kicked out and were having a hard time going through the Non-Judicial Punishment (NJP) process, others were going through divorce, had family members going through health issues like cancer, and more. I felt super humbled being in the group. I thought to myself, some of the Airmen here are getting kicked out and are dealing with the grief that comes with that and I am upset because I was denied a developmental job opportunity and a stratification that I felt I earned. What I also learned that the senior leader feedback encounter I had was not unique. Many of the Airmen there had stories just like mine. One Airmen went on to say, "when you are going through these times [depression] don't look up. Look next to you and around you and you'll see you're not alone."

I took my fellow group member’s advice and looked down. I spent more time on the floor with the Airmen. While one of them was sharing with me his job and what he did I asked him, what his goals were. He said to me, "I don’t have any. I've learned not to have goals ma'am. " The me before this toxic experience would have attempted to bring him up and encourage him. I've seen his work ethic and believed he could do anything. But I instantly was reminded of the encounter I had received with senior leaders. Look what having goals did to me, I thought. I empathized with how he felt.

Each day at work became more and more painful. I decided to go through the MOC training. All of the trainers were awesome and really friendly. However, the majority of them were confused why I was becoming a MOC. The MOC is an extremely valuable role that is essential for day to day operations. Those in the position are typically Lieutenants (Lt) and junior to mid-grade Captain's. One Lt asked me, "weren’t you the DO?...... wait, you're the ADO now, you pin on Major in a couple of month’s and they want you to become a MOC?" Another Captain who started to train me asked me when I pinned on Maj then asked if there was any plan to use me as a MOC. He then got pissed and refused to train me further when I told him that I pinned on Major in a couple months and I still didn't have an answer on what our leaders plans for me were, despite my attempts to get answers from them. The Captain shared with me how a similar thing happened to him where he was denied an opportunity to develop and that the leadership here had a tendency to, "kick the can down the road." He was outraged.

"I'm here to support the team anyway I can," I would say to anyone else who asked what I was doing.

As the months went on, I kept getting more tasks. We need you to fix this problem. Organize this project. Cover down while members from the team go on this TDY. Do research for and give this presentation. Dissolve this conflict. Fill in as DO again while the Commander is out. Give give give. Serve serve serve. Others before me. Others before me. I did so much work but felt a paranoia that everyone in the Squadron saw me as the villain. I'm the problem. I'm selfish. I’m the source of the stress. I'm not doing enough. Everyday my anxiety grew more and more until I started to feel like a slave. But when I looked around and the more I talked to people, this behavior, this type of environment was NORMAL for them. Especially the enlisted members. Using the words, “Sir” and being called, “Ma’am” started to trigger me. I started to ask myself "how is everyone able to push through this? Are we all slaves?"

One day I came across the “Shawshank Redemption” film starring Morgan Freeman and decided to watch it. For the first time in my life I RELATED to the film. Specifically, I related to the character of Andy Dufresne, who was falsely imprisoned, taken advantage of, used, abused and beat down. Watching that film I thought, "this is my life." I had never seen my career, the Air Force to be a prison. To be a place where you feel taken advantage of, used and abused. But the constant work, passive aggressive put downs, absence of acknowledgement for the work I was doing, inconsistent feedback and criticism without the opportunity for growth left me feeling trapped. Eventually I became suicidal, was hospitalized, and you know how the story goes from there.

Through this process I've asked myself daily, what happened? I trusted my leaders as best as I knew how. I worked through my chain of command. I met their families, supported their visions, was transparent about my career goals and personal life situations. I don't see them as villains" or "bad people." Yet I'm the one who is hurt. What happened?

My cousin Felicia Thomas Williams is a Col(s) in the Army. She just earned her Ph.D in Philosophy and completed her dissertation by investigating "How do U.S. Army Veterans describe their experiences with toxic leadership in their organization?" In her study she defines Toxic leadership as the following:

Toxic leadership is considered to be toxic if there is the systematic and repeated behavior by a leader, supervisor, or manager that violates the legitimate interest of the organization’s goals, task, resources, and effectiveness and/or motivation, well-being or job satisfaction of subordinates.

Pseudo-Transformational Leaders: Use their influence and leadership abilities for self- centered reasons that only benefit their personal goals. They are manipulative, unreliable, deceptive, and selfish.

Felicia used a qualitative study research method with a sample size of 10 participants. All were women and all had been out of the Army within the span of 1 month to 5 years. The findings from her study showed that veterans describe their experience with toxic leadership through the following ways: "with an emotional response (fear, depression, anxiety, burnout), abuse of power (retaliation, dominance, personal gain), the toxic leader's impact on their subordinates (terminate employment, intimidation, mental health), coping mechanisms (positive strategies, negative strategies) and the ripple effect of toxic leadership (team functionality and organizational accomplishment)."

As I read the results of her study I was in a combination of comfort, amazement and shock. Comfort that it affirmed what I experienced was toxic leadership, amazement as the study in it’s totality described the range of experiences I encountered both internally and externally which helped me understand what happened to me better, and shock as the impact of this is grave; this almost killed me. I attempted to kill myself because of the severe pain I was in and my inability to find a way to relieve it or cope. Daniel Zwerdling, one of the researchers cited in my cousin's dissertation explained how in a study that examined why military suicide was increasing at an alarming rate, a "toxic environment resulting from a toxic leader could trigger suicidal behavior in the workplace. The more senior the toxic leader is, the more likely the abusive behavior will spread throughout the organization."

The results further went on to explain how toxic leadership is the, "most destructive behavior in the military and civilian organizations since it diminishes individual and collective readiness and performance".

Felicia's literature review citing multiple sources explained how toxic leaders, "create confusion within an organization because they mislead their supervisors by briefing organizational climate in a positive manner and neglect to share challenges with subordinates or obstacles with the organization. Toxic leaders give the appearance of high performance to supervisors while simultaneously mistreating their subordinates in order to advance in an organization. At times toxic leaders use unethical conduct to get their desired results."

The research further explains how toxic leaders can, "break down an employee's self-esteem and willingness to contribute and make them feel apprehensive about collaborating with colleagues... how it can negatively impact individual and unit outcomes that resulted in the loss of job satisfaction, retention, and job a result victims of toxic leadership often feel depressed in both their professional and personal lives."

Reading this study was like pulling a stream of memories, thoughts and feelings from my own mind. I looked at the words shared by the participants (in photos below) and found everything to be relatable. A couple of months ago, back in September, a fellow Minority Air Force Officer on one of the groups I'm a part of shared her experience with toxic leadership and how after two years of dealing with this she was done and getting out. Reading her story was devastating but familiar. What was even more devastating, was when I looked at the comments. There were over 75 comments plus and an un-counted amount of sub-comments of people, officers of color--many of whom were women, who went through or were going through the exact same thing. This is our Officer corps. Can you IMAGINE what our enlisted force is experiencing?

Being told that I was toxic by my peer hurt my feelings. But when I look at what all I was dealing with, how could I not be? I'm breathing in toxicity and trying to make something healthy out of it but that's not how that works. When moldy tomatoes touch healthy tomatoes, they don’t create ripe healthy ones. Only healthy, nourished tomato vines can do that. So how do you stop the toxicity from spreading? How do we create something healthy from the start and KEEP it healthy?

I have this theory that Diversity and Inclusion play a key role in this as well as a need to re-examine the military chain of command structure. The current hierarchy structure empowers CC's and requires that each member TRUST each other to do their job in order to effectively execute the mission. In this initial design men were, the only ones in the service. The people of color gradually were allowed to enter but were segregated from the whites and treated abusively. Then women. Somehow the mere presence of women created re-occurring incidents of sexual assaults and sexual harassment. Then people who were gay but had to hide until the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT). Then people who were trans until they weren’t and now they are again. Imagine the whiplash of a barrier to trust THAT created. Then various religions have not all been viewed as equal, and some were villainized. Viewed as "terrorists." The services open up the ranks to allow more diverse people (which is the right ethical thing to do and should have been done since the inception of America) but not all of these people have equal protection under the law to this very day! Legislation and policies are still being created (often by those who are impacted the most) that ensure that they have what they need to be included and be a ready force too. And the passing of this legislation is not easy. It took 5 years for the ponytail regs to be approved which addressed the medical issue they created for women. One of the TSgt’s responsible for serving as the initial champion of this cause was even denied a decoration by his leadership who considered him to be "obsessed" in getting this initiative approved. EVERY opportunity to remove a barrier to diversity and inclusion within the Air Force is a FIGHT. Requires a CASE. When looking at the history of America where it intentionally excluded people who were not men. Who were not white. Who did not have the protestant faith. Excluded them from rooms where institutional level decisions could be made. Knowing this, why is removing the barrier so hard? What else is there to prove?

Additionally, the hierarchical system design of the military creates a huge imbalance of power from those at the top to those below. I’ve been told by chiefs and Lt Col's that they feel comfortable speaking up on issues because they've gone up as high as thy can go, or "they are on their way out and the service can't take anything from them." So the culture is, we can only speak truth to power when we don't have anything to lose anymore? When we don't have the very real threat of reprisal or retaliation from a leader for calling out toxic behaviors or truth that needs to be said? That is the BREEDING ground for toxicity. Something needs to be changed to where our leaders are more humanized, and the environment is SAFE for subordinates to speak honestly about the problems they are facing; the problems and the positive experiences. Whether that’s changing the military structure, diversifying the leaders at all levels, or placing value through incentivizing or being more transparent about the HUMANITY in leaders rather than preserving a false image of perfection all the time at any costs. Maybe it's everything. But what we have now is NOT working and needs to be re-evaluated.

The cultural reality that systems of patriarchy, racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and bias against anything other than protestant Christian has been in place for centuries. Awareness of the impact of these things and the deep-rooted bias that exists in EACH of us (yes, everyone, myself included), is something all of us will have to work on daily, to become aware, learn what’s healthy and true vs. what's limited or harmful. I was told that the senior leader allegedly came down hard on me in the way that they did because they perceived that my desire to want to leave and seek mentorship outside of the organization was due to me "not having trust in my leadership." But this person, nor did anyone else ever communicate this perception they had of me to ME in order to give me the chance to share my side or take the feedback and adjust.

I recently emailed the senior leader and provided some feedback on how this person’s words and my experience with them impacted me. How it hurt me. Again, I understand that TWO THINGS CAN EXIST AT ONE TIME. And while this person’s behavior was toxic for me, I do not believe that as a human being this person in their entirety is toxic. I don't believe a toxic human being exists-- only their behaviors. The second leader that I was hurt by, my direct leader, I have not reached out too yet. I am still working through that pain and will let myself continue to heal before I make a decision on if I want to engage or not.

The senior leader immediately responded back expressing their care in my safety and that they will need some time to process what I shared with them It was a lot to live through so I agree it will be a lot to process.

I think feedback, empathy, and a commitment to gaining understanding and truth to become aware of oneself and the environment may just be our best chance in healing this toxic environment our human race has created for ourselves. Facing truth and communicating can be a very hard thing. But history and research continue to show us that when we don't do that, people--our own teammates, not only suffer, but DIE because of it.

The following images are highlights of the findings from Dr. Felicia Williams dissertation on, “The Experience of Veterans Led by Toxic Leaders.” Screenshots of Minority Air Force Officers sharing personal experiences of toxic leaders follows the dissertation excerpts.

Screenshot from an original post on Facebook from a USAF Minority Officer from September 19, 2022. All names and profile pictures have been concealed in order to preserve anonymity.

Some (not all) of the comments in response to the original post made by Minority Officers within the USAF


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