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Col. Jonathan Chung. Screenshot from YouTube and Defense Flash News
Allegations of Toxic Leadership
In an unfolding story highlighting the military’s ongoing battle against toxic leadership, Col. Jonathan Chung, commander of the Army’s 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), has been suspended due to allegations of creating a hostile environment for his subordinates. Chung, who held the command position at the 5th SFAB, headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, since July 2021, was suspended in April 2023.
Although the specific incident that triggered Chung’s suspension remains undisclosed, the Army’s reluctance to comment on the investigation has not stopped insiders from coming forward. Military.com reported that ten soldiers, who worked closely with Chung at both the 5th SFAB and his previous command with the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, portrayed his leadership as abrasive and detrimental to unit cohesion and morale. However, none of the soldiers accused Chung of criminal behavior or sexual misconduct.
One officer went so far as to describe Chung as “the worst leader I’ve ever had, toxic, selfish, and egotistical.” Chung’s alleged perfectionism and micromanagement manifested in routine public berating of subordinates, a practice known among the ranks as “The Chunger Games.” Moreover, Chung reportedly required soldiers to listen to his leadership lessons podcast, at times even assigning reports or quizzes based on the material.
Talk of Micromanagement
Anecdotes from soldiers further illustrate the extent of Chung’s micromanagement. For example, during physical training, a soldier’s entire chain of command was brought into Chung’s office for a dressing down over mismatched socks. In another, a commander was grilled about a soldier leaving duty early for a scheduled dental appointment.
While Chung’s attorney has remained tight-lipped about the investigation, they confirmed that it revolves around accusations of counterproductive leadership. In an email to colleagues soliciting positive character witness letters, Chung admitted he faces allegations centered around “perceived counterproductive and toxic leadership issues.”
The SFAB as A Bridge
The Army’s SFABs, created between 2017 and 2020, serve as a bridge between conventional formations and Special Forces, primarily tasked with fostering relationships with partner forces and training other militaries on U.S. ground combat tactics. In addition, the 5th SFAB maintains regional partnerships with key Pacific countries, including Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand. These nations are considered vital allies should tensions with China escalate into conflict.
Before his suspension, Chung was the commander of the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, and was poised for promotion to brigadier general. However, he has now been temporarily reassigned to U.S. Army Pacific, a force element overseeing regional logistics. Such reassignments to administrative roles are common during investigations that can span months.
A commander in the 5th SFAB, who is serving as a supportive character witness in Chung’s investigation, argued that Chung’s strict leadership style simply rubbed some soldiers the wrong way and that they had never witnessed Chung berating or talking down to subordinates. This commander was put in contact with Military.com by Chung’s attorney.
As the investigation into Chung’s leadership continues, the outcome and any potential consequences remain uncertain. Nevertheless, his suspension underscores the Army’s commitment to addressing toxic leadership and enhancing unit morale and effectiveness.
Toxic leadership in the military is a problem that has been increasingly scrutinized in recent years. A 2021 report by the National Defense Business Institute revealed that 20% of active duty service members surveyed had experienced toxic leadership, which can lead to decreased morale, retention rates, and even mental health issues among those affected.
The 5th SFAB, a crucial training element in the Pacific, is tasked with building relationships with regional partner forces and training other militaries on U.S. ground combat tactics. Allegations against Chung suggest that his abrasive leadership style significantly undermined unit cohesion and demoralized subordinate officers, ultimately leading to his suspension and investigation.
Chung has adamantly denied any involvement in illegal, immoral, or unethical activities, maintaining that the investigation focuses solely on “perceived counterproductive and toxic leadership issues.” While military officials have yet to provide specific details about the ongoing investigation, the allegations against Chung serve as a potent reminder of the importance of addressing toxic leadership in the military and fostering a culture of positive leadership practices.
To combat toxic leadership within its ranks, the military has been working to implement new training programs and policies to identify and rectify harmful leadership behaviors. These efforts are essential in promoting a healthy and supportive environment for service members, ensuring their well-being, and fostering a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.
The case of Col. Jonathan Chung highlights the broader issue of toxic leadership in the military and serves as a cautionary tale for both current and aspiring leaders. It underscores the need for military leaders to balance authority with empathy, understanding the impact their actions have on the morale and well-being of their subordinates.
As the investigation into Chung’s leadership unfolds, it will be crucial for the military to not only address this specific case but also to continue its ongoing efforts to eliminate toxic leadership from its ranks. By doing so, the military can ensure that it remains a cohesive and effective fighting force, one that is well-prepared to face the challenges of an increasingly complex and uncertain world.
In conclusion, the suspension of Col. Jonathan Chung, commander of the Army’s 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade, amid allegations of toxic leadership, is an essential reminder of the significant impact leadership styles can have on unit cohesion, morale, and overall effectiveness. As the investigation into Chung’s leadership continues, the military must remain steadfast in its commitment to rooting out toxic leadership and promoting positive leadership practices, ensuring the well-being of its service members and the strength of its fighting force.
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