“The battalion Live Fire Exercise (LFX) had not gone as well as desired. The leadership was anxious as they prepared to brief the new brigade commander on the details of their validation training exercise. At the core of the battalion’s NCO and officer leadership were solid and very experienced combat veterans who were finally coming together after the tumultuous and frenetic reset phase. In his guidance prior to the exercise, the legendary Colonel M.D. ‘Mad Dog’ Brooks, the new Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Commander, had been very direct and precise about the live fire exercise tasks, conditions and standards he expected. He left little latitude for initiative and no margin error. His intent was to get the unit back to the ‘highest level of proficiency as quickly as possible,’ and everyone in the battalion understood that he was not satisfied with their current performance.
"Administrative and maintenance problems plagued the exercise from the beginning, and many of them contributed to their failure to achieve the exacting training timeline established by the BCT staff. Unreliable range targets, crew-served and individual weapons malfunctions, vehicle operational readiness, and delays in the ammunition draw all combined to keep them off-schedule from the start. Through the sheer force of the battalion’s leaders, every company completed all of the training tasks. The Observer Controllers rated their gunnery skills and fire discipline as exceptional. Although the battalion’s Soldiers and junior leaders had some significant gaps in their tactical skills, they had just proven that they could still shoot, move and communicate like real warriors.
“As anticipated, the After Action Review (AAR) began badly. After the fourth slide, COL Brooks’ visible agitation transitioned to anger and he erupted. He retrieved a stack of 3X5 cards from his breast pocket, and summarily listed all the things the battalion had done wrong. He berated the battalion and company commanders as failures in front of everyone present. In concluding, he told them, ‘Your leadership incompetence is exceeded only by your collective inability to meet training timelines, maintain your equipment and weapons to standards, and conduct basic range administrative procedures!’ When the senior OC attempted to interject with the positive aspects the range and their highly successful gunnery results, Brooks immediately cut him off by stating, ‘Major, when I want you’re your opinion I will ask for it. Until then, keep your mouth shut!’
“Not allowing the briefing to continue, COL Brooks ordered the battalion to remain in the field until their problems were fixed. He abruptly left the briefing area, not bothering to talk further with the battalion commander or even the BCT S-3.”
This article explores the question, “What is the relationship between stress imposed by military leaders, building resilience, and operational performance?” As demonstrated in the vignette, COL Brooks’ leadership approach prior to and during the battalion’s AAR certainly increased the level of stress throughout the BCT. Clearly, he had high expectations for the organization, and his approach may be familiar to many who serve in the U.S. Army. Obviously, COL Brooks is interested in improving the battalion’s performance. What is not clear is the effect his leadership approach will have on the on the long-term performance of the organization and the resilience of its members. Instead of improving the organization, Brook’s imposed stress may actually have a debilitating effect by increasing the level of anxiety, limiting communications, reducing leader confidence, and negatively affecting the espirit de corps of the organization.
Most leadership definitions include terms such as process, influence, direct, motivate, and goal achievement. The United States Army’s foundational leadership manual ADRP 6-22: Army Leadership (2012) adds an additional requirement of leaders not found in most discussions: that of improving the organization. This additional requirement places a demand upon leaders to lead in a manner that not only achieves short-term operational and individual results, but also improves the organization for long-term success. Among the key variables that must be considered in improving organizations are stress and resilience. While experienced leaders fully understand there are innumerable sources of stress in today’s contemporary environment, they may not consider how they themselves significantly contribute to stress and resilience. This article attempts to provide a discussion to improve leader awareness by increasing an understanding of stress and resilience, and relating the importance how leadership styles and beliefs of control can influence stress and resilience in both positive and negative ways.
Stress - Two Opposite Effects
Stress exists in all organizations, military or civilian, and leaders can influence the level of stress in Soldiers and organizations in either a positive or a negative manner. More importantly, leaders themselves are significant stressors of organizations and they can either improve or degrade their organization by the amount and type of stress they intentionally or unintentionally impose (Drach-Zahavy & Freund, 2007).
The term stress itself conjures emotional responses and is an often-discussed topic in contemporary military and civilian behavioral literature. In today’s military environment the term has achieved an elevated level of significance given the operations tempo experienced by military units and personnel serving in uncertain, dynamic, isolated, and life-threatening conditions. Moreover, there are significant costs associated with stress. Statistics abound that suggest employee stress contributes to organizational performance, morale, attendance, and loss of productivity. Some estimates contend 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems and about one million Americans are absent each day from work due to stress-related disorders. The World Health Organization declared stress a health epidemic that will cost US businesses an estimated $300 billion dollars in 2012. Even if the more skeptical reader considers these numbers to be inflated by 50%, they are still staggering and indicate a need for serious concern.
Quick, Quick, Nelson, and Hurrell (1997) provide common definitions for distress and strain as “the degree of physiological, psychological, and behavioral deviation from an individual’s healthy functioning.” (5) To some, this definition could wrongly indicate all stress produces a destructive result – strain. However, not all stress results in destructive strain. Every individual or organization requires stress to achieve productivity. The term “eustress” recognizes this. Eustress is derived from the Greek word “eu,” meaning well or good, plus the word “stress.” The authors define eustress as, “the healthy, positive, constructive outcome of stressful events and the stress response.” (4) Eustress contributes to positive inputs and variables that combine to contribute to successful mission accomplishment.
In the early 1900s, Harvard researchers Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson conducted a seminal study that has for nearly a century provided a framework for the impact of stress on performance. Known today as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, it suggests that as stress increases, so does performance. However, this occurs only to a certain point. After that, a further increase of stress results in a decline in performance as indicated in Figure 1(Quick et al., 1997).
Too much stress can have a negative impact that may result in debilitating strain on both people and organizations. The opposite of eustress is distress, or stress that results in significant strain, anxiety, and/or suffering (Quick et al., 1997). Distress produces negative results, usually results in poor productivity and morale, and can create significantly damaging long-term problems for organizations and personnel. Clearly, when reflecting on the vignette and COL Brooks’ approach, distress could be the logical result, especially over a long term. However, the line between leader-imposed eustress and distress is not always clear. What is certain is that there is a dependent relationship between stress and resilience, and that leader behaviors influence each.
The term resilience originated in the engineering field to describe the physical capacity or strength of building materials. It became a useful psychological construct when Garmezy and Streitman (1974) used the term to describe the ability to endure and recover from traumatic events. Much of the early resilience research focused on resilience in children, but since the 1980s studies in the field have expanded to include resilience in adults and organizations. Army doctrine does not fully define resilience, but it does describe it in significant detail. According to ADRP 6-22, resilience is “a tendency to recover quickly from setbacks, shock, injuries, adversity, and stress while maintaining a mission and organizational focus” (p. 4-1). ADRP 6-22 goes further by identifying resilience as an attribute and an implied competency. Therefore, the U.S. Army recognizes resilience is a cognitive process, a skill, which is influenced through training, education and leadership.
Although resilience is not new, the Army’s experiences over the past ten years have caused significant psychological strain among its members, as indicated by a spike in the suicide rate, more frequent incidents of substance abuse and reported cases domestic violence (Lester, Harms, Bulling, et al., 2011). These manifestations of individual strain, as well as their organizational implications, created the need for an increased awareness of the contributors of individual and organizational resilience.
The U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program is built on this concept and has conducted numerous empirical studies which provide evidence that supports its effectiveness (Lester, Harms, Herian, Krasikova, & Beal, 2011). CSF program development was a cooperate effort of psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania’s positive Psychology Center, researchers from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, sports psychologists at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and senior U.S. Army leaders at the strategic, organization and direct levels. The purpose of CSF is to teach skills that enhance a Soldier’s ability to handle adversity, prevent depression and anxiety, prevent post-traumatic stress, and enhance overall psychological wellbeing and performance (Reivich, Seligman, & McBride, 2011). CSF skills focus on active coping behaviors and include effective communication, emotional regulation, realistic optimism, and empathy; all requirements of effective leaders.
The U.S. Army is not the only military service that has renewed its interest in resilience. The U.S. Navy significantly increased Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS) graduation rate not by increasing physical skills, but by improving the cognitive resilience skills of candidates. Referred to as the “Big Four,” SEAL recruits are taught: 1) to set positive mental goals; 2) conduct mental rehearsals; 3) control self-doubt; and 4) control arousal. These specific cognitive skills permit SEAL recruits to endure and recover quickly from the daily rigorous physical and mental demands of their training (Everly, McCormack, & Strouse, 2012; Harris et al., 2007; McDonald, Norton, & Hodgdon, 1990).
Thus, it is not a stretch to establish clear connections between leadership, stress and resilience. However, leaders must not only understand their responsibilities in reducing stress and building resilience, but also how they either intentionally or unintentionally affect it.
Leadership, Stress and Resilience
Leaders must understand they play a role in determining how much stress and what kind will contribute to increasing performance. The revision of the basic depiction of the Yerkes-Dodson Law can assist by recognizing the importance of leader-imposed stress. In Figure 2, this is indicated by an extension of the performance arch to illustrate the leader’s role in manipulating stress to improve performance. For the right reasons, leaders may intentionally increase stress to create an environment for both individuals and organizations to peak at the right time, for the right reasons, and for the right outcome, resulting in a state or condition the authors of this article refer to as “the halo of excellence”.
This “halo” should not be surprising. Championship-winning coaches know how to apply the right amount and type of stress upon their teams to motivate them to play their best in championship games. Successful educators know the type and amount of stress to apply to motivate students to do their best. Moreover, the best commanders know the right type and amount of stress to apply to achieve optimally performing Soldiers and units over the long-term.
Unfortunately, not all coaches win championships, not all educators are successful and not all commanders lead top-performing organizations. A contributing factor may be they do not understand that more does not mean better, and may not understand there is a downside to increasing leader-induced stress. With little understanding of this Yerkes-Dodson dynamic, leaders who impose too little or too much stress will get sub-optimized results, and perhaps even cause significant damage to the member and/or organization indicated by the downward slope of the curve in Figure 2. If leaders understand the relationships between stress and performance, their potential to achieve optimal performance over longer periods should also increase. However, just this awareness is only part of the equation. Leaders must know themselves and how their personal traits and behaviors influence stress in their organizations.
Leader emotional intelligence competencies can influence one’s ability to regulate leader-imposed stress in organizations. Goleman (1998) describes emotional intelligence as a cluster of personal and social competencies that include self-awareness and control, motivation and persistence, empathy, and ability to form relationships. In a leadership application, emotional intelligence helps leaders understand their ability to establish and understand personal and organizational relationships, and use that understanding when interacting with organizational personnel. In his article “What Makes a Leader,” Goleman suggests five components of emotional intelligence that significantly influence a leader’s effectiveness: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Of these, a leader’s self-awareness and self-regulation may well have the greatest impact upon stress.
Goleman (1998), defines self-awareness as “the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their impact on others” (p. 95). This awareness of a leader’s impact upon others is invaluable, especially in a demanding and stressful climate. Without self-awareness, a leader’s behaviors can easily create an unintentional climate of stress.
Similarly, Goleman defines self-regulation as, “the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods…the propensity to suspend judgment – to think before acting” (p. 95). The manner by which leaders conduct themselves, especially in significant leadership positions, can either positively or negatively influence the level of stress in their organization. Reflecting back to the “halo of excellence,” a leader’s stress-producing behaviors, even if toxic on occasion, can positively influence their organization. However, leader behaviors can also have negative stress-producing influences that result in poor performance even though their intent was to do otherwise. An understanding of leader personalities as related to emotional intelligence can significantly influence the real or perceived stress they impose upon their units.
A leader’s style and beliefs relating to power can also influence the stress they impose upon organizations. In this context, leadership style can be envisioned as a continuum with the autocratic label on the far left and the laissez-faire label on the far right. Numerous references exist discussing various leadership styles, but the intent is not to address each style here. Instead, this discussion will look at the extremes as they relate to stress and resilience; autocratic and laissez-faire.
Autocratic leaders are controlling and take a highly directive approach to leadership. They personally follow a very strict code of rules and procedures, and expect others to conform to them. They may be considered tyrants who have no desire to care for or understand their subordinates as long as the jobs or missions are accomplished. Autocratic leaders establish missions, usually in a vacuum, and constantly pressure their subordinates to work longer and harder to achieve them believing more is better, and any actions or activities that detract from the immediate tasks at hand are harmful. This portrayal may appear extreme, but one can easily see how this type of environment can produce significant organizational stresses.
Perhaps Major General Ned Almond, Commander of U.S. Army X Corps during the Korean War, provides a good example of an autocratic leader. In The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam’s inserted description of Almond’s leadership style suggests few positive traits, and from it one can easily visualize potential negative consequences from his autocratic approach:
“…no one dealing with Almond would underestimate him. He was, like it or not, a force. Everything had to be done quickly and perfectly. For the men that worked under him, there was always one more order to obey, one more squad to be moved, and one piece of paper to be typed, and typed perfectly, or it would have to be done again.”
The Coldest Winter, Halberstam (2007)
On the far right of the continuum lies the laissez-faire style. Laissez-faire leaders could be considered direct opposites of autocratic leaders. Where autocratic leaders are controlling and driven to make decisions, laissez-faire leaders are reluctant to make decisions, but when they do, it isn’t clear how the decisions were made. Laissez-faire leaders usually possess no clear and visible set of rules and may not care if their subordinates have or follow rules as long as things seem to be going well. These leaders may care about subordinates personally, but often do not care about timely mission completion or quality performance. Laissez-faire leaders are reluctant to define missions and tasks and are almost paranoid of establishing a vision for their organization. Moreover, subordinates seldom know where they really stand with the leader.
Initially, most readers immediately identify the autocratic style as the one most likely to inject harmful stress. The mental images conjured of far left autocratic leaders are extreme, while far right laissez-faire leaders seem less harsh. However, laissez-faire leaders can be as stressful to organizations as their autocratic counterparts can. The lack of structure, clear rules, and missions may be as debilitating to organizations as their overly stringent opposites. Colonel G. E. Reed (2004) writes in “Toxic Leadership” that, “A leader with a soft voice and façade of sincerity can also be toxic. In the end, it is not the one specific behavior that deems one toxic; it is the cumulative effect of demotivational behavior on unit morale and climate over time that tells the tale” (p. 67).
Realistically, leaders rarely reside at the extremes. They normally operate somewhere in between, and Goleman (2000) asserts the most successful leaders have the ability and seek opportunities to exercise various leadership styles when appropriate. A leader’s application of power and control also contributes.
Application of Power and Control
Similar to leadership styles, a leader’s methods of applying power and control can influence the stress they unintentionally impose on their organization. Traditionally, leader power is framed by French and Raven’s five sources of social power (1960), which over the years have been juxtaposed to leader power in organizations: legitimate, reward, coercive, referent, and expert. Another accepted construct of leader power is “position” and “personal” (Yukl & Falbe, 1990). Sources of position power include legitimate, reward and coercion, while sources of personal power come from expert and referent sources. Of the two, the misapplication of position power has the greatest potential for harm in organizations because embedded within position power is the ability to coerce.
The application of coercive power can include threats and the creation of harm or fear among followers. In some situations coercive power could be appropriate, but should be used sparingly and the choice of last resort. It makes sense if leaders are unaware of coercion’s debilitating effects and opt routinely to employ it, then stress and possibly strain over longer periods will result. Leaders must understand the sources of power available to them, which sources they are the most apt to employ and when, and the results they can inflict upon their organizations. This leads to control.
A leader’s beliefs and exercise of control are also topics for consideration when discussing stress. Too much control can generate stress among organizational members, and not enough control can take its toll on performance and results. Going back to the “halo,” leaders must have an awareness of their controlling tendencies when seeking optimal results. Clearly, leaders have the formal or informal authority and responsibility to exercise control over their organizations. Control is essential for ensuring the accomplishment of organizational goals and objectives. However, perceptions of control can be either real or perceived, and the perceptions of control are often as helpful or damaging as the reality of control. If organizational members perceive that excessive control over their activities and functions exists, those thoughts are as damaging to them as if the control mechanisms are actually present. Often, the point of contention is often not the systems of control, but rather the manner in which they are exercised.
Autocratic leaders tend to reduce member participation by over-controlling. This environment results in members believing they have little or no influence over outcomes and achieve little or no satisfaction from their activities. Conversely, organizational members generally experience less stress when leaders encourage member participation in organizational processes. In this environment, members are more apt to share information and knowledge, and collaboratively strive for the accomplishment of goals and objectives. More importantly, when members are a part of the control processes and resulting outcomes, they become more committed to achieving organizational goals, and the physical presence of leaders becomes less important to mission accomplishment.
Leaders Influence on Resilience
Given the above discussion, it becomes clear that leaders possessing an understanding of themselves and their personal influence on stress within their organizations have greater potential to improve their organizations. However, this potential extends to a broader capability to enhance resilience for both the individual and organization.
While the Army’s CSF program is oriented to the individual, leaders must not forget the organizational benefits that exist. Leader actions to help build resilient Soldiers will have a profound impact upon the resilience and future success of their organization. The two are inextricably linked. As depicted in Figure 4, resilient Soldiers are necessary to build resilient organizations, and resilient organizations are necessary to build resilient Soldiers. More importantly for this discussion, the leaders residing in the middle provide the linchpin for both. A suggested approach for maximizing this necessary interaction resides within the application of transformational leadership.
History is replete with examples of highly effective military leaders who have through their sheer force of presence, vision, and intelligence have transformed their organization and dramatically improved performance. Examples could easily include Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgeway, Field Marshal Bill Slim, and General Colin Powell. Arguably, each fits the modern description of transformational leadership.
Transformational leaders improve performance by connecting with subordinates to create a positive organizational climate with shared values, high ethics standards, and a balanced approach to achieving short- and long-term results (Northouse, 2012). Transformational leadership theory is organized around the four factors of Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, and Individualized Consideration; all implied within U.S. Army leadership doctrine. Table 1 lists and describes Northouse’s four transformational leadership factors, and aligns them with ADRP 6-22’s descriptions of attributes and competencies and Mission Command requirements.
Source: Northouse, P G. (2012). Leadership: Theory and practice (Sixth ed.) and ADRP6-22. (2012 August). Army Leadership.
In addition to connections with U.S. Army leadership doctrine, Bartone (2006) suggests that transformational leaders positively influence the resilience of their subordinates by increasing group levels of group trust and cohesion. According to COL Bartone, transformational leaders act as cognitive buffers by helping group members understand and make meaning out of stressful mission requirements. Due to the application of transformational leadership behaviors, individuals and organizations as a whole are more capable of recovering from setbacks and performing at higher levels.
An important shared characteristic of transformational leaders is their positive approach to influencing organization members (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009). Transformational leaders possess positive core leadership competencies and attributes that encourage ethical and progressively developmental behaviors in both leaders and those they lead. Unlike more rudimentary leadership approaches which focus on developing a leader’s ability to influence followers without emphasizing development of organization members, transformational leadership focuses on holistic development of followers through the complex and sophisticated interaction of leaders and followers (Avolio, 2010; Avolio et al., 2009; Northouse, 2012). This higher-order of leadership shares similarities with other styles, however there are unique fundamental differences.
Among those differences are the transformational leaders’ focus on positive psychology, emphasis on highly developed interpersonal-skills, and disciplined emotional regulation in both leaders and followers (Avolio et al., 2009). Moreover, transformational leaders concentrate their efforts on achieving organizational objectives through positive leader attributes that build trust, which in turn motivate followers to buy-in to a shared vision (Bass, Avolio, Jung, & Berson, 2003; Northouse, 2012).
In his article chronicling the development of mission command, Stephen Bungay (2003) suggests leaders who employ the concepts to improve tactical performance and organizational resilience. According to Bungay, “mission command creates an organization which is not only more trusting, but more resilient” (p.9). British Field Marshal William Slim provides an excellent example of someone who consistently demonstrated a mastery of the transformational leadership. During the Burma campaign of World War II, Slim’s command narrowly escaped annihilation by a superior Japanese army. Against all odds and under tremendous environmental stress and psychological strain, Slim and his subordinate commanders transformed Fourteenth Army and soundly defeated the once-superior Japanese force (McLynn, 2011; Slim, 1956). In the face of overwhelming odds, Slim’s resilience as the army commander allowed him to build understanding, establish a compelling vision, and effectively communicate that vision throughout his multinational coalition. The below comments taken from a 1952 address to the Command and General Staff College provides a brief humorous insight to his personal resilience (Slim, 1990).
“The situation was just about as bad as it could be… I didn't think we could last very long or it didn't look like we could. I tried to look cheerful, and said, ‘Well, gentlemen, it might be worse.’ And one of those unspeakable fellows said, ‘How?’ The only thing I could think of saying was, ‘Well, it might be raining,’ and in two hours it was.” Field Marshal Sir William Slim
This resilience was necessary to build resilient subordinates and a resilient organization. The rapid turnaround of the once-defeated Fourteenth Army is clear evidence of the powerful effect transformation leadership and resilience have as a combat multiplier. Leaders who understand the relationship between stress, resilience and a positive leadership approach stand a greater opportunity to lead their organizations to not only succeed, but also thrive under the most challenging of circumstances.
This article examined the relationship between leadership behaviors, stress and resilience on the performance of Army organizations. So, what might have happened if Colonel Brooks had these insights before the AAR of the LFX? Could this vignette be a reasonable possibility?
“COL Brooks arrived at the BN CP exactly as scheduled and sensed the air of apprehension and anxiety. Anticipating the need to reduce the stress he knew existed, he entered the tent with a smile and shook hands with the assembled leaders asking them how they were doing. He then told the battalion commander he wanted to begin the AAR with a few opening comments.
“From his breast pocket, he took out his 3X5 cards and began discussing some positive aspects of the training. He had done his homework and was familiar with many of the problems causing the training delays, but was also well aware of what their accomplishments. COL Brooks also pointed out some of the individuals in the battalion responsible for overcoming the obstacles and thanked them for their effort and attitude. He stated his desire to gain an accurate assessment of their training readiness, and left no question as to his desire for a prioritized plan to improve their proficiency. In concluding his opening remarks, he carefully restated his vision for the BCT and the battalion’s role in that vision. Additionally, he re-emphasized his belief in high standards of professional conduct, tough realistic training, and strict discipline.
“He listened intently to the AAR, asked tough penetrating questions, and assigned tasks to the battalion commander and his own BCT staff. At the conclusion of the briefing, he expressed confidence in the battalion, the battalion commander, and the assembled leaders. COL Brooks told them that as leaders they were charged with improving the performance of the battalion, and warned against overreacting. He told the leaders both he and the battalion commander would meet after the completion of redeployment and recovery tasks to discuss future training. Until then they were to return to garrison safely, properly maintain their equipment and get some much-deserved rest. With that, the leaders snapped to attention and with a rousing ‘VICTORY’, he departed.”
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