Small Wars Journal

The 4 Key Elements to Successful Senior Leadership

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 9:13am

The 4 Key Elements to Successful Senior Leadership

Donald C. Bolduc

I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways. And no message could have been any clearer If you want to make the world a better place. If you want to make the world a better place takes a look at yourself, and then make a change.

-- Lyrics from the song Man in the Mirror

The reason I am writing this article is because I received a lot of feedback on my article published in Small Wars Journal on leadership. The comments below are a sample of what I received from readers.  These comments speak to the problem we are having in the military with humility, top-cover for mistakes, understanding how to manage failure, and organizational change.

“Humility is critical in an overly testosterone driven occupation. It shows control and balance. Failure is a good thing. It teaches us what works and what doesn't. Adversity is the only thing that builds character.  I would think this could be very beneficial IF we had leaders who would listen.”

“It was important to me as a subordinate that you would honor my place at the round table and listen to my ideas and allow me to explain the situations I was in and not jump to conclusions.  I was able to operate because you successfully communicated your Commanders Intent, so in the absence of orders, you knew I would execute and operate in haste with the knowledge of what you expected.”

“This piece is critical.... You also told me once that it is OK to fail. "Don't be afraid to make mistakes as long as you do it wide open and focused on trying to do the right thing." You proved you would keep your word. That forged a leader-subordinate relationship with all the Team Leaders of trust and mutual respect that reflected in our operational prowess and reputation.” 

The Importance of Developing Humility

Leaders are more effective when they are humble, but some consider humility a sign of weakness and meekness.  There lies in the dilemma.  Saint Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”  You will not find humility listed as a value in the Army, but it is tied to all other Army values and without humility we would not be able to get anything done.  Humility facilitates good relationships and command climate, prevents you from taking yourself too seriously, controls arrogance, promotes cooperation, allows you to appropriately accept recognition, give recognition, and mitigates any animosity for the good fortune or misfortune of others.  Humility also helps negate the human phenomena of what the Germans refer to as Schadenfreude.  Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.  Unfortunately, it is something I have seen at all levels of the military.  It is most acute at the senior levels due to the competitiveness among senior leaders for promotion, commands, and other high-profile jobs.  Humility is a learned behavior and one of the most difficult to understand and master.  It requires a leader to be constantly aware to ensure they present themselves in a consistent manner in every engagement and situation.  Leaders who display humility are self-aware and understand their strengths and weaknesses.  He/she is then able to put this in context of the organization and create a productive climate that evolves around the people in the organization and not the leader.  A leader that has mastered humility will reach a point where he/she is comfortable in admitting their mistakes and realizing that they do not need to know everything.  Humble leaders do not micro-manage, they decentralize authority, are more comfortable with accepting risk, underwrite mistakes, and provide their people with more latitude to use their imagination, innovate, and create.

Leaders that lack humility overreact, surround themselves with likeminded people, circle the wagons, lash out when angered or hear something they do not like, and they seek revenge.  He/she centralizes power, mismanages time, talks more than they listen, removes others with strong abilities perceiving them to be a threat, and rarely admit mistakes. In this organization subordinates carry out directives rather than contribute new insight. These leaders usually consider themselves the humblest person they know.  These leaders are not hard to spot.  They are visible when things are great and not so visible when things go wrong.  People around them are on pins and needles and are always concerned when the next outburst or butt chewing will come from.  They follow a social checklist and treat people differently based on the situation.  I know many senior leaders that go out and visit the troops and endear themselves to them with their humor, care, and concern, but treat their staff and those around them poorly.  They are always present when more senior ranking people are around and, in many cases, steal the show.  They show up to formal events and expect to be the center of attention.  They always say the right things in public but act differently in private and in less formal settings.  As Rick Warren said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.”    

As a leader, I admit I have struggled with humility.  I became aware of the importance of humility in leadership as a battalion commander and worked to understand it and master it.  I did not always succeed especially when I felt under attack from a superior officer or placed in a situation where I became defensive.  I found in the military if you want to do damage to someone’s reputation just say they lack humility. 

I have been criticized for a lack of humility and arrogance by some of my superiors and to them I say they are correct.  I am not perfect and have let pride get the best of me.  I can also say to them I learned from my experiences and have become a better leader because of my improved self-awareness. There is one area I will always lack humility and that is when it comes to protecting my subordinates, ensuring they get their awards, protecting them from vindictive leaders, promoting the accomplishments of the people under my command and my family.  I was told when I was a young officer, that a commander can have two vanities, pride in unit and pride in family.  We must remember when evaluating and assessing the humility in others that this is not a zero-defect virtue and should not be evaluated as one.  James E. Faust said, “A grateful heart is a beginning of greatness. It is an expression of humility. It is a foundation for the development of such virtues as prayer, faith, courage, contentment, happiness, love, and well-being.



Providing Top Cover for Mistakes

John Wooden said, “If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes.” As a military leader, I learned that one of the best ways to lead was to give my subordinates the freedom to make mistakes and then provide them top-cover from others that regard mistakes as a discriminator to hold people accountable. The rules I set up for my subordinates to articulate top-cover for mistakes.  Do not do anything illegal, immoral, or negligently unsafe and the end does not justify the means, so be careful how you get there.   Do your job and know your job.  Do not make the same mistake twice and focus your attention on taking care of people, families, and the mission and you will not go wrong.  I will take credit for everything that goes wrong, and you get the credit for everything that goes right.  This is a win/win situation so get caught doing something.  By creating an environment that allows your subordinates to make mistakes they can learn and grow without worrying about hurting their career or competing with their peers counting mistakes.  The result was the organization grew stronger, trust was deeper between leader and subordinate, and commitment to the people, family, and mission was enhanced as everyone understood the right and left limits of priorities and accountable actions.   

Ross Perot said, “Punishing honest mistakes stifles creativity. I want people moving and shaking the earth and they're going to make mistakes.” If you are going to be successful with providing top-cover you must communicate consistent messages, remain flexible to change, and your subordinates must understand and believe how you as a leader will work for them to give them the best possible chance to succeed.  The establishment of an operational approach, underpinned by a vision written and informed by your subordinates is the best way to ensure everyone is on the same sheet of music.  The approach must be values-based and merit-based.



Failure as an Option

Winston Churchill said, Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” I have failed, I have made mistakes, I have admitted both, but have never quit.  I always told my subordinates that admitting you failed is an option.  Do not try to make something work that is not working.  Just because you briefed it does not mean you have stick to it.  Reassess, adjust, and get it right.  Do this on your own initiative and authority and then tell me what you did.  We must change the military culture to accept failure and deal with it as a positive not a negative.  Ignoring failure and hiding failure is detrimental to our values-based and merit-based system.  As noted in the monograph by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Military Profession, that “untruthfulness is surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.” One of the worst things you can say to a subordinate is, “Don’t F!%$ this up.”  This statement I have heard many times and have come to hate it.  I wanted my subordinates to own their F! %$ up and failure and to explain it and fix it.  I did not want my subordinates coming up with a seeming logical explanation for their failure or seek to place the blame elsewhere.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Building this idea into their character was hugely important.  If I could get them comfortable with the fact that I will underwrite their mistakes and accept failure.  I could always depend on them telling me the truth, never quitting, staying focused on mission, moving forward, and doing the right thing. I was told by a 4-star in Afghanistan when I came out on the 1-star list, that as a general, you will never be told truth again and you would never have a bad meal.  About a year later, I reflected on this statement and decided I did not want to be that kind of general officer.  I wanted my subordinates to tell me the truth, tell me what I needed to hear, and when I did not make sense.  I also committed to doing the same regardless of the consequences.  This is important and necessary when the bottom line is their lives are on the line.  I believe I accomplished this as a general officer.  I also had many bad meals as a general officer. Marshal Turrene supposedly said in 1641, “Show me a general who has made no mistakes, and I will show you a general who has seldom waged war.”

I have done a lot of research on failure because to accept failure you need to know the different types of failure.  As with mistakes, failure has left and right limits.  I told my subordinates their right limit was people, family, and mission and the left limit was illegal, immoral, and negligently unsafe.  In between the limits, belonged to them and to follow commander’s intent, our operational approach, and their mission authorities and permissions.  The types of failure I outlined were abject failure, common failure, and predicted failure.  Abject failure was doing something illegal, immoral, or negligently unsafe. This kind of failure held accountability repercussions that could negatively affect their career.  Common failure is when a subordinate articulates a failure and offers a fix for it.  This one is not “common” as it competes with the military culture of not admitting failure. Predictive failure is when failure is assessed possible because of the shortcomings of known short comings in the plan.  Structural failure is the failure that occurs through poor initiative and poor judgement that cuts deep but does not do permanent damage to the overall mission or cause irreparable damage to strategic goals.                   

Admitting failure takes moral courage and it is something that I valued and encouraged in my subordinates.  Meg Cabo, said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”  



Organizational Change

John Wooden said, “Failure is never fatal. But failure to change can and might be.” Change in the military is inevitable and part of the design of every military organization.  It is one of the reasons we have time limits on assignments, have an up or out personnel system, and the way we have designed our research and development system and processes.  Unfortunately, the military fights change like we fight against our nations enemies.  Most change that results in the military is usually the result of failure or a catastrophic event, a Task Force finding, investigations, or legislation.  The key to successful organization change is a framework.  This framework will keep the organization, its people, and its leaders on the same sheet of music.  It also makes change predictable and goal oriented.  Jim Collins explains in his book Good to Great the following, “Picture an egg. Day after day, it sits there. No one pays attention to it. No one notices it. Certainly no one takes a picture of it or puts it on the cover of a celebrity-focused business magazine. Then one day, the shell cracks and out jumps a chicken. Suddenly, the major magazines and newspapers jump on the story: “Stunning Turnaround at Egg!” and “The Chick Who Led the Breakthrough at Egg!” From the outside, the story always reads like an overnight sensation—as if the egg had suddenly and radically altered itself into a chicken.  

Now picture the egg from the chicken's point of view.  While the outside world was ignoring this seemingly dormant egg, the chicken within was evolving, growing, developing—changing. From the chicken’s point of view, the moment of breakthrough, of cracking the egg, was simply one more step in a long chain of steps that had led to that moment. Granted, it was a big step—but it was hardly the radical transformation that it looked like from the outside.  It’s a silly analogy, but then our conventional way of looking at change is no less silly. Everyone looks for the “miracle moment” when “change happens.” But ask the good-to-great executives when change happened. They cannot pinpoint a single key event that exemplified their successful transition.”

Confucius said (that makes me laugh) "Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change." My experience in Special Operations Command, Africa was that incremental change as part of a larger framework of change initiatives resulted in the necessary improvement in resiliency, readiness, and performance in Talent Management, programs, Fiscal Management, Personnel Management, Logistics, Resource Management, Operations Tempo, Awards and Evaluations, Public Affairs, Intelligence and Operations Fusion, Civil Military Operations and Information Operations, and Cyber Operations.  We described it as moving to the next logical level, continue to be part of a winning team, and have a long view for operational success.  There was no water shed change in the organization, but I do know the framework supported by foundational documents made the change possible in all areas.  To ensure successful change we worked in a transparent way, got buy in, and pushed the authority down to the lowest level to ensure accountability, maintain credibility, and ensure the changes remain relevant.  The slide below depicts the progress made due to change.  All areas assessed were red when assessed in May 2015 and in May 2017 were green and yellow.  General George C. Marshall said, “When a thing is done, it's done. Don't look back. Look forward to your next objective.”



Niccolo Machiavelli in his work The Prince said, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." Discipline and proper management is what is required to produce real results. When people feel the momentum, are part of something that works, and they see the tangible of their work, that’s when they line up, throw their shoulders to the wheel, and push.  Direction, purpose, and motivation is old school Army, but it is very useful in ensuring your change is focused on the right question. 

Collins points out, “You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You must decide where you're going, how you're going to get there, and who's going with you. Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they're going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision.  In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances. With the right people on the bus, in the right seats, Maxwell then turned his full attention to the “what” question. He and his team took Fannie Mae from losing $1 million a day at the start of his tenure to earning $4 million a day at the end.

Louis L'Amour said, "Even those who fancy themselves the most progressive will fight against other kinds of progress, for each of us is convinced that our way is the best way." When it comes to getting started and being successful with change you must be results oriented, formulate the team, get the right people to respond quickly to the fast-changing operational environment, and have a correct sight-picture to get where you need to go.  Jim Collins said, “Great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.” Likewise, I say, poor vision with great people results in less than mediocre results.


Donald C. Bolduc


Leaders Are More Powerful When They’re Humble, Ashley Merryman, 8 December 2016

Good Employees Make Mistakes and Great Leaders Let Them, Amy Rees Anderson, Contributor, April 17, 2013

9 Reasons Why Failure is Not Fatal, Kim Hagen

On Failure, Dan Mauer, 4 April 2017


Good to Great, Jim Collins, October 2001

My Leadership Journey and Other Observations, Donald C. Bolduc, 19 March 2018, published by Small Wars Journal

About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.