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Naval Academy Preparatory School

Willis Communications and Training

Suite 101 section on the US Navy

A Real Hero. Andrew Willis. Suite 101. July 6, 2001.

Consider major 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 and react.

The Nature of Military Leadership

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.

Obviously, the 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?

Certainly there 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?”

Day-to-day, such 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

In peacetime, 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?

The military 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 situations.

However, the 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.

This highlights 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 to Business

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.

That balance 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 or visit him online at



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