The heart of leadership, especially within the profession of arms, is summarized with a single word: influence. Influence is the ability to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something. As leaders, we must begin by first and foremost understanding this fundamental principle. People can be influenced one of two ways: through mandate leadership or through organic leadership. Understanding these two very different approaches to influence will in large measure determine not only what type of leader we are, but also the effectiveness of our leadership in shaping the behavior of others.
The most important place to start in the leadership development journey is understanding the foundational attributes of mandate versus organic leadership skills. Mandate leadership is also better known as positional leadership. This form of leadership basically says, “You will do this because I outrank you…because I am your boss…because I have the ability to punish you if you do not do it.” While there are many examples where this type of leadership is appropriate, especially in time-intensive scenarios (e.g., combat), for the majority of our interaction with subordinates this is the weakest and most ineffective form of leadership. Unfortunately, it is also the most used and is routinely the go-to approach for those who lack the ability or understanding to lead through trust and inspiration.
Organic leadership focuses less on the authority provided through a position and more on the people’s trust, commitment, and loyalty to the process or objective. Organic leadership requires an understanding of one’s subordinates, knowing their stories, appreciating who they are as individuals, and then tailoring your interaction with them based on their unique capabilities…all with the deliberate design to establish trust. When a leader takes the time to lead his or her folks organically, production increases, retention is higher, problems have better more lasting solutions, and those involved feel rewarded simply by a job well done. Why? Because all of us want to feel we make a unique difference. All of us want some degree of ownership in our work. All of us find more satisfaction in personally accomplishing something positive than merely doing a job.
One might say at this point that organic leadership appears overly soft or not applicable within the profession of arms. While one might have that perception, the empirical analysis and results of what is often called “servant leadership” is clear: higher productivity, greater buy-in, better solutions, increased subordinate commitment, and overall healthier work environments. Furthermore, organic leadership is anything but soft. There remains a high degree of accountability, individual responsibility, and by-name visibility of outcomes. When work is made more personal, not only does the production increase, the accountability also increases because folks can no longer hide.
In the traditional leader-follower model that most mandate (positional) leaders rely on, followers are less plugged into the end state, have little to no buy-in to the problem solving process, and often fail to take any responsibility for the success or failure of the outcomes. While in an organic leadership environment, where individual capabilities are tailored and engineered to take part in the developmental process, the environment changes from the traditional perspective of leader and follower to “leader and leader-in-training.” The result of this environment is one where everyone on the team has a part to play, adds to the success, and has ownership of the outcome. Leaders are responsible to develop this environment, or not.
So if production increases, motivation rises, and solutions are better under an organic leadership style, why do so many, especially within the profession of arms, use the mandate or positional leadership approach? Because it is easier. Organic leadership is an art, requires tough habits of thought, and takes people skills. These attributes are not only rare within the profession of arms, they are not necessarily taught. A quick assessment of professional military education shows a lack of courses in human bias, mental entrenchment, or the consequence of power, let alone the physiological realities of personal decision making and individual behavior within the context of human neuromodulators (i.e., oxytocin, adrenaline, dopamine, etc.). In those few examples where a class or two surfaces on these subjects, a very small fraction of the military leadership team ever have the opportunity to actually receive that specific education. So, unless one is lucky enough to have had a mentor, or coach, or even a parent who taught organic leadership skills, leaders are left with only one way to get others to do things—mandate leadership.
Additionally, nearly all the current performance evaluation systems fail to measure the most important attribute of leaders: their human relationship skills. In nearly thirty years of military service as an officer, I never read an officer evaluation report that said, “Make this officer a commander because he/she knows how to build trust with their people.” Moreover, I never read an enlisted performance report that said, “Make this leader a supervisor because they are gifted at building commitment and loyalty in their teams.” I have read a lot about the number of successful flights, physical fitness scores, and how much money was managed or saved, but little to nothing about the human condition, the level of mentorship, council, or the level of humility that great leaders require. Why? Because like most institutions, militaries tend to make important only those things that can be measured. This myopic perspective risks promoting individuals to high ranks who are toxic, lack integrity, or fail to get past their own self-worth.
So, what do we do and where do we go from here? First, we should re-examine how we are growing our leaders. From the moment we first engage with new recruits in officer accessions, the goal should be to build trust. Trust that they made the right decision to serve their country. Trust that the limitations they have placed on themselves are artificial and that they can do more. Trust that their decision to serve will provide a better future self; not necessarily a wealthy, comfortable, or easy future self; rather, a future self that takes extreme pride in a job well done, pleasure in the charity their life provides to mankind, and joy in knowing they are building a life worth living. We must then deliberately engineer a continuum of education, opportunities, and learning that teach them the human code: personal bias, generational diversity, consequences of power, mental entrenchment, listening skills, leading through tragedy, emotional balance, and critical thinking to name a few.
This is the profession of arms; human lives are often the target. Within this profession, leaders must be more than simply positional figures of authority; they must be masters of the human condition, experts of influence, decision making, and relationship. They must be capable of inspiring others even in tragedy, motivating their people to go beyond their self-imposed limits, and fostering a sense of worth, respect and ownership within every environment they own. In short, they must be leaders–real, thoughtful, skilled, leaders.
To develop these kind of leaders, we must start by examining, in detail, the evidence that a judge or jury could convict you on that involves the following four violations: charity, optimism, humility, and empathy.
Charity, Optimism, Humility, Empathy
Ask yourself what evidence in your life (marriage, parenting, work environment) exists that could convict you as a man or women in regard to these four attributes. In other words, could you be convicted if charity was outlawed? How about if humility was a crime? Would there be enough or any evidence to bring you up on charges of empathy? You may have a couple of them in your life but need a couple of them to be grown. What you will find is that the more these four characteristics are present and evidenced in your life–in you–the better parent, spouse, and leader you will be. Why? Because with these attributes you will begin to be the type of leader that brings out a better version of the people around you. Leaders with evidenced attributes of charity, optimism, humility, and empathy build trust with those around them (at home and work) which in turn allows for a high degree of influence—recall that at the heart of all leadership is influence.
The result will be that your people will have greater buy-in, show increased loyalty to the end-state, be proud of taking part in the processes, and they will help to ensure that everything you need them to do is done with excellence, from garrison to combat. So, what kind of leader are you going to be?
Dr. Jeffrey Smith is the Senior Executive Advisor to the Profession of Arms Center of Excellence for the United States Air Force. He served nearly thirty years as an officer, pilot, and commander before retiring from the Air Force in 2015. He has published in the areas of leadership, character development, and Air Force organizational change. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day on June 5, 1944, “Full victory — nothing else” to paratroopers somewhere in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe. (Library of Congress)
 While there are numerous sources that have shown the relationship between effective leadership and productivity, see for example Savolainen and Hakkinen, "Trusted to Lead: Trustworthiness and its Impact on Leadership," Technology Innovation Management Review, March 2011, http://timreview.ca/article/429.
 While this term has been used for a number of years and has even been the title of some publications, the original work can be credited to Robert Greenleaf. See https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/
 Multiple and widespread literature within the discipline of neuroscience. For one example of many, see https://edge.org/conversation/molly_crockett-molly-crockett-the-neuroscience-of-moral-decision-making