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Document created: 1 September 07
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2007
Senior Leader Perspective
Many books and articles have extensively discussed the subject of leadership. In dealing with some of its aspects, therefore, one will likely repeat (albeit somewhat differently) what someone has already said. Basically, the essentials of good leadership in the profession of arms have changed little over the past decades. Although we still hold sound leadership in high esteem, poor leadership has become much less tolerable today and much more dysfunctional than it was 50 years ago. Rapid progress made in the modern technological era demands that present-day leaders use their abilities, attitudes, and perceptions to overcome the polarity caused by the vanity of human power and the neglect of life’s pristine values.
Leadership makes people place their faith and trust in a single leader whom they follow and for whom they are willing to give their best. Leaders must be able to inspire their followers by demonstrating superior qualities of body, mind, and character. Their success derives from inspiring their subordinates to think, feel, and act the way they do. A gift of character, leadership can be polished and improved.
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery of Great Britain defined leadership as “the will to dominate, together with the character which inspires confidence” (emphasis in original).1 To lead and dominate others, one must first acquire force of character tempered by energy, a sense of purpose and direction, integrity, enthusiasm, and moral courage. People look up to leaders and trust their judgement; leaders inspire and warm the hearts of their followers. Indeed, Field Marshal Sir William Slim of Australia viewed leadership as “the projection of personality.”2 In its highest sense, leadership is the goal that all officers must continually seek if they wish to remain worthy of their rank and insignia.
The qualities that we associate with great leadership are so numerous that no one can possess all of them. The following sections briefly discuss a selection of traits typical of celebrated leaders—traits that military officers should strive to acquire.
During the period of indecisive inactivity created by an emergency, some people may begin to act doggedly and inspire others to follow them by virtue of their physical prowess, outstanding appearance, or some kind of unique attribute. Such individuals may not have thought of being leaders but simply respond to situations more quickly and assertively than others. Alternatively, leaders-to-be may consciously assume that role and make themselves conspicuous. In the armed forces, we do not have to adopt either of these methods because conspicuousness comes naturally to us by virtue of our uniforms and insignia on the one hand and, on the other, by the training that prompts all personnel to turn to those of higher rank for guidance. Officers in the armed forces should therefore earnestly strive to acquire qualities that will mature and refine their leadership abilities.
Speaking of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Voltaire praises “that calm courage in the midst of tumult, that serenity of soul in danger . . . [which is] the greatest gift of nature for command.”3 Most people have physical courage but lack moral courage, which is indispensable for a leader. Moral courage consists in being honest and admitting one’s mistakes when things go wrong. It shows itself in the ability to make decisions, keeping interests of the service and the country in view against personal interest or self-perpetuation. Lack of moral courage can impel persons with ostensibly strong nerves and great character to make absolutely wrong decisions. Lacking moral courage and not ready to accept defeat, Adolf Hitler cost millions of people their lives. His generals, deficient in courage, turned him into an unbridled demon. By demonstrating moral courage, a leader can avoid many a wrong decision. The ability to make an unpopular decision calls for resolution, which leaders can cultivate.
Some leaders unfairly keep themselves too much in the sun and their followers too much in the dark. Under no circumstances should commanders be vague, remote, or inaccessible. When they walk unannounced into any camp, workshop, or office, people should recognize them immediately. It is more important to be recognized than to be popular.
Moral courage requires a leader or commander to report adversely on an inefficient subordinate and to differ with a superior whose actions run counter to the best interests of the service. Like Winston Churchill, who, at the beginning of World War II, offered to oppose Germany with his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” a leader should not waver under stress and strain.4 By cultivating the virtue of moral courage and the disposition to acknowledge one’s mistakes, a leader opens up the possibility of radical reformation. After demolishing the barrier of conceit, an officer can fully discuss any problem with his or her subordinates and may often find the solution most suited to the situation.
Good leaders work more than they talk, trying to become living symbols of their organization’s value system. Tactical leadership based on example and demonstration promotes group cohesion. Leaders exert an immediate and pervasive influence on those under their command. To serve as a good example to their subordinates, they must, therefore, set for themselves a strict moral code and code of discipline. If they wish to earn their followers’ respect and loyalty, they must meticulously correct their own attitude towards their superiors as well as subordinates. Quietly spoken by true leaders, a “Will you please?” commands a more immediate response than a bellow from people uncertain of themselves and afraid of their own authority.
All leaders must independently establish their own credibility. They must know their job and demonstrate that knowledge. To serve as an example means saying, “Come on,” not “Go on.” Officers must realize that junior officers closely note the way they talk and behave. They discuss their leaders’ idiosyncrasies among themselves, comparing and contrasting them with other officers and finally passing judgement. The efficiency or poor performance of a unit or section depends in great measure on this popular assessment. Every officer, therefore, should remain extremely wary about his or her conduct.
The credibility of leaders is a strong index of their troops’ high morale and unfailing loyalty, which cannot be secured by mere preaching. According to Brig Gen S. L. A. Marshall, “The doctrine of a blind loyalty to leadership is a selfish and futile military dogma except in so far as it is ennobled by a higher loyalty in all ranks to truth and decency.”5
Leadership’s reputation of firmness, competence, and fairness is an effective antidote to the pernicious “meltdown of trust” syndrome—an unfortunate phenomenon of contemporary civilization. By willingly making sacrifices, taking risks in the interest of the mission and the soldiers, and looking deeply inside to figure out what truly motivates people, a leader can cultivate and maintain a climate of mutual trust and confidence.
In today’s competitive environment, some leaders tend to abandon ethical considerations. By doing so, they stand to lose not only the respect and trust of their followers but also their own self-esteem. The principal quality that followers look for in a leader is integrity.
Ethical and intellectual integrity calls for moral courage as well as self-analysis and self-criticism. Of all virtues, honesty to oneself is the most difficult to cultivate, but once mastered, the others follow quite smoothly. One can easily find excuses for poor performance. An analysis of these excuses would reveal that although they contain a measure of truth, people exaggerate them to justify their own conduct to themselves. If people are honest with themselves, they can be honest with others. Some members of our armed forces pay lip service to integrity when they take examinations, participate in course exercises, fill out travel-allowance/daily-allowance claims, report sick to avoid some unpleasant duty, and make confidential reports on subordinates—whenever conscience and convenience seem to conflict with each other.6 At the end of the workday, officers should ask themselves, “Have I earned today’s salary?” This attitude will awaken dormant consciences and prod these officers to discharge their duties with a true sense of responsibility. To quote former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.”7
Officers of integrity are fearless and straightforward. They may not be adept at the art of public relations, but they are certainly dependable. They do not need to prop themselves up with such utterances as “By God!” to establish credibility; people simply love to work under their command.
A person’s perspective is conditioned by the amount of knowledge and understanding he or she has. A narrow outlook often creates a serious barrier to enlightened leadership. Leaders must transcend the petty confines of morbid discrimination, eschewing any consideration of branch, rank, language, sect, and so forth. Only broad vision can enable a leader to deal with a complex situation or experience, especially under trying conditions. An officer with myopic vision gets bogged down in minor issues, falls easy prey to prejudices, and remains captive to his or her own parochial thinking.
In essence, no natural or hereditary system exists for categorizing people as either leaders or followers. Such a false conception creates arrogance and snobbery on the one hand and unhappiness and prejudice on the other. The very delicate officer-subordinate relationship requires active cooperation and a great deal of mutual giving and taking—with more giving by the officer and more taking by the subordinate.
Temperamentally, the leader must be ready to accept responsibility. In the present environment of specialization, people tend to confine themselves to their professional field, treating extra but necessary tasks as an unwelcome burden. In fact, those additional duties normally afford people a good background as well as an opportunity to fully develop a sense of responsibility. One of the principles of good human management entails making workers realize that any job, small or insignificant though it may seem, is important and vitally related to the end product. This understanding will give those individuals a sense of importance, belonging, and, ultimately, pride in their achievement. Thoroughness in every sphere leads to general efficiency, on which depends the effectiveness and very survival of the military in an emergency.
The desire to improve the general scheme of things is a valuable asset. People with closed minds are likely to more easily accept the existing arrangement of things (status quo) without questioning usefulness, correctness, or quality. Enslavement to the status quo can deprive people of a chance to practice the art of creative thinking. It is desirable to foster and cultivate among people the passion to improve things—even for the sake of change. Of course, this can be carried too far, but with a little careful thought, one can strike a sensible balance.
The greater the number and variety of interests a person has, the greater would be his or her level of satisfaction and happiness. The narrow scope of our education pushes most of our young men and women past the high school and even the college stage without inculcating any worthwhile interest in life. Allowing these people to share and enjoy varied activities outside their working hours would enable them to discover and pursue the ones they like best and, in turn, help them develop maturer and fuller personalities marked with a great sense of purpose and meaning. It would also help overcome any tendencies towards introversion and would impart a more balanced outlook, thus making such people more useful leaders and better members of the service.
A certain amount of egoism has a definite motivating value for all human endeavors. But we should not allow the passion for power to get out of hand. All of us naturally aspire to develop a sense of individuality. A position of authority offers a rare opportunity to satisfy this urge. Unwary officers may demand too much adulation and personal loyalty, surrounding themselves with sycophants, yes-men, and “rubber stamps.” They may want their own way too much and too often, and may become too opinionated and obstinate about taking advice from colleagues and subordinates. In some cases, they may consciously enjoy a feeling of superiority and aloofness, manifesting itself in vanity, conceit, and self-pride.
A love for power and authority, although legitimate, should not unduly influence and color an officer’s behavior. It sounds shallow of an officer to say to his or her juniors, “I have 25 years’ service in this field. Are you trying to teach me?” Learning is a lifelong process. Just as “the rivers and seas . . . receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams . . . [but by] being lower than they . . . [become] kings of them all” (according to the Chinese sage Lao Tse), so is there no harm in learning from a soldier, a sailor, an airman, or a civilian.8
Modesty is the key to greatness. Merchandise of good quality will sell well without publicity.
Vain, conceited, boastful, and showy leaders fail to earn respect. Modest, self-confident commanders can earn the love of their colleagues and subordinates, but those filled with exaltation and wrongheaded pride expose themselves to ridicule. A wise leader’s tongue is under his mind, but a foolish leader’s mind is under his tongue.
To gain spiritual strength, leaders should set aside time to remember Allah. Meditation in the small hours of the night will soothe their souls and minds. In adversity, leaders should neither lose heart nor become despondent. Rather than becoming impatient, they should plough hard and let the seed grow into a plant, leaving its fruition to God. Those who believe in the dictum “Hard work works” and place their faith in God always remain happy and peaceful.
Wise officers do not exact obedience by sheer command. They talk of “we” rather than “I.” Aware of the fine distinction between “power over” and “power with,” they think of their juniors as colleagues. Despite being in positions of authority, they do not unduly concern themselves with their own importance and status. Their leadership is a happy blend of personal authority, persuasion, and inspiration. People whom they command feel honored and exhilarated by the power exercised over them. Such a unit or squadron becomes a happy and efficient community. Officers who create such a healthy environment are an invaluable asset to the service. They set a good example of mutual respect and regard, free from obsequiousness or obnoxious authority. Their followers never try to pull the wool over their eyes. Morale remains high, and life in the unit becomes a pleasurable experience.
Maintaining good relationships among the personnel working together in a unit or section is rightly considered the bedrock of loyalty and efficiency. It creates a family atmosphere, marked by common joy and shared happiness. Officers genuinely interested in the personal affairs of their subordinates will receive the love and respect of their followers. Let us heed Ken Blanchard’s advice: “The key to developing people is to catch them doing something right.”9 An officer must not be miserly in administering doses of praise at appropriate intervals in order to sustain group power. A subordinate commended for a certain quality will definitely strive to live up to it.
Shrewd officers jot down and remember important details from the personal lives of their subordinates. These particulars may pertain to their dates of birth and marriage, their pastimes, the names of their children, and so forth. Commanders who call even their lowest-ranking personnel by their first names need not worry about punctuality and lack of discipline among their staffs.
To be successful, officers should learn the art of fostering the spirit of willing cooperation in their subordinates, especially by using feedback. They should keep their people apprised of the state of affairs in the unit as well as the progress made on any matter of general interest that they have referred to higher authorities for a decision (or inform specific individuals if only they are affected).
Some officers create the spirit of competition among their personnel to promote efficiency. A system of incentives has proven very effective in motivating people to hard work. Though intangible, such incentives spur people to reach higher goals despite heavy odds. A person who feels respected and wanted will strive harder to maintain and even enhance such recognition.
Humans have an inherent and instinctive craving for discipline. Children do not like a weak teacher or father, nor do women like a weak husband. Similarly, people in uniform also have a low opinion about a weak officer. Real discipline emanates from willing submission to someone’s better judgement. Unfortunately, some airmen, soldiers, and sailors may not respond to the call of duty. If persuasion fails, the exercise of authority should unhesitatingly take the form of punishment, inflicted as soon as possible after a violation of rules. If investigations are necessary, they should proceed without delay.
Commanders who impose discipline in a whimsical and inconsistent manner quickly lose the respect of subordinates and lower their morale. Fair and consistent discipline, free from favoritism, is less likely to incur resentment than inconsistent discipline. Consistency does not imply that the penalty depends entirely upon the offense, without taking into account the personal history and background of the offender. Fairness requires that commanders take a lenient view of the first transgression and impose severer penalties for subsequent offenses.
Never before in our history have society’s values and expectations been more at variance with those that the military establishment considers indispensable. Military officers, however well trained and groomed, are not likely to practice pristine, ethical military conduct in isolation. The present sociocultural degeneration has become equally visible in the rank and file of our military service. Only an ethically sound and professionally capable leadership can stem the rot in military virtues. Facing today’s complexity and austerity, our military commanders must make clear choices regarding priorities and then support those priorities with more than words.
As we select, educate, train, and then trust our budding leaders, we need to provide them a suitable environment in which to work. This responsibility essentially devolves upon the higher echelons of leadership in the armed forces. Officers must conduct themselves as role models; merely delivering sermons and finely worded speeches would achieve little.
*Reprinted with permission of Shaheen, journal of the Pakistani Air Force.
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1. Bernard Law Montgomery, Military Leadership, Walker Trust Lectures on Leadership no. 8 (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1946), 4.
2. Field Marshal Sir William Slim, “Leadership in Management,” Australian Army Journal 1, no. 1 (June 2003): 145, http://www.army.gov.au/lwsc/AbstractsOnline/AAJournal/2003_W/AAJ_June_2003_Retrospect.pdf (accessed 7 January 2007).
3. Sir Edward Creasy, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo (London: R. Bentley, 1851), http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/readings/tfdbt10.htm (accessed 7 January 2007).
4. “Speeches and Quotes: Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat,” The Churchill Centre, http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=391 (accessed 7 January 2007).
5. S. L. A. Marshall, Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (1947; repr., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 200.
6. Pakistani Air Force personnel are entitled to claim travel and daily allowances while off station on official duty.
7. Ken Blanchard, The Heart of a Leader: Insights on the Art of Influence (Tulsa, OK: Honor Books, 1999), 120.
8. Lao Tse, The Tao and Its Characteristics, trans. James Legge, Project Gutenberg, e-text no. 216, http://www.kevinfitzmaurice.com/book_lao_tzu_tao.htm (accessed 7 January 2007).
9. Blanchard, Heart of a Leader, 4.
Air Commodore Aslam Bazmi, Pakistani Air Force, Retired (MA, University of Essex, United Kingdom; MA, Government College, Lahore, Pakistan), is a member of the faculty at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST Institute of Information Technology, Rawalpindi Cantt, Pakistan). He served as assistant chief of the Air Staff (Education) from April 2005 to July 2006. His essays and poems have been published in the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) journal Shaheen, the PAF Academy magazine Parwaz,and the Flight Safety Newsletter. Air Commodore Bazmi is the author of two collections of poems, two collections of essays, and articles that have appeared in the national print media.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.