On Leadership

by Colonel Dan


The Cowboy Chronicle

February 2005  


“A leader is one who leads by example, whether he intends to or not.”  ~ Anonymous ~

Many who lived by and learned from America’s military ethic have always believed that leadership is a divine privilege and that leadership by example—good or bad—is the very essence of how a leader shapes that privilege.   

Asking your troops to do only that which you would be willing to do, could do, did do and are doing yourself earns you the moral authority to ask of them that which you must ask—and at times, that’s asking a lot.   Robert E Lee captured better than any the depth of what “asking a lot” sometimes really means.

“To be a good soldier, you must love the army.  To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.”

While legal authority gives you the muscle over your soldiers, moral authority gives you their hearts and minds which makes all the difference in being a leader in name only or in fact thus justifying your right to “ask a lot” when necessary.

Although having that legal authority over the troops you lead, it doesn’t take long for good leaders to learn that moral authority is by far more effective. 

Moral authority does not come with a commission from Congress on a fancy piece of parchment and you can’t buy it at any price—it must be earned by the sincerity of what’s in your soul, not the flaunting of what’s on your collar. 

Moral authority instills confidence and eager followership in the troops.  They want to follow out of a sense of pride as opposed to being forced to follow under a threat of punishment.  They sense and are confident in your sincerity, your personal concern for them, that the capability within you is genuine and that you are worthy of trust.

I remember well two platoon leaders that worked for me once that were paradigms of contrast.  One established the moral authority within his platoon by being out front and the example for all.  In physical training, he ran further and faster than he asked of his troops and did more push ups and sit-ups.  In the field, he was out front with the scouts instead of in the rear staring at a map.  His integrity was impeccable and his word was gold—he never lied to or deceived them.  He stood by his men in every time and circumstance and took a concerned interest in everything they did.  He expected a lot but gave even more and his men followed him without question or hesitation.  They had tremendous pride in their platoon and its leader who inspired in them a desire to strive for greatness—then showed them the way to get there. They would have followed him anywhere and without ever looking back.

In short, he was the embodiment of John C Maxwell’s vision, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”

The other was one who relied on legal authority and threats to get his troops to do anything.  He never led the way in physical training because he couldn’t.  He could not keep track of his personal gear nor did he take time to learn and follow the established procedures himself yet he recommended numerous soldiers for punishment who lost their gear or didn’t follow or understand regulations.  His own vehicle rarely if ever made it through a week in the field without breaking down because he never saw to the maintenance of it yet he routinely screamed at crews that similarly broke down.  He never qualified during gunnery exercises and was quick to undercut his own soldiers if he thought their actions would reflect badly on him.  He was the poster child for disingenuous behavior and routinely lied to his men, covering up his own faults at every turn. 

As a result, his platoon had the worst morale and behavior of any unit within the Squadron.  He had the highest rate of platoon misconduct and his men went around with their chins constantly down—they hated being soldiers and I hated seeing that. 

This platoon leader had no moral authority whatsoever and his troops couldn’t have cared less about anything he said because he did not live up to what he demanded.  He was just a bad leader whose similarly bad example had real impact on the troops. 

In the end, I relieved him and the day I took that action, I could sense the spirit within the platoon rise.  The new platoon leader established his moral authority with the troops, leading them by personal example.  He asked of them the same that he asked of himself.  The turn around was dramatic but not amazing—it was natural.

Can we learn anything from bad leaders?  Yes.  I once heard General Norman Schwarzkopf say that he learned more from bad examples of leadership over the years than he did from good because the bad example pointed out in spades what he should never do and that stuck with him!

Those that follow any leader, be it military or civilian, look to that leader for the example—the acceptable standard and they expect those standards to be high. 

The standard the leader sets for himself becomes the standard for all.  I believe most everyone sincerely wants to do well and have pride in what they do but if the leader can’t or won’t attain the same level he demands of them, that demand rings hollow and quickly becomes meaningless in the eyes of those soldiers.  The unit eventually becomes ineffective, downtrodden and in dire need of significant change at the top. 

Whose fault is it when such a situation arises?  Is it the troops who realize they’re not up to par and gravitate to the lowest level they can get by with or is it the fault of the leader who fails to lead by good example and thus instill the ethic of strong dedicated followership in the led?  There’s no question about it; it’s the leader’s fault, pure and simple even if he is oblivious to that stark reality of any leader’s life.

Does this principle of leadership by example apply only to the military or does it apply universally throughout humanity? 

I’ve seen both sides of fence and have led a few folks in my life, both in the Army and in the corporate world.  I can tell you that leadership by example is just as effective in the civilian world as it is in the military—and just as important.  Why?  Because we’re human—soldier and civilian alike and we look for and admire the same qualities in those we follow—in or out of uniform.  It is just a fundamental and indisputable fact—leaders lead by example, intended or not.

Just the view from my saddle…



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