Small Wars Journal

Reverse Leadership? Another Buzz Word for Disruptive Thinkers?

This will be no news to most military leaders, but is still worth pointing out the source and a different perspective on leadership.  A Harvard Business Review blog post discusses the concept of "reverse leadership."  This is a buzz phrase for what some call functional leadership and what could be simply stated as "letting experts or other people with good ideas in your organization take the lead on creating a solution even if they don't hold a formal leadership billet."  Yes, yes, another buzz phrase, grumble, snipe, snark, but it is worth considering concepts and we don't have to carry the buzz phrase branding with them.  The author, Scott Edinger offers a list of suggestions.

  1. They're the ones with strong interpersonal skills born of self-awareness. [To lead through influence and not authority] they must be self-aware enough to understand the effect their words and actions have on other people. ...
  2. They focus more on results than on process. Anyone can follow the process, as the old saying goes, but it takes leadership to know when to break from it. Reverse leaders don't break rules simply to be rebellious. They break them because they're focused on the outcomes rather than the process for producing outcomes. ...
  3. They exhibit particularly high degrees of integrity. ...
  4. They have deep professional expertise in at least one discipline vital to the organization. ...
  5. They maintain an unswerving customer focus. [R]everse leaders ...tend to be found further down the organization and by extension closer to the customer. ... And such focus can have tremendous value to any organization, if properly recognized and encouraged.

Read it all here.


We need a broader definition of leadership in the military that includes leadership of peers and seniors in different chains of command. This is consistent with some of Paul Yinglings 360 review concepts.

In the Marine Corps, the "Fitness Report" defines leadership as "Leadership of subordinates". Col John Boyd spent almost his entire career as a staff officer, and he and his associates bent the entire US Military to his will. He "led" all fighter pilots in tactics, he "led" the Air Force to consider E-M theory, he "led" the efforts for the F15, F16, and by extension, F18. He "led" us all during the Gulf War with Manevuer tactics.

Reformers during the past six years initiated MRAPs, GBOSS, MCO 3900.17, and a reprioritization of the Support Establishment for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To some extent one might say these reformers bent the Pentagon Establishment to their will. Many of these officers and GS personnel were not commanders when they shined a spotlight on the errors in the Establishment that Mr. Gates made famous.

We need to stop immature condescention toward staff positions. Show me a commander who can get his subordinates to do something and like it (complete with the support of the UCMJ), and I'll show you a staff officer who can get officers senior to him in other commands to change their priorities and like it. Both types of leadership contributed greatly to the war effort, both should be recognized as Leadership that the military values.