Leadership: Expanding the Discussion
This essay challenges you to think differently about leadership, to see new meaning in familiar terms but specifically to draw an unfamiliar but hard distinction between leading and the functions of running an organization. It asks that you reject longstanding traditions about what is leadership or who is the leader and see it more as a collaborative effort, a state of being. In offering a set of ideas beyond what typically frames our thinking the author hopes to expand the discussion about the future of military leadership development.
When I teach leadership to undergraduates I often start with Chapter three of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. He opens with the line, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Dickens likens it to dark windows of every house in a large city. Despite brief glimpses of light, knowing what is behind them is an unfathomable task.
My students ponder this for quite some time as I intimate the importance of this concept toward leadership. They also stumble because they are so used to the canned theories, the litany of acceptable traits, behaviors, or adjectives that if memorized will bring success. It does not take long for them to see why these theories often fall short; we are trying to tidy up the unfathomable. They see that extroverts write for introverts, men for women, bureaucrats for mavericks, Baby-Boomers for Generation Z (or vice-versa for any of these). My students quickly discover that leadership is less of an immutable truth than they were led to believe.
The early part of the semester is a blur. We discuss the needs of the industrial age versus today’s economy. I further muddy the water by asking them if leadership as they know it today is a Western European male construct. I know this sounds quite tiresome to those who worry about political correctness, but I think it is a fair question. Do we ask women and minorities to conform to a model that if given free choice they might not? We ask if leadership is an immutable standard for universal subscription or a concept that endures.
After a few weeks of reading dozens of articles from all different perspectives they begin to see leadership as human endeavor, as a set of encounters between “dark windows.” We each carry an implicit sense for what is a “leader” based on too many variables to count. Leadership is a wicked problem, one that defies our attempts to distill it down to technical solutions.
I give students a significant degree of autonomy knowing that their decisions and actions will provide good “case-in-point” moments for discussion. Undergraduates find the readings dry and abstract until they see themselves reflected in the theories, or the theories help explain what they saw play out in real-time. I ask a lot of questions for which there are no answers. My goal is to decenter their thinking. Rather than reducing leadership to its simplest form (a complicated collection of traits or behaviors in various situations) around which I can easily lecture, I make it purposefully complex and difficult to discuss. In the process they reject unexplored assumptions and unexamined beliefs. They look for new and thoughtful answers. I hope to do the same here.
In the military today, we tend to teach leadership as an action, with a person who provides purpose and direction to a team of subordinate followers. We say it is not about authority but often conflate leadership with the chain of command by the phrase “military leader.” We dress it up when we talk about character, ethics, commitment, empowerment, trust, coaching and mentoring, and inclusion, but essentially it is still authority with a kind face. We say it is different from management but are often hard pressed to describe how and why.
The older I get the more I find myself agreeing with the scholars who say that leadership today is a social myth used to absolve people of responsibility. It is a label with which we ascribe success or failure to special individuals and create a learned helplessness among the rest.
The social myth we call leadership is a label that covers many contingencies. It can and does mean everything from the best brand to that unknown quality beyond management, the one “we all know when we see it.” It is an internet meme: managers push, leaders pull. It is a magic talisman or pixie dust. Things go well—leadership. Things do not go well (or do not go our way)—we are quick to say it is the absence of leadership or worse, toxic leadership. Often the same traits or behaviors drive both labels. As my students discovered while they studied the different theories and their own interactions, much of it is based on social perception.
What we know as “leadership” often boils down to a feeling of security, letting someone else take care of us or events even to the point of ceding our personal agency. Perhaps this is too cynical, but when we fail to act as toxic command climates develop and proliferate, our grand ideas dissolve and we resort to labels. We absolve ourselves of blame by pointing to the one in charge, the “leader.”
This is why I now prefer to describe leadership as ever evolving influence relationships among collaborators toward shared responsibility. It is specific and distinct beyond the functions of command and authority (providing purpose and direction). I first made this case in 2016 and will now add that because it is based on evolving relationships, leadership must mean accepting, even encouraging, the personal agency of everyone involved. People must grow, or it is something other than leadership.
A critic once told me that relationships were the outcome of effective leadership. I think this argument justifies the sense that leadership is simply authority with a kind face. It appears to me as a patronizing sense of wanting to produce content and happy followers. Others tell me that shared responsibility is anathema in the service. This is a red herring. Instead, this proposes a fundamental change to what is leadership. It does not suggest that we change the chain of command, or command authority.
I contend that when discussing leadership, we want collaborators of equal stature, private and general alike. Consider subjectivation as a leadership tenet. According to recent scholarship by Nathan Harter, subjectivation stems from Michel Foucault’s work on leadership development in the 1980s. Although I think much of Foucault’s work tends toward the extreme, here I think what he is saying is useful. Subjectivation boils down to knowing the truth of who we are in such a profound way that we reject artificial constraint. We are free beings and the rawest of recruits is no less important to leadership than the most senior flag officer. Subjectivation also enables what Harter describes (from the Greek) as parresia—the ability to tell and hear truths. This is not only essential to any relationship—dissent makes for better decision making and the capacity for mission command.
Subjectivation instantly removes leadership from the confines of positional authority. Pointedly, rather than an action or process, it might be better to characterize leadership as a state of being. We do not practice leadership as much we bring it into existence and work to sustain it. Because it is based on relationships among equals, no one is responsible to bring (to lead) the others toward this state. To me it is not on a continuum with management, it exists with and yet is distinct from management. A good word might be consubstantial.
If we accept this thinking, we would have to admit that leadership is not commonplace and that many officers and non-commissioned officers do not lead. Some spend their entire careers using their authority in a warm and inclusive way and they have successful, rewarding careers. But this is not the same as leadership. Furthermore, it seems highly suspect that we graduate “leaders” from our service academies, ROTC programs, or various non-commissioned officer (NCO) schooling. We graduate men and women who are empowered to exercise military authority over their organizations, nothing more. How well they engage in leadership is a different matter.
Seeing leadership as influence relationships is not a panacea, a cure-all for our organizational issues. Relationships can be sour, and collaborators can work toward ill gain. Influence relationships do not remove toxic members from our formations. They will, however, remove bystanders from the equation. There can be no shrugged shoulders or finger pointing when we each see ourselves as leaders, as responsible for organizational success.
One of the major issues (and benefits) to my philosophical approach is that it is hard to teach and develop. There are no easy rules for how to balance what I describe as leadership and what is command and authority. For the same reason scientists cannot create an algorithm for AI on how behave in an elevator—there are too many unwritten rules that depend on too many variables—we cannot create checklists for relationship development. I think it is prudent to trust the people in these relationships to know when it is necessary to focus on command and authority, such as when an event demands a decision or a specific action and when to promulgate leadership over command, such as when we are training for mission orders. In my experience, the best teams can read each moment and each situation properly and act appropriately. Where teams struggle, commanders and senior NCOs can use a case-in-point approach (like I do with my seminars) to help them consider alternative approaches. As a wicked problem it is impossible to distill into checklists, bullet points, or a few professional development workshops. It takes thought and study, and a lot of trial and error and debate. It also requires recognition that people are more emotional than we are willing to admit.
We prefer to see ourselves as rational actors capable of emotional control. But if leadership is about relationships among people and rabid truth telling (and hearing), then it is a highly susceptible to human nature, which is often not very rational. People do most things based first on emotion, positive and negative. It is only well after we like or dislike something (for example) that we craft arguments to support our gut. You want to believe that it is the other way around, but according to Jonathan Haidt, our intellect is like our personal attorney: it is paid to lie for us.
According to Haidt, we have two selves: a rider and an elephant. The rider is our rational being, our intellect. Underneath the rider is a five-ton elephant who represents our human emotions—our likes and dislikes, need for belonging, and our ingrained biases. With his cleaver metaphor it is easy to see who is really in control.
So, let us talk about the elephant in greater detail. The elephant (our emotional side) likes and wants comfort and security. The elephant favors gut reactions, jumps to conclusions regarding causality, is heavily influenced by heuristics, and falls prey to feelings, negative and positive. As ultra-social creatures with a hyper-need for belonging, the elephant also too easily falls for the elusive comfort of following people who make grandiose promises about meeting our needs.
The elephant is a hyper social creature who desires, who needs, to fit in. The elephant is wary of standing out, challenging authority, or taking risks. You know as well as I that it is frightening to tell a platoon sergeant that there might be a better way to do something, the battalion commander the plan is too safe (or too risky), or the admiral that a training program has not been as effective as the metrics suggest. One can hear our rider’s rationalizations as we give into his fears: “She would not listen anyway” or “It is not the right time” or “That is well above my pay grade.”
It is not any better on the other end of the exchange as the emotions may be getting the better of them too. As likely an outcome to our entreaties is a platoon sergeant, battalion commander, or admiral excusing away our challenge as inappropriate, ill-timed, or some other form of nicety that serves to push us back into line.
The point is that any leadership development program must center on these psychological realities. Right now, we present the rider, the intellect, with the information it needs but ignore the reality that the elephant may not care. What habits we each bring to our relationships, what habits we bring to leadership, do not change easily when they are ingrained. Change comes when the elephant builds new automatic habits, new unconscious behaviors, not when the rider decides to go in a new direction. Change comes when the rider no longer has to think about these new habits, when there is a relatively permanent change in cognition or behavior. That is to say, the whole person—rider and elephant—has learned.
I often get a lot of push back for these ideas and expect no less here. Change of this nature is hard because people tend to privilege the familiar, and what we call leadership today forms as early as kindergarten when we learn that, for example, the first person in line is called the “leader.” From this we quickly absorb that leadership is positional, confers power, and is based on certain behaviors. In our daily lives we hear about “leaders” of every stripe always in the context of position, power, and authority. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as what is familiar naturally becomes the most acceptable and, in our case, military rank and position are a reward for the articulation of what is acceptable. Adding to this is that our education system does not seek to expand our thinking on subjects such as leadership as much as they seek to affirm the familiar, the “conventional wisdom.”
I will go a step further and suggest that the military is prone to “functional stupidity” meaning we are sometimes prone to “a partial closing of the mind, freezing of the intellectual effort, a narrowed focus, and an absence of requests for justification (for current practices).” The concept of functional stupidity challenges the notion that organizations are smart, or rational, and that they lack the capacity to think critically or reflect on any behaviors or norms that are inimical to established good order and efficiency.
Yes, this is harsh, but given the on-going cries of toxicity in our ranks we might wish to examine some these established norms. We need to jolt ourselves out of complacency. In my mind, the construct I propose we develop in people could be the difference maker in fostering a culture where dialog leading to shared understanding is paramount, and dissent is acceptable and welcome. In this state of leadership, people would be free to challenge our functional stupidity. Given the needs of Mission Command, I think we should explore the possibility.
To change someone’s behavior, you must also change their situation. If we expect better leadership in the armed forces then we need to create, teach, and assess our people by a new clear standard. When we expect people to lead and measure leadership based upon definitions that are rather like management or pixie dust, then we cannot blame the people in the system when events go awry. We must blame the system.
This essay challenges you to think about how our old conceptions of leadership perpetuate that system. It asks you to see new meaning in familiar terms but specifically that we draw a hard distinction between leading and the functions of running an organization. It asks that we engage in relationships that at times challenge authority and reject our “ingrained cultural assumptions” about who is the leader and work collaboratively in support of organizational learning and success. It acknowledges the difficulty of subjectivation and parresia and that seeing leadership as a state of being is impractical and not easily taught. By offering ideas that go beyond what typically frames our thinking I hope to expand the discussion about the future of military leadership development. We may not come any closer to penetrating the opacity of Dickens’s profound secrets, and we will likely stumble around a bit, but I think in the end we will find a better way.
leadership and development,” International Journal of Business and Systems Research, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2015)
 Thomas Williams, “Mission Command Leadership and the U.S. Army”, The Strategy Bridge, April 26, 2016, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/4/26/mission-command-leadership-and-the-us-army.