Small Wars Journal

Achieving Effective Leadership

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 10:48am

Achieving Effective Leadership

Donald C. Bolduc

The purpose of this article is to discuss effective leadership, present the importance of truth telling, and to contend that moral courage is the most critical trait for a leader. In this article I will offer a model and demonstrate that to be an effective leader, a leader must be a difference-maker.  Being a difference-maker means doing the right thing and having the courage to say hard things to people that do not want to hear them.  The truth—spoken clearly and compassionately—leads to change, growth, and the improvement of an organization.  Difference-Makers know how to balance “directness” with “respect.”  Difference-Makers possess a high emotional quotient and adaptability quotient and are good at reading people.  There is a point in a leader’s career that a high emotional quotient and adaptability quotient becomes more important than your intelligence quotient.  This is important because it requires a leader not to be the smartest person in room, but rather the most intuitive, understanding, and supportive person in the room.     

To examine these concepts, I have chosen the idea of Truth to Power with the twist that speaking truth to power will “empower” the leader and their subordinates to work together more effectively to ensure organizational success.  In their monograph, Lying to Ourselves:  Dishonesty in the Army Profession, Wong and Gerras note, “many Army officers, after repeated exposure to the overwhelming demands and the associated need to put their honor on the line to verify compliance, have become ethically numb.  As a result, an officer’s signature and word have become tools to maneuver through the Army bureaucracy rather than being symbols of integrity and honesty.” (Wong and Gerras, 2019).  As a result, “untruthfulness is surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it” (Wong and Gerras, 2019).

Leadership in America is not effective.  Studies show that 50-75% of leaders and managers are ineffective (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, 2019).  A recent article published by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, Army Talent Management Reform: The Culture Problem, highlights the issues with the Army culture and how this will impede its progress in talent management reform.  Wong and Gerras note, that their “intent here is to point out that the Army — while earnestly trying to accomplish noble missions — has repeatedly suffered because of the ignominious effects of ignoring culture. The stage has been set and the key actors are in position to bring about a radical transformation.  We should not squander this rare opportunity by failing to recognize and adjust to the pervasiveness of Army culture” (Wong and Gerras, 2019).  I agree with the authors but will be more direct in my assessment.  The culture of leadership, how we educate our leaders, how we select our leaders, and the process of how we talent manage our senior leaders must change.  Our Army can no longer afford the organizational nepotism, advocacy-based, go along to move along, and my guy not the right system that has developed to select senior leaders.  This custom is negatively affecting every part of our Army, especially subordinates. 

A Historical Connection to Effective Leadership

Even Achilles, the symbolism of his shield, and lessons from the ancient Greek Peloponnesian War to suggest that effective leadership is the single most important crucible to success in any human endeavor.  Achilles represents an imperfect leader and a great hero of Greek mythology.  According to legend, Achilles was extraordinarily strong, courageous and loyal, but he had one vulnerability–his “Achilles heel (Rieu, 1950) pp.349–53).  Achilles' most notable feat during the Trojan War was the slaying of the Trojan hero Hector outside the gates of Troy (Rieu, 1950) pp.349–53).  It is believed that Achilles was killed near the end of the Trojan War by Paris, who shot him in the heel with an arrow.  Later, beginning in a poem by Statius in the 1st century AD, Achilles was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel because his mother dipped him in the river Styx as an infant and held him by one of his heels (Rieu, 1950) pp.349–53).  This led to the term "Achilles' heel" which we still use today to describe a powerful person’s fatal weakness ( Editors, 2018).

The imagery of nature and the universe on Achilles’ shield also reinforces the belief that the shield is a microcosm of Greek life, as it can be seen as a reflection of their perception of the world (Aujac, 1987).  The sun and the moon are shown shining simultaneously which some consider representative of a general understanding of the universe and awareness of the cosmological order of life.  It is akin to a mandala of antiquity (Aujac, 1987).  The shield shows images of conflict and discord by depicting the shield’s layers as a series of contrasts – i.e. war and peace, work and festival. Wolfgang Schadewaldt, a German writer, argues that these intersecting antitheses show the basic forms of a civilized, essentially orderly life (Schadewaldt, 1959).

The Peloponnesian War serves as a great example of the hubris we see today, and mistakes made in policy and strategy by our leaders.  The war pitted the two great rivals for control of more than 200 Greek City States and colonies from Asia Minor to Sicily.  This war brought hoplite warfare to its greatest height and was ultimately decided on the water by trireme, demonstrating the critical importance of naval and amphibious assaults (Dowdy, 2001).  The decisions by leaders led to the total destruction of the Athenian Empire, which had stood for almost a century (Dowdy, 2001).  The failure of the Spartans to manage the Greek world, the failure of Corinth and Thebes to control it after Sparta, and general turmoil paved the road for the Macedonian Conquest and to Alexander the Great, where the freedom of the Greeks was lost to an overpowering force bent in world conquest.

The policy, strategy, and hubris of the Greek leadership led to a decade of war and the total collapse of the Greek Empire (Dowdy, 2001).  There are so many figures that rise and fall during the course of the 27-year Peloponnesian Wars.  The Sicilian Campaign alone, which is featured in the War College Paper and cited in this paper, is a study in contrasting leadership styles, over confidence in technology, and a view of the Athenians that concluded that Sicily was ultimately the pivot on which the war would turn.  If they had not invested so much into that one move to control the resources of that island, the outcome of the war and western history itself might have been different. 

I make this analogy to relate what people know about war in the ancient world, either by study or through the Trojan War, the Persian War, and the Spartan 300, which have received stirring tributes in movies.  The use of Achilles shield is analogous to a microcosm of civilization in which all aspects of life are shown.  The depiction of law suggests the existence of social order within one city, while feuding armies depict a darker side of humanity (Aujac, 1987).  All serve to suggest the imperfect leader trying to lead in an imperfect environment, and then trying to be effective and do the right thing.     

 An Approach, Construct, and Model

To be an effective leader it is important to understand your strengths and recognize your weaknesses.  Leaders must understand both in order to be effective and not operate at the expense of their subordinates and the long-term success of their organization.  Most leaders are very familiar with their strengths and work on improving them.  In addition, it is my experience that this is what they talk about and describe to their subordinates as examples to follow.  I have come to realize that understanding your weaknesses and working to overcome them is far more useful in becoming an effective leader.  The following are my mistakes and led to my being an ineffective leader until I changed themThis was accomplished by recognizing these weaknesses, communicating them to my subordinates, developing a plan to improve my weaknesses, and surrounding myself with the right people.  The weaknesses listed below were the mistakes that I worked on to be an effective leader.                              

  • I did not take care of myself physically, mentally, or spiritually.
  • I did not listen effectively.
  • I did not value patience as a key leadership attribute.
  • I did not understand the value in working on my leadership weaknesses, I thought that admitting mistakes was a weakness.

To translate my weaknesses into strengths, I developed a series of questions and a model that promulgates tenets around the idea of doing the right thing.  Peter Drucker said, “management is doing things right. And leadership is doing the right things.”  The Moral leader does the right thing, not just any thing, and not just what the boss has told them to do.  So, the challenge is whether they are simply doing what they are told without critical thinking or taking full responsibility for their actions. One recommendation of a first step in changing your leadership approach is asking the following questions:

  • Am I self-aware?
  • Am being constructive or destructive?
  • Do want to make a point or a difference?
  • Do I focus on taking my organization to the next level?
  • Do I take care of myself and others?
  • Do I think like a leader?
  • Do I accept change, lead change, and transform or do I accept the status quo?
  • Do I make timely decisions?
  • Do I move at the speed of progress?
  • Do I walk the talk?
  • Do I put my own skin in the game?
  • Do I serve my superiors and subordinates with balanced loyalty?  Do I make the right when they are in conflict?
  • Do I hold grudges, have cliques, never change my mind, and put mistakes behind me?

The second recommendation is to develop some tenets to drive effectiveness:

  • Understand your “Why” to assist in taking a stand.
  • Develop and Communicate your vision and mission.
  • Commit yourself to a merit-based, value-based, and belief-based leadership approach to be a Difference-Maker.  
  • Develop your purpose, direction, and motivation to drive what you do every day-Goal-Path, Situational Leadership, Focused on organizational success.
  • Do the right thing.  If you are not in a position to lead from above, develop a supporting leadership construct.
  • Be a contributor not a critic.

I offer the two slides below as an example of developing a visual representation that is easily explained and understood to assist in empowering your subordinates to get things done.  This was important and valuable to communicate to my subordinates, so they understood my leadership approach and construct.  Many subordinates told me, by understanding my leadership approach they were confident in moving forward and getting things done.  Additionally, they new if they made a mistake, I would provide top cover.



Risks to Speaking Truth to Power

Developing a culture that supports speaking truth to power is important.  An organizational culture and climate that supports truth establishes a leader’s credibility.  This provides a foundation of trust and cooperation in an organization which improves the trust dividend in an organization and leads to less cost and more speed of action in getting the mission done.  Communication in an organization becomes more effective and deeper connections are created.  Empowerment of subordinates underpins the success of an organization (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, 2019).  Telling the truth and having a culture of truth in an organization results in the establishment of respect, human dignity, and peace of mind.

Speaking truth to power under the current Army culture comes with a price.  If you are going to speak truth to power, you must understand the consequences.  Angering your peer group or superiors is at the top of the list.  Undermining the reputation of the institution you serve in the short-term, and putting your own career in jeopardy, losing promotions, and benefits is another.  Being subject of rumors or direct attacks that distort actions you have taken is another, and you may never have the opportunity to explain yourself to those that hear them.  Lastly, and most importantly, you could be wrong.  You may have misjudged a situation and not have had all of the facts.  But if you do not take the risk of speaking up, you also risk letting something persist that should not.  It takes a certain moral courage to risk that you may be wrong.

To adjust our sight picture on developing effective leadership and change the culture, the Army must re-evaluate how they educate our officers from Lieutenant to General.  For example, we do a great job of training our lieutenants to be great platoon leaders, but we do not educate them to be good leaders.  We leave it to them to figure out.  You can be a successful platoon leader and an ineffective leader.  Likewise, you can be an unsuccessful platoon leader, but an effective leader.  This is true at every level.  This may seem counterintuitive, but in today’s culture it is all about fitting in and being liked by your superiors.  Leadership education, not training, must be incorporated effectively at every level.  The following may help in making immediate changes:

  1. Leadership Experience and Education.  Start your education in leadership now.
  2. You must listen to learn and learn to lead.  You must listen to understand not respond.
  3. Do not choose your leadership team like you choose your friends.  You need contributors not friends to move the organization forward.
  4. Do not endorse organizational nepotism.  Not rewarding for performance, sycophants get rewarded, tell you what you want to hear.
  5. Deal with confrontation, but do not be confrontational.  Leadership is about being respected not being liked, need to confront issues, problems, and perceptions to be effective.
  6. Speak the truth.  Truth in advertising, reality versus myth, manage expectations, afraid to say no, do operate at the expense of your people, priority and accountability.
  7. Do not confuse or conflate conformity and self-discipline.  Know the difference between regimentation and decentralization.
  8. Do not move forward without face-to-face communication, updates, and understanding.  Avoid relying on shotgun blast memos, emails, and other social media to communicate guidance, change and intent.
  9. There is no box or lane.  Know your job, do your job, and make difference.
  10. Control your schedule and do not lead or manage by meetings.  Do not try to do too much or let others control your time-Most meetings are unproductive, energy draining, and a waste of time.
  11. Do not operate inside an inner circle.  You must draw from all levels of your organization, outside your organization to grow-Lead by getting out and walking around.

What Can Leaders Do Now

What Leaders can do now to make a difference in their effectiveness is to ask and answer three questions.  A simple technique is to sit down and ask yourself:  What should I start doing?  What should I continue doing?  What should I stop doing?   If you incorporate this with a valid 360-degree assessment, you can ensure you are focusing your efforts on qualitative observations.  Also, to work on your visibility, interaction, and approachability as a leader there are three times a day you can make a positive impression on the members of your organization.  These times are first thing in the morning, midday, and the end of the day.  All that is required is time and effort.  Of course, in the long-term, how you treat your subordinates between these times will be the measure of effective leadership, a productive command climate, and a culture of speaking the truth.  The slide below depicts a visual I communicated to my subordinates of my efforts during my command of Special Operations Command-Africa. 




This article has focused on a model that realizes an end state of building a better organization and achieving more by exercising your own moral leadership.  My end state was to speak truth to power to change the “me versus you” to “us” to benefit the team.  This was accomplished by learning to be humble enough to accept the truth, and then have the moral courage to say what I thought and then take action.  The goal was to create more accountability, opportunity, leverage talent, reduce divisiveness, build commitment, serve the collective good, and empower people to create a stronger organization to produce better results.  My intent was to be a difference-maker and not a cheer leader.  If you are going to stand up and speak the truth, you need to be ready to defend yourself, because defending a flawed status quo takes courage.  In my opinion, the alternative is to abdicate leadership. 

We do not have to look far to find failed opportunities and failed leadership.  As noted in this article, we are lying to ourselves and have a culture problem.  Leaders have failed in developing a winning policy, strategy, and operational approach in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa.  Leaders failed in their diplomatic approach with Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.  Leaders have damaged relations with NATO partners and other western partners.  Further, we have made less than optimal decisions to deploy active duty military units on the border.  We are not holding senior leaders accountable at the expense of blaming subordinates.  Here is the biggest danger to the military, in his article, Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan, Jason Dempsey notes, “yet if we are going to learn anything from America’s longest war it must begin with at least some introspection and accountability. The first step in doing so is realizing that even our most revered national institution, the military, does indeed have its limits.  Furthermore, we must acknowledge that public engagement and political oversight is not only an essential element of a well-functioning democracy but a requirement for effective foreign policy” (Dempsey, 2019).  We will see if the current leadership makes any changes.  Change in the military comes slow and transformation usually requires outside direction from Congress.    

There are many components of effective leadership, but I believe we need to start with enacting the value of speaking the truth, accountability, and the need for moral courage in our leaders.  Being an effective leader is about taking advantage of opportunities.  Our subordinates are less likely to do this in a culture that does speak truth to power.  In addition, they are likely to miss opportunities while waiting on a senior leader to approve of their recommendation.  We are not investing in the creativity, initiative, and imagination that our subordinates to contribute to the success at all levels of the organization, and this must change.  We must invest in their mistakes as much as we do in their successes.  This is where growth, commitment, trust, and loyalty are achieved in an organization.


Bolduc, Donald C., Small Wars Journal, 2019, Leadership Playbook,

Bolduc, Donald C., Small Wars Journal, 2018, My Leadership Journey and Other Observations,

Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan, Jason Dempsey February 11, 2019,

Dowdy, J.D., USMC, Strategy Research Project:  The Syracuse Campaign:  Failed Opportunities, Failed Leaders, US Army War College, 2001

Editors,, 2018,


Leonard Wong Stephen J. Gerras, February 2015, Army Talent Management Reform: The Culture Problem

Homer, The Iliad trans. E.V. Rieu (Penguin Classics, 1950) pp.349–53

Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pg. 233, (2019), Dark side of Leadership, Strategic Management, BMAL 703,  Liberty University School of Business: McGraw-Hill Education.

Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pg. 311, (2019), Strategic Management, BMAL 703,  Liberty University School of Business: McGraw-Hill Education.

Germaine Aujac. (1987). The Foundations of Theoretical Cartography in Archaic and Classical Greece. The History of Cartography, volume 1 (pp. 130-147) University of Chicago Press.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr, US ‘Gets Its Ass Handed To It’ In Wargames: Here’s A $24 Billion Fix, 

Wolfgang Schadewaldt, “Der Schild des Achilleus,” Von Homers Welt und Werk (Stuttgart 1959).


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.