Leadership is as diverse as the individuals who exercise it. We influence through distinct talents, shaped by experiences, personality traits, core values, and an endless list of other factors. Nonetheless, when we look back at the leaders we’ve encountered, it’s easy to identify behavior trends that point to a set of defining leadership styles. The aggressive risk taker. The deliberate planner. The encouraging coach. The intense micromanager.
Each profession has its own set of styles that generally lead to success. The military is no different. Here are three types of military leaders you’ll find that, for better or worse, produce results.
A Marine points in the direction of the next objective on a security patrol during an Integrated Training Exercise aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., July 19, 2015. Link
Have you ever had the Lieutenant Colonel who was the best squad leader in the battalion and made sure everyone knew it? Ever seen a team leader trying to lead a fire team from the rear during a live fire? Have you ever had majors worrying about whether soldiers should load ruck sacks or duffel bags into the belly of an aircraft?
The results aren’t always pretty. The organization suffers when leaders forget the level at which they’re supposed to lead. At each rank, officers and NCOs fit into the unit in different ways. Their expanding education and experience means that they should bring different talents to the organization. The unit depends on them for it.
This article is a framework for visualizing and describing the types of leaders a unit will typically see: Action Man, Planning Man, Concept Man, and Decision Man. No rank or role has greater value than the others, only different responsibilities and functions in the formation. If today’s military leader knows where he fits into the team and what role he plays, he’ll be a hero.
I once had a senior rater observe that life for staff officers like the ones assembled before him consisted of 80 percent making the railroad run – that is, doing the standard and recurring activities common to military staffs around the world. The other 20 percent, he mused, was for pushing things forward: innovating, dreaming, adding one’s personal mark in new ways.
I think that for most staff officers this maxim is true. For some of the most fortunate among us, however, the ratio is reversed: 20 percent boilerplate activities, and 80 percent new and different. Whereas their 80/20 peers are more like “Conductors”, the 20/80 folks get to be “Artists.” Approached correctly, it is an exciting opportunity that can result in a highlight of one’s career.
from NATO Rapid Reaction Corps – Italy Exercise Eagle Action
, May 2005.
We remember the books that change us…that alter our thinking, move us emotionally, or reveal unseen, enlightening perspectives. Powell’s My American Journey did that for me. So did Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. And when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking in 2007, I recall connecting so many new insights that I didn’t have enough book margin to capture them all. The relevancy for the military profession spilled off of the pages and sparked an intellectual curiosity that has lasted for years.
The topic is neuroscience and the breakthrough discoveries that its researchers have made in recent years. As neuroscientists publish fascinating papers about how the brain functions, authors like Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer, David Rock, Joseph LeDoux, and others translated their work into digestible language with real world application. From decision psychology to organizational efficiency to change detection and management, new understanding of the brain is changing how we live our lives.
But as I made connections from neuroscience to the military profession, specifically tactical combat leadership, I found few resources to aide the service member, Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and Warrior Mindset being the most useful. So I decided to embark on a personal quest to publish something that references neuroscience to improve military leader performance. What resulted was my first published article and a Master’s thesis on the topic. This post is an adapted version of that endeavor.
One week spent in a military unit will show you that efficiency isn’t its shining characteristic. Not only does information bombard the unit from multiple levels of the chain of command, but within the organization there are hundreds of conversations taking place to prepare for, synchronize, and execute the myriad of events on the calendar. (And I’m sure the same is true for the business world.)
These conversations happen over thousands of emails, in meetings, face to face, and on the phone. And if your experience is like mine, almost everything goes out over email.
But what if there was a way to customize your conversations based on your team’s requirements instead of relying on the single “channel” that is the email inbox? What if you could have your conversations in the right place, instead of all over the place?
In 1977, after many years of advocating for the U.S. Army to develop a capability similar to the British 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) and in response to multiple terrorist incidents worldwide, Colonel Charles A. Beckwith established the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-DELTA.
DELTA’s mission set included hostage rescue and specialized reconnaissance.  On November 4, 1979, Islamic fundamentalists seized the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took 53 U.S. diplomatic personnel hostage there.  DELTA’s first mission would be to rescue these hostages.
Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature. He tweets @philwalter1058 and blogs at www.philwalter1058.com
Have you ever looked at your team or organization and thought, “Wow, the people are working hard and we’re doing so many good things…but why doesn’t it feel like we’re a well-oiled machine by now?” I certainly have. And you’ve probably also been the one in the middle of the organization looking around you saying, “Despite all this good effort, why does it feel like we’re spinning our wheels?”
Organizations that suffer from this problem often exhibit a common behavioral mistake: they take on too many good ideas and don’t properly implement the ideas they do commit to. Reading Peter F. Drucker, the grandfather of modern business leadership and author of more than 35 books, I found some insight worth sharing.
Soldiers of the 184th Security Force Assistance Team (California National Guard) conduct basic range training
in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan, Sept. 27, 2013. U.S. Army photo
by Cpl. Alex Flynn.
This TED video featuring collaborative engineering expert Tom Wujec is 9 minutes long…and yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find another way to find so much insight packed into 9 minutes. The task Wujec presents his clients is simple: “Draw how to make toast.” What seems like an elementary exercise explodes into a multi-faceted lesson on collaboration, organizational creativity, decision-making, motivation, and leadership.
In case you don’t get to sit down with this video and take notes, here are some clear connections to military leadership that I observed through his talk. As I watched, I saw application to a wide range of situations:
- A commander and Command Sergeant Major bringing the new team together to cast the vision statement for their time in command
- Any staff member staring at a blank Excel spreadsheet or map of the training area, tasked with planning the unit’s next phase of training
- A supply sergeant frustrated with how to reorganize the broken shop she just inherited
- Unit leaders piecing together the events that tragically led to a Soldier’s death
- Any one of us handling a piece of military equipment and wishing there was some better way to do X
- Unit leaders searching for how to implement Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Program guidance
- Strategists writing future policy and operating guidance
- An icebreaker exercise for unit team building and leader development events
- Visualizing alternate courses of action for a tactical problem
- A lesson on simple versus complex systems and plans
- Advice on how to communicate complex ideas to your team
- Insight into how the team members perceive situations, analyze problems, and express their thoughts
- An after action review process for reverse-engineering events like training exercises, unit functions, and campaign plans
- A way to explain the abstract Design Process and simplify the convoluted Military Decision Making Process
- A method for walking out of meetings feeling like you actually accomplished something.
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