historical events over the last few years: the end of the Cold War,
the Gulf War, the bombing of the USS Cole, and now, the destruction
of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. The first
two demonstrated what good military leadership can accomplish. The
second two were surely lapses in security, but also, in their way,
lapses in leadership. However, they showed how the situation in
which leaders find themselves often dictates how those leaders act
The Nature of Military Leadership
is not the same as civilian business leadership. It just isn’t.
Modern military leaders would like it to be, and in times of relative
peace, it can be. In those periods, with no visible threat to our
national security, the military can operate like businesses, and
often do. They look to save money, revolutionize methods, and theorize
about new strategies for the future—trying to do more with less.
military has a slightly different reason for existence than a business
does. But there are similarities. A business exists to provide a
product or service, and in doing so, make a profit and continues
to exist as an entity. In the same way, the military provides a
service to the citizens of the country it has sworn to protect.
Only our end-product, instead of being a material object, is the
projection of political power, the maintenance of national security,
by negotiation if possible, by force if necessary. And, we don’t
operate to make a profit except (perhaps) the safety of the guarded.
But what happens
when a crisis appears, such as the one that confronts us now? What
do we do when the threat is at our doorstep? Also, if the products
of our organizations are different, our leadership styles should
be as well—right? Or is there a place for a more humanistic style
of leadership in a rigid, highly bureaucratic organization?
is, but it comes in what the military does best—situational leadership.
Of the many approaches
to situational leadership, the most popular is the model created
in the late 1970s by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard. In this
model, the leader changes his or her leadership style based on the
status of the group (task orientation vs. relationship orientation
based upon a measure of the maturity and ability of the group members).
However, F. E.
Feidler’s “Contingency Theory” of leadership, from the late 1960s,
is more applicable to military leadership because of the nature
of our work and the high turnover rates of military personnel (the
entire crew of a ship will be replaced every three to four years).
If you look at it from the standpoint of the conditions outside
the group applying pressures to the group, rather than the view
of conditions inside the group applying the pressure to the group,
then situational leadership takes on a new meaning. This is the
view most military leaders take: What is going on “out there” that
my people and I are going to have to deal with “in here?”
pressures are negligible and the leader can take the business-like
approach. But when an emergency comes or a state of conflict arises,
then military leadership changes drastically.
Crisis Management Compared
to Daily Management
the military can be compared to a business in recession, but with
a few differences. Often in peacetime, the military will shrink,
reducing manpower, facilities, and flexibility to conform to budgetary
constraints, exactly like a business going through tough economic
times. Indeed, many businesses, especially in the travel industry,
are doing exactly this right now in response to the new market conditions
that have been thrust upon it. Military management styles, nominally
at least, become more open and people-oriented, and the organizational
climate becomes more experimental, but also more political.
In a crisis,
however, or during an extended period of conflict, the military
rapidly expands in size and scope just like a business in a booming
economy. Decisions must be made quickly and correctly and delivered
accurately so that people can do their jobs. Communication must
be clear, and, most of the time during a crisis, it must be one-way.
Certainly not a very people-oriented approach, but it is an approach
that may be absolutely necessary depending on what’s happening.
If people are going to be hurt or killed or facilities damaged,
then the feelings of the people who work for me are secondary. As
a supervisor, I can deal with damaged egos later if I need to.
How Do We Train Our Leaders?
teaches leadership through formal schools and on-the-job training.
Mentoring programs, both formal and informal, exist at many commands
and supervisors are directly responsible for the professional and
leadership development of their people.
Much of military
leadership training is designed to emulate business leadership models,
even using the writings of Kenneth Blanchard, Stephen Covey, and
Peter Senge as bases for schoolhouse curricula. Navy leadership
schools begin for personnel at the E-5 level (roughly the equivalent
of a work-group supervisor in a medium or large business). Even
at that level, the military teaches its supervisors to gather information,
to find the strengths and weaknesses of workers, and to use this
to the best advantage of the organization. And this works in most
military also teaches crisis or high-tension situation management.
The military does crisis management better than anyone else. We
have to. To a business, a high-tension situation may be a loss of
market share or a shortfall in supply. To the military, a crisis
situation often involves life and death. Most businesses aren’t
used to dealing with this type of situation. In this light, the
apparent orderliness of the evacuation of the World Trade Center
was truly remarkable.
In a crisis situation,
training and practice show. The military has a saying, “train as
if it were real,” the idea being that if you train your people the
right way, they’ll perform the right way under pressure, because
actions will become routine, even automatic, ensuring the proper
functioning of the unit. It’s why we drill, exercise, practice and
then do it all again. This practice though, requires that we practice
the autocratic or authoritarian styles of leadership that will be
necessary in the situations for which we are preparing, but which
we also hope will never come to pass.
The problem with
military leadership on a working group level, however, tends to
come when a manager can’t tell the difference between a crisis situation
and day-to-day management decisions that every supervisor runs into
on a regular basis. Because of the nature and culture of military
organizations, authoritarian leadership styles tend to be highly
rewarded, even in daily work, because in the military, immediate
efficiency is almost always valued over innovation and long-term
effectiveness. I don’t know how many times I’ve wondered aloud at
an order I received, and whether or not there was a better way or
even a reason to do it at all, only to be told, “Do it because I
said so.” Well, that’s fine if life and limb are in danger, but
on a daily basis, that approach can grate on people, especially
on today’s highly educated and intelligent enlisted corps. “Because
I said so” is now, in most cases, a sure-fire road to low morale
amongst the troops.
one of the major failings of any training, but leadership training
in particular. What happens when trainees aren’t allowed, either
explicitly or implicitly, to use what they’ve learned in the classroom
and apply it in the workplace?
Applying Situational Leadership
As in any skill,
repetition and practice in democratic or other relationship-oriented
styles of leadership are necessary for proficiency. A new work-center
supervisor that I worked with closely at my last assignment attended
the First Class Petty Officer Leadership Course, and when he returned
he was a bit depressed about it. When I asked him why, he replied,
“Because I know that there is no way that I’ll be allowed to use
anything that class taught me here.”
My reply to him
was that he, just like every other supervisor everywhere, was going
to have to find the balance between the way he wants to do things
and the way the organization wants him to do things, based upon
the situation at hand.
will come when lines of communication are open in both directions.
If there is time, and that is dictated by the situation, you, as
a leader, will find that your people are far more likely to buy
into your decisions if you explain the rationale behind them, and
when you ask for and actually use the opinions of the people who
will be doing the work. When you don’t have the time, go back to
your people when the immediate crisis has passed. Find out what
they could have done better, what you could have done better, and
use that information to improve the way you do things. Practice
that when the time allows. They will feel involved, and you will
be a more effective leader when the next emergency comes.
Andrew Willis is a First Class Petty Officer in the US Navy.
He serves as an instructor and career counselor at the Naval Academy
Preparatory School in Newport, RI. Contact him directly at Willis@naps.edu
or visit him online at www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/us_navy.
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