Putting Leadership Back in Leader Development

Take a look at your unit calendar. Scan the clutter of appointments, meetings, formations, training events, ceremonies, and administrative commitments. Do you see any events dedicated to improving the quality of your people’s leadership? If not…if leadership development isn’t a separate line of effort…then how are you developing leaders?


A U.S. Army Ranger from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, keeps his sight on a target with an M240L machine gun during a company live fire training at Camp Roberts, Calif., Jan. 30, 2014. U.S. Army Photo Illustration by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade. I like this photo because it’s a reminder that all military leadership boils down to supporting this Soldier on the ground.

Where Did Leadership Go?

In Have We Removed Leadership from Leader Development?, I asserted that the modern concept of military leader development largely overlooks the study of leadership. Discourse on leadership chiefly occurs in the schoolhouses of the professional military education system, then takes a backseat to experience and training in operational units. When units “Develop leaders in everything they do,” leader development becomes synonymous with training, where skills are the key metric of individual progress. Simply “getting out with the troops” fulfills the requirement to develop them, regardless of the discussions that occur. Finally, this relationship puts the burden of discerning leadership lessons onto the subordinate instead of onto his leader.

Responses to the post confirm that today’s unit leaders are experiencing this dynamic. The study of leadership is either totally absent from unit leader development programs or is last on the priority list. Technical competencies, staff processes, unit administrivia, the study of doctrine, and so on…all earn spots on the unit calendar ahead of a lecture, exercise, or discussion on leadership.

And so, a question emerges. Does this environment prevent our leaders from growing to their full potential? If you believe it does, like I do, then we are called to answer a second question. In what ways can we modify our concept of leader development to ensure that our peoples’ leadership competencies are elevated along with other competencies?

The Challenge of Building Leaders

By coincidence, just this week I began rereading The Challenge of Command, Roger Nye’s exceptional analysis of command and guide to military reading. In it I found a strikingly relevant model that provides a framework for this discussion. Nye cites military historian I.B. Holley of Duke University in presenting “Four Learning Objectives for Commanders.” This chart classifies what I was attempting to convey in the previous post and gives a baseline with which we can sort and analyze leader development activities.

Nye states that “skilled learners pursue four objectives in any learning exercise they undertake”:

  1. Knowledge. Information, data, facts, theories, concepts. Answers question: “What should I know?” May be achieved by many learning methods. Highly perishable.
  2. Skills. Abilities that can be developed and manifested in performance, not merely in potential. Answers question: “What should I be able to do?” Includes technical, communications, information-retrieval, and some analytical skills.
  3. Insights. Ideas and thoughts derived internally from an ability to see and understand clearly the nature of things. Necessary part of making judgments, of deciding, of “putting it all together,” of “being aware” of wisdom, far-sightedness. Answers questions: “What does this mean? What is important in this situation?” Cannot be taught directly, but can be induced by qualified teachers. Generally a product of education rather than training.
  4. Values. Convictions, fundamental beliefs, standards governing the behavior of people. Includes attitudes towards professional standards such as duty, integrity, loyalty, patriotism, public service, and phrases such as “take care of your people” and “accomplish your missions.” Answers questions: “What do I believe? Where do I draw the line?” Values, like insights must be derived by the individuals, if they are to have meaning.

This chart progresses from the hands-on, trainable activities of Knowledge and Skills, to the cognitive-based activities of Insights and Values. Knowledge and Skills encompass the abilities that people must bring to bear on a problem, while Insights and Values deal with how learners apply those abilities to achieve effects. Substitute the word “leaders” for “skilled learners,” and this chart becomes an effective framework for analyzing leader development.

Without intention, unit leader development programs will tend to gravitate towards Knowledge and Skills and incorporate Insights and Values much less frequently. Development at the individual, team, and squad levels will naturally focus on Skills, but even company and battalion level commands can overlook Insights and Values development in the face of a busy calendar.

While my first thought was to place the study of leadership into the Values category, I instead believe it exists outside of this framework. ADP 6-22 says that leadership is a developable skill, but it is a misnomer to say that learning leadership is like learning to drive or put a weapon into operation. Because leadership is based on influencing people, nothing about it involves muscle memory. Leadership is situational, emotional, and effects based. In a reciprocal fashion, it actually draws on the Knowledge, Skills, Insights, and Values the leader has internalized, and at the same time uses those components to exert influence.

Transitioning to Leadership Development

As I asserted in Have We Removed Leadership from Leader Development, it is these principles that are often absent as we develop our leaders. While there are no “steps” to follow to become an effective leader, there are countless leadership principles that can form a foundation of study. And only imagination limits leaders from integrating those lessons into unit activity.

Here are a few thoughts to consider as you strive to put leadership at the core of leader development.

Recognize leadership as a standalone subject and dive into it!

Walk into Barnes & Noble and you’ll see that leadership is a thriving genre that takes many forms. Sections on management, entrepreneurship, organizational development, personality types, and even self-help all contain useful perspectives that military leaders can learn from. The military history section of course contains relevant content, but there is great value to be found when leaders step outside of their comfort genre and generate insight inspired from parallel professions.

I can tell you that I would not be the leader I am today with the literary help of John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, John Wooden, Marshall Goldsmith, Robert Sutton, Dave Ramsey, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others. As I read their perspectives on leadership, I made connections that worked their way into my own leading years later. Lately, podcasts and blogs have had a similar influence in the likes of Michael Hyatt, Andy Stanley, Seth Godin, and my friends in the Military Writers Guild.

Over the years, I’ve noticed several benefits that come from engaging in a personal program of leadership research. The same can happen for you. Diving into leadership will:

  • Offer context (and sometimes answers) to leadership challenges you’re facing.
  • Provide useful material to quote or disseminate to your teams.
  • Invite you to view the world through a lens of leadership, noting opportunities as well as problems you might have otherwise missed.

Because leadership is a part of everything we do, a self-development program of leadership can easily become a program for team development. When you think about it, if leadership by example is a trait worth pursuing, leaders must become students of leadership if they are to develop leaders themselves.

Integrate leadership into leading.

Leader development without a discussion of leadership is just skill development. It is possible to go to the range and not learn anything about leadership, but why miss the opportunity to teach subordinates how to lead Soldiers in the execution of that range? It is possible to hold a battalion operations order briefing and not learn anything about the commander’s decision making, but what better place to expose the experience and insight of the unit’s most seasoned leader?

Leaders can put leadership back into leader development by simply conveying the How and the Why in the midst of conducting the What. Set the example…then talk about setting the example. Take responsibility for your actions…then explain why that’s important. Demand excellence…then show your subordinates how to do it in an inspirational way. Lead…then teach others how to lead. Doing so takes the guesswork out of followership and makes subordinates feel like they’re actually growing instead of just executing. Real impact occurs when that shift happens.

It’s also time for leaders to elevate the quality of their conversations. Knowledge and Skills enable subordinates to do their jobs, but it’s Insights and Values that really change them. What do you talk about during the idle time of military life? Do you make the effort to spark excitement about military service, about leadership? Do you challenge people away from their comfort zone with language that inspires growth?

If you’re using words like integrity, honor, influence, loyalty, discipline, character, respect, initiative, fairness, responsibility, clarity, excellence, growth, reward, failure, example, emotion, passion, ethics, perseverance, trust, expectation, duty, vision, effectiveness, inspiration, and humility…then you’re on the right track. This is the language of leadership.

Dedicate unit time to leadership.

I’ll conclude this post where it began, with the calendar. If it’s not on the calendar, it’s not a priority and it’s not happening. It is the leaders responsibility to not only make leader development a priority, but also shape the environment to allow its implementation.

For instance, counseling must have its own block time, perhaps an entire day per month. Subordinates must have support in attending schools that give them the needed skills to advance. And if leadership is not a routine topic of conversation, then dedicate the opening ten minutes of every meeting to sharing lessons of the week, watching a TED talk, or doing a “round the horn” of favorite quotes. Get the team out of their offices and into the auditorium to hear from a war hero, prominent local leader, or sports figure. Subordinates will know that leadership is a priority because they’ll be engaged in it.

Grow Yourself…Grow Your Leaders

In many units today, leader development has become skill development. Activities that illuminate the art of leadership are seldom seen on a calendar saturated with training, staff processes, and organizational demands. Unfortunately, the quality of those very events diminishes if leadership competencies do not progress.

The goal of this and the previous post is to motivate leaders to make leadership a core part of their leader development programs and daily engagement. It’s as simple as asking a thought-provoking question or explaining why you lead the way you do. Our subordinates want to be better leaders, not just competent followers. Knowing the difference is the first step to helping them become so.

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At some point in this post, I had wanted to incorporate a list of quotes from leadership authors to illustrate both the difference and the value in drawing from content apart from the standard military reading list. I have decided to include these 25 quotes as a post script.

The below insights could be called leadership principles, are applicable apart from the Knowledge and Skills portion of the Holley chart, and are seldom discussed in the course of leader development. This is what I underlined over the years as I have read and reread my core leadership library, which is but a fraction of the truly impactful leadership development content available. Most are from John Maxwell, who has been my biggest influencer. I hope you find them valuable!

“Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness.”
– John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

“Only if you reach your potential as a leader do your people have a chance to reach their potential.”
– John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

“You can’t give people what you do not have. If you want to increase the potential of your team, you need to keep growing yourself.”
– John Maxwell, The 360-Degree Leader

“A mistake is simply another way of doing things.”
– Warren Bennis

“Increased responsibility means dealing with more intangibles and therefore more complex uncertainty. Leaders can afford to be uncertain, but we cannot afford to be unclear. People will not follow fuzzy leadership.”
– John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
– Max Depree

“The very things you want from a leader are the very things the people you are leading expect from you.”
– Dave Ramsey, EntreLeadership

“If you as a leader allow people to halfway do their jobs and don’t demand excellence as a prerequisite to keeping their job, you will create a culture of mediocrity. If you allow people to misbehave, underachieve, have a bad attitude, gossip, and generally avoid excellence, please don’t expect to attract and keep good talent. Please don’t expect to have an incredible culture.”
– Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership

“The way to grow any organization is to grow the people in that organization.”
– John Maxwell, The 17 Indispensable Laws of Teamwork

“The most fundamental management truth I’ve ever learned is that what gets rewarded gets done.”
– John Maxwell, The 17 Indispensable Laws of Teamwork

“The terrible truth is that all roads to achievement lead through the land of failure.”
– John Maxwell, Failing Forward

“The determination of a positive or negative outcome in my leadership depends upon my ability as a leader to develop those closest to me.”
– John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You

“Leaders create and inspire new leaders by instilling faith in their leadership ability and helping them develop and hone leadership skills they don’t know they possess.”
– John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You

“Example is not the main thing in influencing leaders…it is the only thing.”
– Albert Schweitzer

We are blind until we see
That in the human plan
Nothing is worth making
If it does not make the man
– Edwin Markham, “Human Worth…”

“Emotion-based companies allow the atmosphere to determine the action. Character-based companies allow the action to determine the atmosphere.”
– John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You

“Character flaws cannot be ignored. They will eventually make a leader ineffective. Some of the qualities that make up good character include: honesty, integrity, self-discipline, teachability, dependability, perseverance, conscientiousness, and a strong work ethic. The words of a person with right character match the deeds. His reputation is solid. His manner is straightforward.”
– John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You

“More than anything, followers want to believe in and trust their leaders. They want to be able to say, ‘Someday I want to be like him or her.’ If they don’t trust you, they cannot say it. People first must believe in you before they will follow your leadership.”
– John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You

“People rise to our level of expectations.”
– John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You

“The greatest leader is willing to train people and develop them to the point that they eventually surpass him or her in knowledge and ability.”
– Fred A. Manske, Jr.

“Soldiers will not follow any battle leader with confidence unless they know that he will require full performance of duty from every member of the team.”
– General Dwight D. Eisenhower

“An organization takes on the personality of its leader.”
– John Maxwell, The 360-Degree Leader

“Vision leaks. It needs to be communicated clearly, creatively, and continually. [And] no matter how good the vision is, if people don’t believe in the leader, they will have problems buying in to the vision.”
– John Maxwell, The 360-Degree Leader

“Because of their intuition, good leaders often see more than others see, and they see things before others do. Why? Because they see everything from a leadership bias.”
– John Maxwell, The 360-Degree Leader

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”
– General Colin Powell

“There’s a lot more to good leadership than just getting the job done. Getting the job done through others makes you a leader. But developing the people while helping them get the job done at the highest level makes you an exceptional leader.”
– John Maxwell, The 360-Degree Leader

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