Small Wars Journal

On Leadership and Being a Role Model

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 1:04am

On Leadership and Being a Role Model


Donald C. Bolduc




The beauty of writing this article on leadership is that anyone who reads it can agree with it or not.  This article affords the writer an opportunity to create a body of thought that encourages careful consideration and opportunity to the reader to look at the subject of leadership development and education differently.  The purpose of this article is simple: to illuminate what I consider a serious problem—the development of leaders and the education of leaders.  I believe this should be the concern of all organizations large or small.  Tied closely to how we develop leaders, is how we identify role models.  We want leaders to be role models, but this is not what we are seeing in America.  I was recently reading about role models and came across a number of interesting views on what it takes to be a role model.  Larry Winget, described, “role models are nothing more than a reflection of what we value.  When we value honesty, integrity, doing the right thing, morals, good leadership and hard work, we will have role models who exemplify those values” (Winget, 2018).  Since we instead value fame, celebrity, being pretty and living an ostentatious lifestyle, those are the role models we find ourselves having (Winget, 2018).  When we elevate our values, we will elevate our role models (Winget, 2018)  It is fine to admire what a person accomplishes in business, sports or the financial world, but it’s stupid to turn them into a role model unless they are the kind of person you want your child to grow up to be (Winget, 2018).  Before we hold any person up as a role model, we need to look at more than what they do, what they have and how they look. We must look at who they are and how they live (Winget, 2018).


America is in a crisis of leadership.  We see this in business, politics, and the military.  The places we should be looking for role models is business, politics, and the military.  Studies show that 50-75% of business leaders and managers are ineffective (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, 2019).   The United States Congress has a 76% disapproval rating and their divisiveness is the leading cause of their ineffectiveness in serving the American people (Gallup Poll, 2019).  The military’s approval rating is high, but over the past eighteen years, civilian and senior military leaders have experienced issues with personal behavior, institutional truthfulness, loss of trust by subordinates, and poor policy and strategy development; all of which are negatively affecting their effectiveness as leaders (Wong, Gerras, 2015 2019).


The origin of how leaders are made is a highly debated area in academics (Barling, 2014, Geiger 2016).  Based on my failures and successes as a subordinate, follower, employee, and leader, I believe leaders are not born, they are developed.  So, to succeed, we must develop them through establishing a process to find them, give them the opportunities to lead, to follow, and to learn from their experiences. And we need to do this as early as possible with developing leaders.  We can find leaders at every level of our society.  What we cannot find at every level of our society is the opportunity.  Finding leaders in our society should not be about where you were raised, how wealthy you are, where you went to school, and who you know.  It should be about developing a system and process that leverages finding the best leaders and giving them the opportunities to learn how to lead.  We find athletes at every level of our society; we need to search for leaders at every level as well.  Although I recognize there are existing leadership issues in business and politics, this article will focus on the military.


The Problem


The purpose of this section is not to debate that throughout history the military has produced outstanding leaders.  There is no disputing the legacy of our great military heritage.  The purpose of this section, is to explore the notion that there may be a more productive way to select, develop, train, and educate leaders.  It seems we continue to approach the development and education of our leaders by doing the same things, the same way, and expecting a different result.  Today, current and future leaders need a different or revised system.  We cannot continue to use the same “blue print” to select, select, develop, train, and educate leaders the way we trained and educated Grant, Marshall, and Eisenhower.  Now, there are exceptions, but my experience has been that leaders today, do not take care of themselves the way need to in order to effectively take care of others.  They are overworked, stressed out, sleep deprived, and not in optimal physical shape.  They are experiencing unaddressed physical and psychological injury of war.  This has a negative impact on their leader approach and effectiveness.  I believe based on my experience, that leaders take care of equipment better than their people.  I never received counseling on how I was taking care of my people, but when the unit’s operational equipment readiness rate went below 90% I heard it from everybody.  Leaders must learn how to take ourselves while they take care of others.  Due to our eighteen-year generational war, our service members and their families are experiencing a number health issues that leaders are not addressing effectively.  These health issues are having a negative effect on resiliency and readiness.  This must be changed by leaders putting their own skin in the game to back up health programs.  Our service members will not take care of themselves unless they have the support and trust of their leaders.  


Do we think like leaders?  Are we requiring our subordinate leaders to think like leaders or are we asking them to think like a follower, putting them in a box, and limiting their leadership growth?  Leaders must transition and we must also transition the thinking of our subordinate leaders so they can grow.  This is a mindset shift from obeying and following to exercising initiative, responsibility, and learning.  Holding a platoon leader accountable for his duties and responsibilities is different from holding him or her accountable as a leader.  The dichotomy here is that a platoon leader can be viewed by his or her superiors as an effective platoon leader, but recognized as an ineffective leader by their peers and subordinates.  Are we requiring our subordinate leaders to focus on their superiors or taking care of their organization and the people in it.  Our goal must be to develop a good platoon leader and a good leader in the same person.  Thinking like a leader is a transition in thought and actions from a follower to a leadership mindset of being responsible to their people for the process and the outcome.  Are we keeping up with progress as leaders?  I believe we are not.  Things move so fast that senior leaders are uncomfortable with losing control.  The reaction is to try to control more instead of decentralizing authority and responsibility.  Trying to control more is counterproductive, as the more you try to control the worse things get.  Below are slides that depict leadership and development ideas that are known, but not routinely implemented by leaders.        


In the military, education and experience are hugely important for leader development.  In my experience, this is connected to how the military selects, trains, educates, and promotes its leaders. The United States Military Academy (USMA), and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and the Officer Candidate School (OCS) must re-look the “blue print” they use to access, identify, and educate future leaders.  The military’s marketing strategy has changed to effectively communicate to today’s   generation, so too, must the leadership strategy.  Each of these programs has done good enough, but that is no longer sufficient.  They each follow a different selection process, training and education process, and select from a different pool of available candidates.  I have noticed little change in the way we train and educate leaders in my generation and the way we train and educate millennials to be leaders today.  Most importantly, there has been little change in the outcome of how leaders act.  Yes, there have been changes in process, but not enough to create the type of leader we need in the future.  We also miss an opportunity mid-career to continue their leadership education, and again at the War College.  The Capstone program is also a missed opportunity for Generals and Admirals.  The military does not focus on developing strategic leaders early enough in the officer’s career.  We also fail to recognize the differences in generations and how to effectively train them to be leaders, and then integrate them into military culture that values their differences.  Even in how we select and train Special Forces Officer’s is in question.  Quality versus quantity, pipeline considerations, and the danger of one unqualified officer making it through to command a Special Forces (SF) team is a balance that requires difficult choices.   This is not new and a much-debated topic, but our Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) are very concerned with the exceptions being made in the Special Forces selection process and in the qualification course.  If they are concerned, I am concerned.  There is another issue here, which whether true or not, is that the NCO’s feel they must voice their concerns through an anonymous process because of lack of trust, fear of retribution, and a toxic leadership climate in United States Army Special Operations command (USASOC).  My experience here is that our SF NCOs will put up with a lot before they push back in this way.       


The System and the Process


First, I concede I am not an expert.  Second, I concede there are things I do not know.  Third, I also know there is a problem because I lived it and others that are considered experts and do know more than me told me.  We cannot rely on a system that trains leaders to obey and follow at the expense of telling the truth and valuing creativity, imagination, and initiative.  The military controls initiative and does not value contrarians under the current leadership model.  The problem I see is that a conformity model and not a self-discipline model is used to develop future leaders.  There is no doubt conformity is important in the military, but what we fail to learn is that at some point, transitioning to a self-discipline model is important to the success of leaders at all levels.    


Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms (Cialdini, 2004).  Norms are implicit, specific rules, shared by a group of individuals that guide their interactions with others (Cialdini, 2004).  People often choose to conform to society rather than to pursue personal desires because it is easier to follow the path others have made already rather than creating a new one (Cialdini, 2004).  This tendency to conform occurs in all organizations, and may result from subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt pressure (Cialdini, 2004).


Conformity can occur in the presence of others, or when an individual is alone.  For example, people tend to follow social norms when eating or watching television even when alone. People often conform due to a desire for security within a group—typically a group of a similar age, culture, religion, or educational status (McLeod, 2016).  This is often referred to as group-think: a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics which ignores realistic appraisal of other courses of action (McLeod, 2016).  Unwillingness to conform carries the risk of rejection. Conformity is often associated with adolescence and youth culture, adults, organizations, and strongly affects humans in all areas of life (McLeod, 2016).


Conformity influences the formation and maintenance of norms and helps the military function smoothly and predictably via the self-elimination of behaviors seen as contrary to written and unwritten rules.  In this sense, it can be perceived as a positive force that prevents acts that are perceptually disruptive or dangerous.  Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman identified three major types of conformity (Kelman, 1958).  These types are at play in the military in a positive and negative way.


  • Compliance is public conformity, while possibly keeping one's own original beliefs for yourself. (Kelman, 1958).
  • Identification is conforming to someone who is liked and respected.  This can be motivated by the attractiveness of the source and is a deeper type of conformism than compliance (Kelman, 1958).
  • Internalization is accepting the belief or behavior and conforming both publicly and privately.  It is the deepest influence on people, and it will affect them for a long time (Kelman, 1958).


Under the current system, our future leaders learn the value of empowerment, trust, and taking risks, but will operate in a system that does not reward it.  Once they become military leaders, they are in a system that is less likely to view subordinates’ mistakes as opportunities for learning for fear it will reflect poorly on them.  They become micromanagers in an attempt to control their subordinates’ actions, and perceive contrarians and critical thinkers as non-team players.  In my experience, a conformity model is necessary in the military, but it can be a counterproductive double edge sword.  The military seeks conformity in obeying orders, good order and discipline, training standards, execution of missions, and in its value system (Bolduc, 2019).  Where conformity becomes counterproductive is among senior leaders and their desire to control everything.  Moreover, this has negatively affected investigations where blaming subordinates and protecting senior leaders is a common result.  It has led to a culture of leadership that requires conformity in loyalty to the boss above in the organization.  In addition, the conformity model has negatively impacted how we select our leaders and the process of how we talent manage our senior leaders (Bolduc, 2019).  Our Army can no longer afford the conformity model that supports organizational nepotism, advocacy-based promotions, go along to move along, and my guy not the right system thinking that has developed to select senior leaders.  This custom is negatively affecting every part of our Army, especially the relationship with our subordinates (Bolduc, 2019)  Overall, it has led to an unproductive system in how we educate our leaders during their career.  We train for a job as opposed to educate them on leadership.  Both are needed (Bolduc. 2019).


Self-discipline is the ability to control yourself and to make yourself work hard or behave in a particular way without needing anyone else to tell you what to do (Collins, 2019).  Self-discipline as it relates to leadership development and education is much more than the ability to control yourself or work hard.  A self-discipline model is a responsibility-based approach which trains and educates the leaders to understand and solve problems in an organization (Grote, 2006).  Responsibility includes laying out instructions for modifying future behavior by following good role models who have earned esteem.  Responsibility-based discipline is about empowering, trusting, and supporting subordinate leaders’  decision-making and problem-solving.  It is the opposite of the conformity model.  Instead of seeking conformity, we seek responsibility.  This will lead to a change in the culture of leadership that balances loyalty to your boss and to your organization.  In addition, this will change how we select our leaders and the process of how we talent manage senior leaders (Bolduc, 2019).  Our Army’s culture will change because the conformity model that supports the ineffective behaviors that have developed to select senior leaders, i.e. organizational nepotism, advocacy-based promotions etc., will no longer be valid.  Further, a self-discipline model will redefine the relationship with our subordinates positively (Bolduc, 2019).  Overall, it will lead to a productive system in how we educate our leaders during their career.  We will now effectively train our officers in their job and educate them on leadership.  They will gain respect, dignity, and trust while observing clear limits that preserve the chain of command (Bolduc. 2019).


The Goal of a Leader is to be a Role Model


Simply being a leader does not make you a positive role model.  A leader has a lot to prove before becoming a positive role model.  People will do what leaders say, but they will follow a positive role model anywhere.  I learned that character, moral courage, sympathy, empathy, and intuition are hugely important in leadership and for developing the habits to be a positive role model.  I believe it is essential in setting the right climate in an organization.  Jim Wideman said, “being an example is more important than talent” (Wideman, 2013). 


The priority of leadership must focus on the people, family, and mission.  A leader must do three things: attend to the mission not meddle in it, develop leaders, and take care of their people and their families.  Leaders must ensure their approach remains merit-based, values-based, and faith-based.  A published vision and leadership philosophy backed by consistent behavior and messaging is critical to successfully lead and manage an organization.  An established leadership approach keeps the leader focused and on message.  It cuts down on confusion and provides the members of the organization the proper structure to utilize initiative, creativity, and imagination. 


Nothing is more important in an organization than leadership.  Leaders can fix and make anything right or they can be the source of problems.  To be a good leader you need training, education, knowledge, and experience; but leadership goes beyond the mechanical and into the emotional.  There becomes a point in a leader’s journey where the emotional and adaptability quotients becomes more important than intelligence quotient.  As a leader, you do not need to be the smartest person or the most informed on an issue in the room.  However, you do need to be the best listener, most understanding, and open-minded person in the room.  This will give the leader an advantage in using their experience, intuition, understanding and empathy to make the best decisions.  In my experience in meetings and briefings, leaders often have a preconceived notion, does not like what they are hearing, and can become frustrated and defensive. This has both a short-term and long-term negative effect on everyone in the room.         


Jim Collins said, “The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse. This is one of the key reasons why less charismatic leaders often produce better long-term results than their more charismatic counterparts” (Collins, 2001).  I believe there are attributes that give the experienced leader the advantage in creating a positive and balanced command climate, making timely decisions, and setting the tone for respect within an organization.  They also guides the leader in how to act for ensuring consistency in their leadership approach.


A leader’s character sets the tone for everyone in the organization.  Moral courage is the least understood and recognized attribute of personal courage.  Although valued, it is not rewarded as much as it is feared.  Integrity is often defined as doing the right thing when no one is watching.  Moral courage is doing the right thing when everyone is watching.  Moral courage is feared by organizations that have insecure leaders, are afraid of change, support organizational nepotism, and support group-think.  Moral courage is also feared because there are whistle blower laws to protect those that have the moral courage to point out wrongs in an organization. 


Sympathy and empathy should not be confused with weakness.  Personal understanding and understanding the experiences of others are hugely important to be a successful leader. A leader’s ability to use these sentiments supports the leader’s ability to demonstrate compassion and humanity.  This is a deeper and more profound understanding and acceptance of others that can be seen as being derived or enhanced by knowledge and wisdom.  Compassion recognizes the "me" in "you," the shared commonality of feelings between individuals. Both sympathy and empathy imply caring for another person, but with empathy rc the caring is enhanced or expanded by being able to feel the other person's emotions.  The capacity to sympathize and empathize are considered vital for a sense of humanity—the ability to understand one's fellow humans and their problems.  Intuition is a very important developmental leadership skill and is largely dependent on experience, personality, and disposition.  Intuition is what a senior leader possesses over their subordinates if the leader is balanced, confident, and centered.  The number one thing that distinguishes intuitive leaders is that they have the experience to listen, rather than ignore their gut feelings.




As pointed out earlier, leadership is the most important aspect of military service.  Leadership sets conditions for the success of everything in the military.  Leadership is the only way to ensure mission success, to take care of people and their families.  It is the responsibility of all officers to study leadership, practice leadership, learn leadership, and live it for the entirety of their military service.  More importantly, leaders must initiate change, manage change, and transform the organization.  Leaders must take a hard look at how they are accessing future leaders, developing, training and educating them, and especially at how we are promoting and selecting senior leaders.   


I am a huge fan of the book American Generalship, and some of the points in the book are mirrored in this article.  I am also a huge fan of General George C. Marshall.  In many ways the Army has gotten away from his style of organizational leadership and model for selecting senior leaders, educating leaders, learning from mistakes, and recovering from being relieved of duty.  General Marshall’s approach and success are articulated well and many of the problems that plagued today’s senior leaders highlighted in Tom Rick’s book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.  Another great piece I draw from to back up my observations on dishonesty and trust is the monograph written by Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, titled LYING TO OURSELVES: Dishonesty in the Army Profession.  In this monograph the authors’ research points to untruthfulness as being surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.  I experienced much of what was discussed in the monograph during my career and heard it echoed by peers and subordinates.   


I learned that it is the differences of people in an organization that give the organization its strength.  It is up to a leader to devise a functional leadership and management process that leverages and balances the differences of people in an organization for the betterment of the organization.  It is about creating the right combination of people to ensure unit physical and emotional strength.  And all of this starts with the self-disciplined leader model.




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About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.