I write this column knowing and accepting that I am neither the finest of leaders nor an expert on leadership. I have, however, spent the last three decades in various military positions leading and following.
We are currently experiencing the dreaded political change from a “wartime army” to a “standing peacetime army.” Although there are differing opinions regarding which is more difficult to lead in, there are some distinct differences.
Wartime soldiers follow orders because, as Col. Nathan Jessup so eloquently stated in a “A Few Good Men,“ “We follow orders or people die.”
A peacetime military might be less physically dangerous, but it still has its own challenges. Funding typically dries up, training can become tedious, soldiers could get bored, and orders can begin sounding more like requests. Not only do many excellent military leaders find more attractive civilian positions, but also true wartime leadership skills become rusty and worn. Perhaps even worse, those expected to follow quickly find there is little punishment for not doing their jobs, and many take advantage of that.
I enlisted in the military as a private just before Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989. What I joined was a peacetime military preparing to act like it was at war. Only a year later, we went to war in the Persian Gulf, but politically and militarily we were unprepared for an extended war. After some great military and political leadership in the Gulf War came the rest of the 90s — years defined by a fiscally and politically constrained standing military that participated in two notable military actions (those in Bosnia and Somalia).
The poor political leadership of those years could have cost thousands of American lives, except for the valor and professionalism of some long-serving military veterans. Even in 2001 we had few experienced leaders, but we did have a strong political will. The military quickly bred some excellent leaders — many spending the next decade perfecting wartime leadership.
As the political winds blow the military back toward a peacetime status, we may see many of those leaders begin leaving for greener pastures.
Many of us joined the military because we wanted to serve and felt compelled to protect our nation from enemies, foreign and domestic. Like police and first-responders, it is a higher purpose that can be difficult to explain to those who don’t want or care to understand. But as the world changes, the definition of “enemy” takes on new and difficult definitions. Poor leadership must be viewed as one of the worst of those enemies — its widespread, insidious effects can often do more damage than any armed enemy ever could.
I witnessed the military transition from an “Army of We” to an “Army of Me,” from an authoritative leadership style to that of a more transactional and transformational one. While true leadership requires many techniques to fit many different situations, it also requires leaders to accept their roles and responsibilities of that mantle. As one of our nation’s finest leaders, President Ronald Reagan once said: “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Rather than allow peace to dull the blade of our wartime leaders, the military must recognize how to preserve the way of the warrior. Future leaders must study at the altars of leadership education, including Sun Tzu, Maj. Dick Winters (in “Band of Brothers”) and Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” — among many other great resources filling libraries globally.
As we make this leap back to “political peace,” the military must remember that leaders are not produced solely in the classroom or from slide presentations. Leaders must be discovered and developed, molded by their supervisors and promoted for their abilities and potential. They must take personal pride in absorbing information through experience, observation, instruction and desire before being tested in combat.
The military is filled with great leaders who face the difficult task of having to risk their subordinates’ lives, a painful extra cross to bear. The challenges should never be belittled, but they must always be tested and honed.
If wartime leaders could teach one lesson to the next generation, it should be that poor leaders should never fill leadership positions simply because of time spent “on the rock.”