The Army Chaplaincy   Winter 1998

Alexander’s Challenge:  Issues in Teaching Leadership

by Chaplain (COL) John W. Brinsfield


King Philip II of Macedon selected Aristotle to be the tutor of his son, Alexander.  Among Alexander’s first tasks, when he was but ten years of age, was to tame Bucephalus, a wild horse that would eventually carry him into  battle. 

Paraphrase from John Keegan, The Mask of Command

The study of leadership and leadership development is one of the most engaging and most extensive disciplines in the military art.  Its historical roots in Western culture are as old as the Bible and the Iliad of Homer.  More books and articles have been written on the subject of leadership, in excess of 10,000 at last count, than have been written on any other military subject except military history.1

Leadership carries a heavy burden in the Army. When operational or training missions go awry, as they sometimes do, the tendency of command is to blame the immediate leaders.  Thus, the My Lai Massacre of March 1968, the shooting incidents at Fort Bragg, and the sexual harassment-sexual crime problems at Aberdeen Proving Ground, among others, have generated close scrutiny and even criminal charges against the leaders involved.  These situations reflect the time-honored canon of military discipline that the leader is responsible for all the unit does or fails to do.  Even military law, exemplified in the Yamashita Case of 1946-47, has tended to follow suit.

In addition to the historic behavioral factors noted above, there have been other recent challenges for Army leaders which have occasioned a review of leadership doctrine and practice.  The reduction in force following the end of the Cold War (in the West), the increasing number of peacekeeping and humanitarian operations involving the same units in repeated deployments, and the belief that many young soldiers are deficient in character formation have caused senior Army leaders to review leadership development, doctrine, and training.  In 1998, a new edition of Field Manual 22-100, Army Leadership, and a new Army regulation governing leadership will be submitted for approval to the Chief of Staff, Army.  Undoubtedly, some revisions in training will follow.

Supplementing the doctrinal revision efforts are a number of studies on American youth cultures, small group dynamics and relationships between soldiers which help answer questions for leadership development experts.  Studies dealing with Generation X are still incomplete, but one fact stands out clearly:  the recruits of the future will be the best educated in American history.  In comparison with the American Army of World War II, in which 24 percent of the soldiers were high school graduates, the figures for the enlisted soldiers in the U.S. Army in 1997 indicated that 96 percent were high school graduates and 20 percent had at least one year of college credit.2  With all of the additional training the Army provides, by the time a soldier becomes an E7 he or she may accumulate enough experience to qualify as a college graduate.  

At the other end of the spectrum, studies at the Army War College in 1996 revealed a parallel between stress on units experiencing an increased operational tempo and stress on senior leaders.  Not the least among the factors detracting from an ideal command environment was the number of complaints being registered against senior leaders by soldiers and civilians.  It has been estimated that one-third of all general officers on active duty have complaints registered against them at some point in their careers.  In 1994, for example, the Army Inspector General reported 282 complaints against 118 senior military leaders and 19 Senior Executive Service leaders.3

Even though 98 percent of the complaints against senior leaders in 1994 were held to be unfounded, some of the brightest and best elected to retire or resign rather than drag out investigations involving themselves, their units and their families.  Clearly the burdens of leadership, from drill sergeant to general officer, involve constant attention to detail and constant supervision of subordinates who are frequently entrusted with authority but who cannot be delegated ultimate responsibility.  The suicide of Admiral Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda, as an example of stress at the highest levels, was just the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, in the Army’s educational institutions, which range from the precommissioning level at West Point to the senior service school level at the Army War College, instructors in leadership, management and ethics continue to produce curricula, syllabi and reference texts which focus on the principles Army leaders will presumably need to employ in the 21st century.  The Chaplain Corps has been and remains deeply involved in this effort; for, as of the spring of 1996, 80 percent of the ethics taught in Army service school leadership departments was taught by chaplains.4

In spite of the necessary and continuing effort to teach leadership in the Army, an enterprise which was greatly enhanced a quarter century ago with the formation of the Training and Doctrine Command, many old and some new issues continue to surface which challenge the Army’s efforts.  A selection of these issues, grouped into three major categories, form the substance of this article.  

What is the Essence of Leadership?

The definition of the essence of leadership and the strategies for teaching it have clearly fluctuated over time.  In the Army, military leadership has been defined and redefined 13 times in official Army publications since 1948.  In a recent issue of Military Review, Donald H. Horner, a Ph.D. graduate of Stanford University and a former assistant professor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department at West Point, wrote:

This enormous amount of attention continues to proliferate interpretations of what leadership is and what it entails.  Literally thousands of leadership definitions have been proffered, leading Morgan McCall [a professor of business at the University of Southern California] to dimly conclude that it is time "to abandon the concept of leadership altogether."5

One of the problems is that, no matter how one defines leadership, there always seems to be more to be said.  In Department of the Army Training Circular 6, Leadership, dated 19 July 1948, military leadership was defined as "the art of influencing and directing people to an assigned goal in such a way as to command their obedience, confidence, respect and loyal cooperation."6  Subsequently, when it was pointed out that an "art" is hard to teach, the Army defined leadership as a "process" (1973 and 1983 Field Manuals 22-100).  In 1987 leadership was again an "art" but also a "skill."  

In one Army publication, leadership was an "element of combat power," while in another it was a command "relationship."7  In the most current revised initial draft of FM 22-100, Army Leadership (1 November 1997), "Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and to improve the organization."8

The essential problem is that no single definition has yet captured, as Donald Horner pointed out, what leadership is and what it entails.  The functions of a military leader at the operational level go far beyond influencing people and improving organizations.  At the U.S. Army War College, where faculty members have written new reference texts on leadership and management every year for 24 years, leadership involves:

  • understanding the environment
  • knowing your own capabilities and those of the enemy
  • envisioning and clearly communicating the desired endstate and the specified and implied missions necessary to achieve it  planning for success and contingencies
  • managing resources
  • directing and encouraging subordinates
  • forming consensus
  • demonstrating personal commitment, competence, courage and concern
  • evaluating performance
  • developing and recognizing excellence in junior leaders and in the organization as a whole, and
  • always exhibiting care for soldiers without whom the mission cannot be accomplished.  In other words, leadership involves not only a process but also conceptual, technical, and interpersonal competencies.9

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of leadership as a field of study, filled with definitions, theories, styles, functions, competencies, and historical examples of successful though diverse practitioners.  Into this field one might place leaders of very different personalities:  Washington, Lee, Grant, Sherman, Patton, Marshall, Bradley, Abrams, Powell, and Schwarzkopf to mention a few.  What gives leadership cohesion is its purpose.  As the late Colonel D.M. "Mike" Malone wrote,

The very essence of leadership is its purpose.  And the purpose of leadership is to accomplish a task [or mission].  That is what leadership does — and what it does is more important than what it is or how it works.  The purpose of leadership is to accomplish a task.10

In short, leadership is a collection of concepts, competencies, and principles which has evolved over time describing what a leader must be, know and do to accomplish a task or mission.  The successful leader is one who selects the right principles for the right mission at the right time to accomplish the objectives and take care of the troops.  

If soldiers are committed to a cause and perceive commitment and competence in their leaders, if soldiers see evidence that their leaders really care for their welfare, they will accomplish their missions if humanly possible and take care of one another and their leaders in the process.

Is Leadership Taught or Developed or Both?

Another challenge involves the question of whether leadership, however defined, can be taught.  Peter Senge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in a recent issue of Fortune magazine:

Teaching suggests that you have certain concepts you want people to understand, and that’s pretty useless in a domain like leadership.  Leadership has to do with how people are.  You don’t teach people a different way of being, you create conditions so they can discover where their natural leadership comes from.11

Professor Morgan McCall at the University of Southern California states succinctly, "I don’t believe leadership can be taught, but it can be learned."12  Larry Bossidy, Chief Executive Officer at Allied Signal Corporation, believes that leadership is at least partly genetic — a combination of personality traits, intelligence and propensities.  Pepsi Cola’s Vice Chairman, Roger Envico, noted:  "I have not tried to teach leadership to people who aren’t already good at it.  But it is a skill that can be hone and developed."13

Donald Horner, however, takes the opposite view:

Social science has repeatedly demonstrated that leadership can be taught.  John Gardner, eminent scholar, author, counselor to six U.S. presidents, states, "The notion that all the attributes of a leader are innate is demonstrably false.  Most of the capabilities that enable an outstanding leader to lead are learned.  Douglas MacArthur’s strategic and tactical brilliance in World War II was the product of a lifetime of study and action."14

COL Lloyd Matthews, USA Retired, a former West Point professor and a former editor of Parameters, recently observed somewhat wryly that the Army has been teaching leadership in classrooms since West Point was founded in 1802 — and at Fort Leavenworth, in Army service schools, and at the War College evidently with some effectiveness!15

Yet, one also must note that the Army rarely uses the term "teaching" when referring to leadership.  The preferred term seems to be "leadership development" which encompasses a process including both classroom instruction and practical application in the field.

There is a good deal of learning theory and historical data which suggests that any subject or skill is best taught by experiential learning rather than by classroom instruction alone.  The Army has long recognized the value of affective as well as cognitive learning.  In the words of Dr. Morris Massey, "We learn best from an experience which involves us both intellectually and emotionally."16  

Practical exercises, field training exercises, putting junior leaders in critical situations in training, as often and as extensively as possible with immediate constructive feedback, will teach leadership principles holistically and effectively.  In the long run, such training saves lives.

A Place for Spiritual Fitness in Leadership Training?

Most importantly, for chaplains who are learning to lead as well as to advise commanders and counsel soldiers, the practical links between Army values, leadership principles and spiritual fitness must not be broken.  Some commanders in the Army may wish to believe that Army values and Army leadership doctrine are sufficient to lead soldiers in combat.  That is not true.  Soldiers who face death must be confident in their own religious faith.  They must believe in their cause and be spiritually fit.  

No other branch in the Army except the Chaplain Corps has the mandate to facilitate the soldier’s free exercise of religion, to encourage faith.  This mission is critical and has been emphasized by scores of America’s senior leaders from George Washington to Stonewall Jackson, from Dwight Eisenhower to H. Norman Schwarzkopf.  No real, battle-tested leadership doctrine is complete without a recognition of the critical necessity for spiritual fitness.

Chaplains have a dual role, not merely to encourage faith and spiritual strength in soldiers, but also to support the same qualities in commanders.  When asked in 1993 what made chaplains of value to commanders during Operation Desert Storm, LTG John Yeosock, ARCENT commander, noted that a commander could talk to a chaplain in confidence.17  There were not many staff officers who could offer that kind of personal support for a combat leader as part of their recognized role and mission.  As GEN Edward C. Meyer, Chief of Staff of the Army from 1979 to 1983, observed, "The chaplain, like the artillery, is never held in reserve."18

Teaching spiritual fitness, because of the pluralistic composition of the Army and the right of every individual to freedom of conscience, will depend on the ingenuity and personal example of the chaplain and chaplain assistant.  There are many avenues, from prayer breakfasts to one-day retreats to homilies to personal counseling, available to emphasize this important supplement to official Army leadership doctrine.  Spiritual fitness must continue to be a theme of major emphasis in the Chaplain Corps.  

"Morality and faith are the pillars of our society," GEN George Washington observed in his Farewell Address, "May we never forget that."19


Soldiers do not risk their lives for flags, for praise or for medals.  They risk their lives for the love and respect they have for each other.  —  Ernie Pyle 

Finally, for those who teach leadership either formally in class and in training exercises, or informally by duty performance and example, it must be recognized that leadership development does not end with promotion.  The challenge for most leaders is to perform three functions simultaneously:  to accomplish assigned missions and tasks with excellence, to develop leadership ability in subordinates, and to take care of their soldiers and their own well-being.

Alexander the Great, son of Philip II of Macedon, subdued the largest tract of the earth’s surface ever to be conquered by a single individual — Genghis Khan’s short-lived empire excepted.  In 42 months he marched an army of 45,000 Greeks and Macedonians more than 3,500 miles, defeated three armies numbering 180,000 total soldiers, crushed the Persian Empire and inaugurated a new era in world history.20  The army of Alexander the Great was an ancient "Desert Storm" unto itself.  Yet in June, 323 B.C.E., Alexander died at age 32 from fever and too much wine.

Alexander of Macedon had led his troops successfully with all of the skills modern leadership doctrine encapsulates.  He tamed his wild horse, motivated his soldiers, unified his country, and defeated his enemies, but he could not tame the wild passions of his own nature.  For leaders at every level, in the present as well as in the future, Alexander’s challenge remains — we must teach, motivate, develop and lead, but we must not forget also to learn and to take care of ourselves and each other.


1.  Donald H. Horner, Jr., "Leader Development and Why It Remains Important," Military Review, July-August 1995, p. 76.

2.  BG Clayton Melton, Address to the Major Command Equal Opportunity Conference, Cocoa Beach, FL, 8 Dec 97.

3.  Data from the Department of the Army, Office of the Inspector General, 1996.

4.  LTC Bobby Little, "The Quest for Moral Fiber," U.S. Army War College Strategic Research Paper, 1996, Service Schools Tables.  Copy in the AWC Library, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

5.  Horner, loc. cit.

6.  Robert A. Fitton (ed.), Leadership: Quotations from the Military Tradition, : Westview Press, San Francisco, 1994, p. 178.

7.  Ibid., pp. 178-179.

8.  FM 22-100, Army Leadership, Revised Initial Draft, 1 Nov 97, p. 1-9.

9.  U.S. Army War College, Department of Command, Leadership and Management, Leading and Managing in the Strategic Arena, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1996, p. 96.

10.  FM 22-100, Army Leadership, Revised Initial Draft, 1 Nov 97, p. 4-1.

11.  Stratford Sherman, "How Tomorrow’s Best Leaders are Learning Their Stuff," Fortune, November 27, 1995, p. 92.

12.  Ibid.

13.  Ibid.

14.  Horner, op. cit., p.77.

15.  Conversation between COL Lloyd Matthews, Ret. and Chaplain (COL) John Brinsfield, U.S. Army War College, 4 Dec 97.

16.  Morris Massey, "Who You Are Is What You Were When," Videotape presentation, Warrant Officer Career College, Fort Rucker, AL, 1977.

17.  Personal interview, FORSCOM Chaplain’s Office, Fort McPherson, GA, July 1993.  

18.  Michael L. Selves, The Chiefs of Staff, United States Army: On Leadership and the Profession of Arms, The Information Management Support Center, The Pentagon, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 6.

19.  Fitton, op. cit., p.107.

20.  John Keegan, The Mask of Command, Penguin Books, New York, 1987, pp. 23-32.

Chaplain (COL) John W. Brinsfield serves as an instructor at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA.