Looking for the “Good Guys” Leadership and Technology Don't Always Mix

"The Role of the leader is central to all Army operations and trust is a key attribute in the human dimension of combat leadership. Once trust is violated, a leader becomes ineffective." FM 3-0

In many respects, leadership in the 21st Century is more complex than ever before. The military leaders of today face an unpredictable world that operates 24 hours a day with the ability to access unlimited information and still require timely decisions. The pace of change and the ability to acquire and exchange mass quantities of information suggests that military leaders today may not have all the facts available to them before an important decision is required. In most cases, leaders will have too much data to assimilate in order to make a decision and must possess the skills to weed through the mass of information in order to find the pertinent facts needed to make an informed decision.[i] Leaders in all branches of service share the same requirement to make informed decisions or enforce policies that ultimately impact people, soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and military dependents. The human dimension of leadership must not be overwhelmed and/or supplanted by the electronic means of communication prevalent today. Subordinates must be motivated, evaluated and led by those who are trusted, lead by example and not those who lead and communicate primarily via electronic media.

To build the "trust factor," a leader must exhibit many key traits, including competence, character, courage, loyalty, confidence, selflessness, sacrifice, and empathy.[ii] These traits are no different than those required of leaders throughout history. In the 21st Century, the pace is much quicker and leaders must keep up. Today’s leaders must think associatively and analytically. They must see the links between information and people, culture and expected cultural responses, decisions and projected outcomes as well as leadership and resultant subordinate expectations. Through it all, the personal, interactive and hands-on aspect of leadership must take precedent.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but there is no substitute for leadership by example and interactive personal communication skills. All soldiers are "boss watchers." They will always take their cues from the action or inaction of their leader.[iii] Motivating subordinates and communicating guidance can become very difficult for a leader who is not attuned to the capabilities of his subordinates, peers and superiors alike. Leaders must be able to personally relate to soldiers, unit mission and goals, and the capabilities of the organization they are leading. Trust from both higher to lower and lower to higher are absolutely critical to command relationships. A leader must trust his subordinates to execute the mission to the best of their ability, forgive forgivable setbacks and if lacking in some area, provide the training opportunities to correct any shortfalls. Equally, subordinates must feel that their leader trusts them to do their best in any situation. Trust in subordinates encourages initiative. Trust allows subordinates to make decisions based on initiative as well as learn to command without fear of micromanagement or retribution. Micromanagement erodes the self-confidence of subordinate leaders and drives subordinate leaders to accept this toxic style of leadership as the norm and the acceptable way of succeeding in the military.[iv]  This works for a few, but for most it offends and drives them out of the unit and potentially out of military service.   

Technology is a tool to facilitate communication and exchange of information.[v]  Technology is not a substitute for personal communication skills required to lead soldiers. In fact, the extensive use of technology within an organization, at the expense of personal interactive leadership, is detrimental to the unit’s morale and command climate. This is a challenge with which many leaders in the Army are dealing.

Soldiers in any organization will quickly determine whether their leader is a “Good Guy” or not. “Good Guy” refers to a leader who is first and foremost, competent in his duties, dedicated to his men and focused on their health and welfare, sometimes at the expense of his own reputation with his superiors. A Good Guy is one who listens to his soldiers, is approachable, and who can mentally and physically handle the same challenges as his soldiers. He accepts obligations of service before self, assigned tasks, missions and  his subordinates.[vi]  He inspires soldiers to do their best, not because they have to, but because they want to. A leader's greatest impact on an organization is to its morale and command climate. Soldier morale and unit command climate are directly linked to unit effectiveness and job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is directly linked to retention of professional soldiers in the Army.

There are many ways to use information tools such as email and video conferencing. The leader can use these information tools to identify areas requiring additional attention or indicators of positive trends. He can use email as a secondary means of communication to reinforce decisions and policies. He can use these tools to archive unit information and quickly transmit data and reports. He should never use these tools as the primary means of communication or evaluation of his subordinates.       

Unfortunately, Information tools are incorrectly being used as rating criteria for subordinate officers, non-commissioned officers and overall unit evaluations. Officers and soldiers are receiving performance evaluations based solely on the results of information such as maintenance readiness reports, medical statistics, training statistics, awards and discipline statistics, training briefings, unit status reports, and other automated statistical spreadsheets. It is tempting to believe that the use of information technology eliminates certain types of uncertainty. This belief is unrealistic.[vii] The Army evaluation system dictates that a commander significantly influences the careers of subordinates he senior rates or those two levels in command under him. It is incumbent on senior leaders to lead, influence and most importantly, personally know the subordinates he senior rates. He cannot and should not predominantly rely on automated information tools for his evaluation. This requires making a personal effort on his part to get to know his subordinates, their accomplishments, their strengths, their career aspirations....down to the names of wives and family members.[viii]  How can he mentor someone as well as identify the future leaders of the Army without knowing all he can about the person?  The leader needs to visit training, observe his subordinates leading missions, have informal social gatherings, make needed hospital visits, do informal counseling and provide a structured professional development program. These are all examples of the personal and emotional side of leadership.

Many leaders today have become tethered to their computers and spend their day sending and receiving electronic mail.[ix]  Field commanders often spend considerable time in their tactical operations centers and view electronic screens streaming in video from satellites, planes and vehicles. This is management and communication by electronic means and does not qualify as leadership. From platoons to senior level staffs, officers spend hours preparing briefings for their bosses who demand perfection in presentations that include electronic gee whiz slides with imbedded videos and photos. These are hours spent away from the leading and learning to lead soldiers, which is arguably the primary reason they joined the Army. Whether subordinates can put formulas into an excel spreadsheet, import streaming video and pictures into a briefing or develop a statistical tracking program should not be a skill set required for promotion to higher levels of command.

Electronic mail allows for directives and orders to be transmitted at any time of the day or night with the expectation that the recipients are sitting at their computer eagerly waiting for guidance and will react immediately after the “send” button is pushed. Further, email also allows a leader to confront unpleasant personal and emotional situations through the use of a sterile unemotional keyboard. Brigade commanders senior rate company commanders and battalion commanders senior rate platoon leaders. It is easy to rely on statistics to neatly rank order subordinates on a sterile excel spreadsheet. The one with the highest total points wins and gets the highest evaluation and there is no personal or emotional investment required by the senior rater. What was that guy's first name?

The solution to the information intoxication problem and depersonalization of the leader is easier to state than to implement. How does the Army develop a system that rewards inspired warfighting leaders?  The Army needs to find those officers that are innovative, the respected leaders of men, the officers that can motivate soldiers, the commanders that inspire soldiers and units, and the officers that younger officers and soldiers want to emulate. These are the officers that deserve to lead. Often heard is the phrase, "I would trust my son or daughter to that leader in combat". How do we find and keep those leaders?  

One recommendation would be to integrate a command climate assessment of each company to corps level commander as part of the officer evaluation system. The independently acquired and assessed command climate information would be provided to the rater and senior rater of each evaluated commander prior to the submission of the evaluation report. It would be necessary to ask the peers and subordinates of Army leaders at every level whether they would trust their lives to this commander in the most desperate of situations. Ask these soldiers whether they would follow this leader in peacetime as well as combat. Ask these soldiers whether their leader is respected—can be considered a mentor and inspires them to be better soldiers.

The greatest impact of a leader is his effect on the morale and command climate of the unit he commands. One of the greatest imperatives when leading an organization is to be present in person. Those who impose risk must be seen to share it.[x] The prevalence of electronic communication tools such as email and teleconferencing erodes the leader's ability to personally influence his subordinates in a most fundamental way—leadership by example. An important lesson that is evident throughout history is that brave men in desperate situations will follow the leader that is trusted, sincere, competent, and has proven himself in front of his soldiers. This leader can and has inspired soldiers to perform individual and collective actions above and beyond the limits of their physical and mental endurance. One needs only to read the citations of those that have earned recognition in combat to understand the impact of inspired leadership. [xi]  Inspired leadership leads to inspired units and inspired units are filled with inspired soldiers – a simple formula but true. There is a fundamental need for the Army to find, nurture, and promote the leaders referred to as the "Good Guys" – those who have been endorsed not only by their senior raters, but by their peers and subordinates alike. The military profession is not a corporation or a business. Military service is a calling. Officers and soldiers do not stay in the military for the money. They stay for the prestige of wearing the uniform and serving in a most honorable profession that requires dying as the ultimate sacrifice for service. Soldiers deserve inspired leadership.


[i] Kevin J. Bergner, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom:  Leader Development Implications for the Army after Next, in Douglas V. Johnson II, ed, Future Leadership, Old Issues, New Methods, (Carlisle, Strategic Studies Institute Publishing, 2000), 8.

[ii] Oren Harari, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, (New York: McGraw-Hill 2002), 213.

[iii] Harari, 254.

[iv] Colonel George E. Reed, "Toxic Leadership," Military Review (July-August 2004): 68

[v] Harari 195.

[vi] TRADOC Pam 525-8-2:  The U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015, (Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011), 41.

[vii] Gary Klein, Sources of Power, How People Make Decisions, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998), 279.

[viii] Paul B. Malone III, Love'em and Lead'em, (Annandale: Synergy Press, 1986) 112.

[ix] Lawrence G. Shattuck, A proposal for Designing Cognitive Aids for Commanders in the 21 Century, in Douglas V. Johnson II, ed,  Future Leadership, Old Issues, New Methods (Carlisle, Strategic Studies Institute Publishing, 2000), 101.

[x] John Keegan, The Mask of Command, (Harrisonburg, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1987), 329.

[xi] Major Chuck Larson, ed., Heroes Among Us, (New York: Penguin Group Inc), 2008

 

Bibliography

1. U.S. Army Field Manual 3.0: Operations (Washington, DC: U.S Government Printing Office, 2001), 1-18, 4-8.

2. Kevin J. Bergner, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom:  Leader Development Implications for the Army after Next, in Douglas V. Johnson II, ed, Future Leadership, Old Issues, New Methods, (Carlisle, Strategic Studies Institute Publishing, 2000), 8.

3. Oren Harari, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, (New York: McGraw-Hill 2002), 213, 195, 254.

4. Colonel George E. Reed, "Toxic Leadership," Military Review (July-August 2004): 68.

5. TRADOC Pam 525-8-2:  The U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015, (Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011), 41.

6. Gary Klein, Sources of Power, How People Make Decisions, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998), 279.

7. Paul B. Malone III, Love'em and Lead'em, (Annandale: Synergy Press, 1986) 112.

8. Lawrence G. Shattuck, A proposal for Designing Cognitive Aids for Commanders in the 21 Century, in Douglas V. Johnson II, ed,  Future Leadership, Old Issues, New Methods (Carlisle, Strategic Studies Institute Publishing, 2000), 101.

9. John Keegan, The Mask of Command, (Harrisonburg, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1987), 329.

10. Major Chuck Larson, ed., Heroes Among Us, (New York: Penguin Group Inc), 2008

 

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