Small Wars Journal

Be the Chameleon: Leadership is a Personal Affair

Sat, 05/21/2022 - 11:05am

Be the Chameleon: Leadership is a Personal Affair

by Major McLeod William Wood


Leadership is an incredibly personal affair. It is an innately human endeavor that differs in execution from individual to individual. However, to some extent there still exists hints of ‘shopping lists’ and prescribed models that leaders are ‘required’ to follow to be successful. These lists and models are hangovers from Trait Era leadership research which incorporated the Great Man Theory of the 1840s and Trait Theory up until the 1940s. Leadership is not a black and white skill – it is opaque at best and requires constant attention and modification to get the best results out of the leader and out of the follower.  Leadership therefore is an incredibly personal affair and requires the leader to be a chameleon. This article will briefly explain the four eras of leadership theory, conduct a short comparison of US, UK, and Australian leadership doctrine, and conclude by explaining why leadership is a personal affair and being a chameleon is important to success.

The Leadership Theory Eras

Leadership theory is not a new field of study however it still commands a powerful position as a research field and attracts constant global attention. Whilst leadership has been a constant aspect of life from primal to civilized times, the effort to provide substantial leadership theories wasn’t undertaken until the early 19th century.

Since the 1840s there have been four eras of leadership theory.[1]They represent the way in which the academic community has progressively interrogated leadership as a social phenomenon. The four eras of leadership theory are:          

Trait Era (1840s-1940s). Focused on the Great Man and Trait theories.

Behavioral Era (1940s-1960s). Focused on the actions and skills of leaders.

Situational Era (1960s-1990s). Focused on Contingent and Situational theories.

New Leadership Era (1990s-today). Focused on Transactional & Transformational theories.

This article is too small to conduct a complete examination of the four eras of leadership theory. However, it is necessary to briefly explain each era as they highlight changing trends in leadership research and thought.

The Trait Era (1840s-1940s) initially focused on the inherent skills and capabilities of a leader. Initially, the core belief of the Great Man theory was that leaders are born and not made.[2] People such as Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon were upheld as the model for a ‘natural born leader’. They clearly possessed specific traits and characteristics that enabled them to be exceptional leaders. Quiet rationally, researchers moved onto identifying and codifying the traits observed in these great leaders. Trait theory researchers attempted to develop lists of traits that produced requirements to be a good leader. However, the development of a single list of leadership traits proved to be difficult. The lists either kept growing, required modification, or could be shown to be defunct. It was nearly as if different leaders, through their own personal approach to leadership, could be successful despite exhibiting complementary and contrary traits simultaneously. It’s not surprising that by the late 1940s a single list of successful traits to predict success was academically unachievable. The illusiveness of a singular list of required traits gave way to the Behavioral Era of the 1940s and 1960s.

The Behavioral Era of leadership was short lived. It focused on understanding the behavioral characteristics of leaders and how they engaged in either task behaviors or relationship behaviors. How leaders use these two behaviors to influence others was the focus of the behavioral approach.[3] The Behavioral Era ended abruptly after 20 years of research. The theorists could not identify a universal style of leadership that was effective in all situations. What the research did show was that a leader’s personal approach to balancing tasks and relationships was critical to being successful. That leaders could react to situations differently gave way to the Situational Era of leadership theory.

The Situational Era of leadership theory extended from the 1960s to the 1990s. At the heart of the situational approach was that multiple styles of leadership were required in different situations.[4] From this theoretical approach, leaders must be able to adapt their leadership style based on the situation they find themselves in. It also required a leader to match their style to the competence and commitment of their subordinates. Situational leadership became prescriptive rather than descriptive (like the last two eras). It was prescriptive in that the leader confronted by followers with low commitment and low competence was shoehorned into using a directive style of leadership. Conversely, if followers had high commitment and mid-level competence the theory prescribed leaders to use a coaching style of leadership. This era attempted to make leadership binary and removed the genuine essence of it – that it is personal. This era gradually gave way to the ‘New Era’ of leadership theory which was developed in the 1980s and gained mainstream acceptance in the 1990s.

The New Era theories were developed in response to a complex, challenging world that was rapidly changing, and required leaders to adapt based on their personal encounters. This new era of leadership theory focusses on transactional and transformational characteristics. Transformational leadership assists leaders in any process that changes or transforms people. It is primarily focused on the underlying values, ethics, standards, goals and emotions of individuals and groups to influence them to achieve more than what is usually expected of them.[5] Typically, this is achieved through fulfilling the needs of followers. Transformational leadership therefore requires a personal approach. In contrast, transactional leadership relies on the leader’s ability to motivate their people through authority and exchanges (rewards/ punishments). This approach is very common and also requires a personal approach. The leader must determine what transaction is best suited to get the most from their team in any given situation. The New Era also provided a better understanding of differing leadership styles that supported leaders as they changed approaches based on their personal preference or the situation. In 2017, Daniel Goleman published a qualitative study to demonstrate what leadership styles generate positive results on their related organizations. He identified the following six styles:

Coercive – the leader demands compliance

Authoritative (later to be renamed visionary) – the leader mobilizes people toward a vision

Affiliative – the leader creates harmony and builds emotional bonds

Democratic – the leader forges consensus through participation

Pacesetting – the leader sets high standards for performance

Coaching – the leader develops people for the future.[6]

Of interest from this study is that Goleman identified that leaders switched between these styles based on their personal preferences, the scenario they faced or the people they were interacting with. Leaders achieved this through using their emotional intelligence to determine which style best suited their situation. This is important as it confirms that leadership is personal, and leaders need to be capable of change.

In summary, the eras of leadership demonstrate several good lessons. Firstly, leaderships cannot be distilled into a singular list of traits, or requirements, that one must follow to be successful. Second, prescriptive leadership models are not suitable in accounting for how a leader wants to lead based on a situation. Finally, leaders must adapt given their own personal preferences and the needs of their followers; each situation is personally different. Given these lessons it’s interesting to consider how closely leadership doctrine follows the development in leadership theory. Are there carry overs from bygone eras? To understand this, we will now briefly compare the doctrine of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

A Brief Comparison of Australian, United Kingdom and United States Army Leadership Doctrine

A comparison of army doctrine is useful as it indicates the level to which thought, within the Army, has changed to reflect broader changes in the leadership theories. Specifically, this brief comparison will be looking to ascertain whether the doctrines of the Australian, United Kingdom and United States Army espouses a personal approach to leadership vs. a trait/requirements approach. This is important as the progression through leadership theory demonstrated that leadership is a personal affair with leaders changing their approach based on a situation. Three actions will be taken to compare the doctrine. They are:

How does the publication define leadership?

A key word search for the word ‘requirements’.

Identify the publications approach to leadership.

The Australian Defence Force

Figure 1: The Australian Federation Guard

Source: Australian Government, Department of Defence, Defence Image Library, file name - 20210410adf8586550_0309.jpg

The Australian Defence Force recently combined all single service leadership doctrine into a joint publication. The new publication was released in April 2021 and is a concise document of 16,419 words and is written using a narrative style. The Australian Army defines leadership as “the art of positively influencing others to get the job done”.[7] The publication emphasizes that leadership is an “affair of the heart” and involves an interplay of emotions, feeling, attitudes and values. Building upon its definition of leadership it reiterates throughout the document that leaders must understand their people and personally take ownership of being able to positively influence their followers. It’s important to note that the style of writing in the Australian leadership doctrine is simplistic and descriptive.

The Australian publication is not prescriptive. It only uses the word requirements twice. This would appear to be in keeping with the substantial academic body of work into leadership theory.  Rather than prescribe what type of leader the Australian Defence Force desires, or prescribe a list of traits, they refer their people to the foundation of leadership. The publication explains the foundations of leadership to be character, professional competence, and human understanding. These foundations support the documents overarching approach to leadership.

The Australian leadership doctrine is written with emphasis on a personal approach. It explains that “leadership is more of the spirit. It is the art. It is the projection of personality and character to inspire others to achieve a desired outcome”.[8] The publication is written in a narrative style that mimics being a part of a conversation with a wise advisor. It makes extensive use of the word ‘your’[9] which highlights to the reader that leadership is a personal affair. It also emphasizes that constant change is required from leaders to be effective - “…your approach to leadership also needs to allow and adjust for the context, for the situation at any particular time and place”.[10] As highlighted in Goleman’s research, the ability to change and adapt is essential to success. Understanding that the Australian Army takes a personal approach to leadership the article will now turn to the United Kingdom.

The British Army

Figure 2: King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery

Source: United Kingdom, Ministry of Defence, Defence Imagery, file name APOLOND-OFFICIAL-20211115-23-038.jpg

The British Army leadership doctrine was released in October 2021. It is a relatively concise document of 25,298 words and written in a formal tone. The British Army defines leadership as “a combination of character, knowledge, and action that inspires others to succeed”.[11] The publication emphasizes that leadership is a “projection of personality” and is incredibly unique when placed in a military context. In line with Goleman’s research, the British Army explains that in the art of leadership “there is no defined way to apply sound leadership, and it can therefore look and feel different to different people at any given moment”.[12]The publication is written in a formal manner but is descriptive in its writing style.

The British Army are careful not to be prescriptive in their writing. To that point, their leadership doctrine uses the word requirements but five times. The term is primarily used to highlight that courage (moral and physical) is required in leaders within the military. The descriptive style of the publication would appear to be in keeping with the current leadership theories and body of knowledge. Having a long history, the British Army has a distinctive and well-developed approach to leadership.

The British Army approach to leadership is one that is “practiced through the filter of individual personality…”.[13]This is reinforced as the publication further explains that across the leadership spectrum effective leaders will “develop a range of [leadership] styles, which they can employ as the situation dictates”. The British Army would appear to place emphasis on a personal approach to leadership and one which values individuality and personality in its execution. Of note, is that the British Army publication lists and explains the 6 leadership styles as explained by Goleman. This is direct evidence that the British Army publication is based upon modern leadership theory. With the British Army leadership approach being briefly described the article will now look at the United States Army leadership doctrine.

The United States Army

Figure 3: US Soldiers participate in Exercise Southern Vanguard

Source: Department of Defense, United States Army Military Photos, file name – Southern Vanguard View

The United States Army leadership doctrine was released in July 2019. The publication is expansive at 57,804 words and is written in a formal and prescriptive style. The US Army defines leadership as “the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization”.[14] Interestingly, once defining leadership, the publication jumps straight into explaining what its leaders must do (influence, provide purpose and direction, motivate) and then describes the Army Leadership Requirements Model. Here, the US Army publication appears to be written using a prescriptive style for explaining leadership.

The prescriptive style of writing is further evidenced by how many times the publication uses the word requirements. The publication uses the word 30 times. This is important, as the word demands action on behalf of the leader and forces compulsion. In this way a reader sees the Army Leadership Requirement Model and is likely to interpret that they must exhibit all these competencies and attributes. The listing of leadership requirements is reminiscent of the lists developed in trait leadership theory which proved to be ineffective in developing the ‘perfect’ leader. The prescriptive style of writing, especially found within the Army Leadership Requirements Model, would appear to be a major break with current leadership theory and academic literature. This break does have an impact on the way in which the US Army leadership approach might be viewed.

The US Army leadership approach would appear to be one that is less personal and more prescriptive. The use of prescriptive lists and requirements would appear to provide leaders with ‘shopping lists’ of what they must be, and do, to be a good leader in the US Army. In defense of the publication, it does highlight that the most effective leaders “adapt their approach to the mission, organization and the situation”.[15] However, the publication places more value on explaining and describing the actions of the leader vs. emphasizing the inherently personal experience that is leadership in a military organization. This observation contrasts with the Australian and United Kingdom approach to leadership. It allows the article to now draw conclusions from its brief comparison of leadership doctrine.


The development of leadership theory since the 1840s has emphasized the inherently personal approach that leaders take to applying leadership within their organization. The use of prescribed leadership traits and prescribed leadership models based on behaviors has not been in vogue for the last 60 years. These methods were determined, through academic research, to be ineffective and fails to account for the scale of change and adaption required by leaders to be successful. The leader’s ability to change styles based on their situation, much like a chameleon changes camouflage based on its surrounding, has become the critical element of success.

The brief comparison of leadership doctrine across the Australian, United Kingdom and United States Armies revealed several key takeaways. It highlighted that definitions for leadership are very similar and based on the leader’s ability to influence/inspire their people. The Australian and United Kingdom publications emphasize that leadership is a personal affair, and each person will execute it slightly differently. Meanwhile the US publication was shown to be more prescriptive in its approach to leadership. This may have an impact on how US personnel model themselves as leaders and execute their roles. Further, the US Army publication would appear to preference lists of leadership traits (the Army Leadership Requirements Model) in contrast to modern leadership theory which demonstrates the futility in such an approach. This preference for lists is clearly a hangover from the oldest era of leadership theory and is likely to inhibit a leader’s ability deviate from the listed requirements. Positively, all leadership doctrine explained the benefit of leaders to adapt to each situation, like a chameleon, and explained the ability to use different leadership styles as the situation required.

This article has briefly explained the four eras of leadership and conducted a short comparison of the Australian, United Kingdom and United States Armies leadership doctrine. Positively, all doctrines accepted that leaders adapt their leadership style based on any given situation – as does modern theory. Despite progressive changes to leadership theory there would appear to be hangovers from Trait Theory present within US Army doctrine. The article has also demonstrated that leadership is not a black and white skill – it is opaque at best. Therefore, leadership is an incredibly personal affair. It requires a personal approach and an understanding (supported by modern theory and current doctrine) that the leader must be a chameleon capable of adapting as the situation around them changes.  


Benmire, Sihame & Agboola, Moyosolu. “Evolution of Leadership Theory”. BJM Leader. 2021, Evolution of leadership theory (

Commonwealth of Australia. Australian Defence Force. “ADF Philosophical Doctrine, 0 Series, Command, ADF Leadership”. 2021

Gardner, John. “On Leadership”. New York: The Free Press. 1990

Goleman, Daniel. “Leadership That Gets Results” (Harvard Business Review Classics). Harvard Business Review Classics. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. 2017

Northouse, Peter. “Leadership: Theory and Practice”. Eighth edition. California: Sage Publications. 2018

United Kingdom. Army. “Army Leadership Doctrine”. 2021

United States of America. Headquarters Department of the Army. “ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession”. 2019




[1] Sihame Benmire & Moyosolu Agboola. Evolution of Leadership Theory. BJM Leader. 2021, pp 3-5 Evolution of leadership theory (

[2] Ibid, pp 3

[3] Peter Northouse. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Eighth edition. California: Sage Publications. 2018 pp 47

[4] Ibid pp 95.

[5] Peter Northouse. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Eighth edition. California: Sage Publications. 2018 pp 164

[6] Daniel Goleman. “Leadership That Gets Results” (Harvard Business Review Classics). Harvard Business Review Classics. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. 2017 pp 5

[7] Commonwealth of Australia. Australian Defence Force. “ADF Philosophical Doctrine, 0 Series, Command, ADF Leadership”. 2021 pp 6

[8] Commonwealth of Australia. Australian Defence Force. “ADF Philosophical Doctrine, 0 Series, Command, ADF Leadership”. 2021 pp 8

[9] Ibid. The publication uses the word ‘your’ 244 times. In comparison the US publication uses it 11 times. This leads the reader to understand that leadership is about them, as a person, and their approach will be different to others.

[10] Commonwealth of Australia. Australian Defence Force. “ADF Philosophical Doctrine, 0 Series, Command, ADF Leadership”. 2021 pp 23

[11] United Kingdom. Army. “Army Leadership Doctrine”. 2021 pp 10

[12] United Kingdom. Army. “Army Leadership Doctrine”. 2021 pp 30

[13] Ibid pp 30

[14] United States of America. Headquarters Department of the Army. “ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession”. 2019 pp 27

[15] United States of America. Headquarters Department of the Army. “ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession”. 2019 pp 31

About the Author(s)

Maj. McLeod Wood, Australian Army, is an armor officer studying at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has served in multiple battalion and brigade positions across the Australian Army’s combat brigades. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He holds a master’s degree in project management and a master’s degree in business, both from the University of New South Wales, Australia.