Reflections on Tailoring #Leadership for a Perfect Fit

Leadership is an often-discussed subject. It is, however, rarely defined and people tend to view leadership much like the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described pornography in Jacobellis vs. Ohio—they “know it when they see it.” Leadership has close cousins in management and supervision and at different times includes all four of the core attributes identified by the Chief of Naval Operations—integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness—as well as activities as diverse as communication, motivation, coaching, discipline and planning, to name but a small sample. A leader the is calm voice giving commands on a chaotic bridge, a general devising a brilliant invasion plan, a field grade officer making sure his soldiers are properly prepared for an upcoming deployment, a program manager helping to sharpen the thinking of a design engineer, or a Service Secretary persuading Congress and the public on the value of his service’s capability to the nation. Perhaps the only thing one can say about good leadership that applies universally is that to be effective, it must be tailored to fit.

Perhaps the only thing one can say about good leadership that applies universally is that to be effective, it must be tailored to fit.

What is meant by “tailored to fit”? Consider all the roles a leader could be called on to play. A captain of a ship is part coach, part skilled practitioner, part taskmaster, and part disciplinarian. The four star combatant commander several levels up the chain of command from that ship captain must be a diplomat, a visionary, a public orator, and, perhaps, a politician. A leader must decide both what activities to pursue and how they will be pursued. The wise leader must consider at least four factors in tailoring his or her leadership.

U.S. Army Drill Instructor (Sgt. Ken Scar, U.S. Army Photo)

First, leadership must be tailored to one’s team. A drill sergeant is charged to lead newly inducted recruits in their initial military training. The commodore of a destroyer squadron must lead his or her staff of mid-grade professionals and the subordinate commanding officers within the squadron. A service chief leads a team of three and four star officers across a broad enterprise of activities. These examples exist at the extreme ends of the leadership spectrum. The drill sergeant’s recruits are likely very young, with little or no personal experience to add to the mission at hand. This would obviously call for a highly directive leadership style. The service chief, at the other end, leads a team of long serving professionals who are all themselves highly experienced, educated, and intellectually gifted. The wise service chief would have a highly interactive leadership relationship among the flag and general officers in that service. However, it is not only experience level that must be taken into account. The abilities, beliefs, motivations, incentives, and cultural norms of the member of the team to be led are but a sample of the factors that must be considered in developing a strategy for leadership.

Achieving a better tomorrow is worth more than fixing a short term, transient, issue.

Second, leadership must be tailored to the mission. The first and often most important mission-related factor is duration, or the ability of a leader to balance the needs of the here and now with the demands of the future. The preparation of a destroyer’s crew for an overseas deployment is typically the work of 12-18 months. However, any given mission on that deployment might last from several hours to several weeks. Conversely, building that destroyer likely took the better part of four years, longer if one considers the manufacturing of key early components such as engines and transmissions. Leadership in an enduring endeavor will tend to be highly process focused; that is, the leader will spend a great deal of time and effort in developing ways to accomplish the assigned mission in a more efficient manner. Achieving a better tomorrow is worth more than fixing a short term, transient, issue. For some leaders however, their entire mission is transient. The division officer on that destroyer is rightly more focused on how to safely take on fuel today than wondering how to improve the manner in which the Navy transfers fuel in the future. However, most leaders, at any level above the most junior, experience the tension between a focus on the future and the needs of the present. From an aircraft squadron commander who must balance sorties flown today with aircraft availability for future missions to the Secretary or Minister of Defense who must choose between spending precious budget on either force training or equipment procurement, a leader balances the needs of the short and long term.

There are additional mission-related considerations besides duration that will influence how a leader interacts with his or her team and to what activities a leader chooses to allocate time. Some leadership positions require a great deal of external focus. The staff of a senior operational commander will spend time planning and coordinating with allied forces. Even a relatively junior leader who is in a supporting role, such as the supply officer on a ship, spends a significant amount of time on understanding their customers’ needs. Other leadership positions are almost entirely inwardly focused. The drill sergeant training soldiers, the maintenance chief ensuring aircraft are ready to fly, chief engineer readying a propulsion plant for sea are all primarily focused on interaction with their own team vice external influencers. A leader must understand when to spend time on outside activities and when to go inside the organization.

Third, leadership must be tailored to the environment. The environment is not only, nor even primarily, physical. A leader’s environment is made up of the formal rules, customs, practices, and taboos of the leader’s organization and the society at large. A leaders style and actions must either fit within these constraints or the leader must at least be willing to bear the consequences for operating outside these limits. For example, there was a time in the history of the U.S. Navy when public humiliation of junior officers by their reporting senior was seen as a rite of passage and a growth experience. Today, even if a commanding officer truly believed one of his or her ensigns would benefit from being berated during a bridge watch, the culture would not tolerate that action. An officer leading an organization with a large civilian population will not only have a different set of leadership and discipline tools at his or her disposal, but also a different culture. Such a leader will have to adapt his or her leadership to that culture (perhaps changing both the leader and the culture) to be successful.

A leader’s chain of command is also part of the leadership environment and can both empower and constrain a leader. The priorities and philosophy of the leader’s superiors will affect all the leader’s actions. If the leader’s superiors have the ability and circumstances to be patient, a leader will be able to focus on long-term improvement. A boss who is less risk tolerant will drive a leader to a more traditional approach to the organization mission accomplishment. The wise leader understand his or her bosses two or three levels up the chain of command and adjusts both actions and style accordingly.

Willie Applegarth and Sam Mussabini at the 1912 Olympics (Public Domain)

Finally, leadership must be tailored to the leader. Every leader will have strengths and weaknesses. In the movie Chariots of Fire, the famous coach Sam Mussabini said to sprinter Harold Abrahams, “You can't put in what God left out.” Not everyone is born with a gift of oratory. It is easier to project strength if one is tall or beautiful or intense. Leaders need to have an accurate self-inventory of what innate skills they possess, what they can develop over time, and what will simply be lacking. A good leader plays to strengths and often delegates those tasks that are required of the leader but not “in the wheelhouse” to a trusted deputy. A great leader then works to expand his or her leadership skill set so they are capable of taking on a wider variety of leadership challenges. One of the oldest examples of this comes to us from the Bible. Moses knows he will have to make powerful arguments to Pharaoh, but does not speak well in public. So, Moses uses his brother Aaron to speak for him to Pharaoh. However, after the Exodus, Moses spends more and more time speaking to the Children of Israel. By the end of story, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers three extended sermons to his people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. These sermons constitute some of the most eloquent and powerful prose to be found in Scripture. Moses, as a leader, knew what his limitations were, and then took actions to both mitigate them in the short term and overcome them in time.

For an emerging leader, developing leadership can be like picking out one’s clothes. At a minimum, they must fit the leader. However, they also should look good to the people the leader will see, keep the leader warm or cool as appropriate, and be as informal or dressy as the occasion requires. Like leadership, those clothes are tailored for the team, the mission, the environment and the leader. In the end, truly great leadership is like a fine hand made suit. It has been planned, measured, cut and stitched together by a master craftsman to achieve a perfect fit.


Mark Vandroff is a 1989 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He has spent 10 years as a Surface Warfare Officer and nearly 17 years as an Engineering Duty Officer. He currently serves as Major Program Manager for DDG 51 Class Shipbuilding. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header Image: Raven JTAC at CALFEX, NTC, California. May 2016 | Jason Koxvold, Bridge Featured Contributor