The Silver Bullet of #Leadership

For countries to be successful in the complexity that is modern warfare, they must be an adaptable and agile force. Recent experiences around the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, demand that we develop cohesive teams that can thrive in the adversity found on the battlefields of today and in the future. These teams enable our nation to apply military instruments across every domain, present multiple dilemmas to our enemy, and compel outcomes by our presence. The U.S. Army’s Human Dimension Strategy, though Army-specific, presents a long-term vision for how military organizations can build these tools.[1]  It outlines the objectives and lines of effort needed, such as the need to develop agile and adaptive leaders with social intelligence.  In its most basic form, the human dimension is the interaction of two or more people that enables leadership.  Leadership is, and always will be, a human-to-human endeavor.   A key piece of being successful in this endeavor is when leaders have enhanced awareness and embrace social intelligence. It is an often neglected but critical component that empowers units to flourish in chaotic environments. The military needs trusted professionals who can navigate through complex social environments, build relationships, and communicate effectively. Leaders can build these skills today and in the future with social intelligence.

Leadership is the critical component to developing this adaptable and agile force.  It is timeless and the most important attribute our military requires to win decisively.  The future is and will remain uncertain, so our training and leader development must focus on these skills.  Effective leadership is enabled by social intellect and requires leaders caring about their people and their organization.  Although our great military leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and possess unique traits, Army Leadership doctrine, identifies twenty-one common character traits of an effective leader:[2]

  1. Effective leaders allow space for subordinates to experiment within the bounds of intent-based orders and plans.
  2. Effective leadership and leader development require mutual recognition and acceptance of leader and follower roles.
  3. Personal courage is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to put fear aside and do what is necessary.  Personal courage takes two forms: physical and moral. Effective leaders demonstrate both.
  4. Effective leadership begins with developing and maintaining a leader identity
  5. Effective leaders are careful not to require their people to violate their beliefs by ordering or encouraging unlawful or unethical actions.
  6. The confidence of an effective leader is contagious and permeates the entire organization.
  7. Effective leaders control their emotions.
  8. Effective leaders are steady, level-headed when under pressure and fatigued, and calm in the face of danger.
  9. Units achieve high morale through effective leadership, shared effort, trust, and mutual respect. High morale results in a cohesive team striving to achieve common goals. Competent leaders know that morale holds the team together and sustains it during operations.
  10. Effective leaders explain the standards that apply to their organizations and empower subordinates to enforce them.
  11. An effective leader instills discipline by training to standard, using rewards and punishment judiciously, instilling confidence, building trust among team members, and ensuring they have the necessary technical and tactical expertise.
  12. Effective leaders negotiate around interests rather than positions that tend to be static and unyielding. Negotiation situations often involve multiple issues such as lives, security, resources, and alliances.
  13. Effective leaders connect with their followers by sharing hardships and communicating openly to clearly see and feel what goes on from a subordinate’s perspective.
  14. Effective leaders observe their organizations by getting out to coach, to listen, and to clarify.
  15. Effective leaders strive to leave an organization better than they found it and expect other leaders to do the same.
  16. Effective leaders encourage open communications and candid observations.
  17. Effective leaders recognize that reasonable setbacks and failures occur whether the team does everything right or not. Leaders should express the importance of being competent and motivated, but understand weaknesses exist. Mistakes create opportunities to learn.
  18. Effective leaders update in-depth assessments since a thorough assessment helps implement changes gradually and systematically without causing damaging organizational turmoil.
  19. Effective leaders make thoughtful trade-offs between providing too much or too little guidance.
  20. Awareness, proper training, and open and frank discussion mitigate some of these factors. Army leaders must consider these external influences and plan accordingly. An effective leader recognizes the tools needed to adapt in changing situations.
  21. Effective leaders at the strategic level not only make timely decisions but also sense at what level of detail to engage and what to delegate.

Human-to-human interaction: A 7th Army NCO Academy mobile training team's Warrior Leader Course in the Czech Republic. (Photo courtesy of 7th Army NCO Academy)

Similar lists of character traits, displayed by effective leaders, can be found in other leadership references, books, and articles.  The list below summarizes the common traits, skills, and techniques needed to be effective according to several bestselling authors.[3]  The human dimension is again, at its core a human-to-human interaction. Those marked with a star (*) deal specifically with the human dimension of our profession; as can be seen, the human dimension permeates leadership:

  • Be honest with yourself and your team*
  • Be knowledgeable about your trade/profession
  • Character matters*
  • Invest in your people*
  • Lead and follow with equal passion*
  • Be loyal to those around you and yourself*
  • Remain self-disciplined
  • Do not feel entitled/remain humble
  • Communicate effectively*
  • Put people first*
  • Be the best individual, team member, manager, and leader you can be*
  • Have respect for people, the company, and the standards*
  • Do what you say you are going to do*
  • When you need help - ask*
  • Have a positive attitude*
  • Put your subordinates in positions to maximize their strengths and enable their development*
  • Seek advice and counsel when you are unsure*
  • Give great guidance to empower subordinates*
  • Clearly articulate the vision of the organization*
  • Create opportunity for the company and your people*
  • Make the company a place where others want to come to work*
  • Learn the power of no*

A leader has many areas to master in order to gain effectiveness. Almost all of the recommendations proposed by military and civilian authors require an increase of human interaction.  To become better at human interaction, a leader needs social intelligence:

Social intelligence is the ability to be an effective team member that thrives in complex social environments, adapts to diverse cultures, communicates effectively, and builds relationships.[4]

Social intelligence is paramount to effective leadership. Our leaders must possess this ability to successfully lead our forces today and in the future.  This enables leaders to maximize their organization’s potential, regardless of the environment.  However, training techniques for this skill are largely absent from leadership references, professional military education, and military doctrine. 

How do we as an institution train this skill to our leaders? 

The skill required improve social intelligence is simple: care.  Caring is the common thread within all examples of social intellect.  Focus leader development programs to instill the following traits to increase this intellect:

  • Care for subordinates
  • Care about the organization’s success
  • Care less about yourself than others by embracing servant leadership

Caring For Your Subordinates

Effective leaders care about their subordinate’s capabilities, well-being, and interests while maintaining a professional relationship. Standards must be enforced and candor is essential during this process. They are your Soldiers, not your friends.  Do not compromise your authority by developing an inappropriate relationship. Caring is ensuring your Soldiers know how to fight and win.  You are the primary trainer to develop proficiency in assigned duties and responsibilities.  Care enough to prepare them for their combat mission.

Care about their well-being, life challenges, relationships, and financial situation.  Care enough to be interested in what makes your Soldiers unique.  Learn about their interests and why they serve.  You cannot apply situational leadership without knowing who they are as individuals.

Leaders that care for their men and women remove the majority of a unit’s friction.  Removing this friction significantly increases available energy.  Each leader will use different techniques to care for their Soldiers, but as long as the feeling is genuine the leader will be successful in this endeavor.

Caring About Organizational Success

Leaders that care about the organization’s success see the big picture, solve problems that help the entire team, and identify areas for improvement.  Leaders that see the big picture and care about the success of the greater team are invaluable.  These leaders quickly improve the organization as all are focused on our combined success.  If the collective success of the organization always outweighs that of the subordinate team, everyone wins. 

Leaders must also identify roadblocks to the organization’s mission accomplishment.  Once identified, the leader must either fix the issue or ensure another member of the team removes the roadblock.

Lastly, leaders must find ways to improve the organization every day.  All of us must find ways to improve our unit’s systems, processes, and efficiency. When all leaders care about the organization in these three areas the result is predictable; success.

Caring Less About Yourself Than Others

Leaders are entitled to nothing, while Soldiers are entitled to everything.  Care less about your individual success and more about the success of others.  This is a great measurement of your character.

Leaders must care enough to remain humble and unentitled.  Some leaders develop a sense of self-importance and entitlement to the detriment of their organization and profession.  These character shortfalls ruin morale and culture.  As a leader, care less about yourself and more about your people.  When in doubt, put yourself last in priority.  The team will succeed because of your humility and focus.  Be proud of that accomplishment more than anything else. 


Future wars and missions will be fought under a variety of conditions. These include situations of extreme stress, complexity, and uncertainty. All of these factors are enhanced through social intelligence. By adding the principles of care, leaders will learn empathy and improve their comprehension of their units. They will develop the habit of mind that leads to social awareness. A greater mindfulness of people and what frames their actions will empowers leaders and units to better understand their operating environment, opening the door to creative solutions.

The demands on the military leaders of the future will change.  However, effective leadership empowered by social intelligence allows our men and women to lead and inspire their followers today and in the future.  Leaders that care enable our collective success through their social intellect. Caring is the silver bullet of leadership; everything else is technique.

Ross Coffman is a U.S. Army officer with extensive leadership experience. He has held numerous command and staff positions over the past 20 years at home and abroad. He currently serves as the chief of staff of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] U.S. Army, The Human Dimension Strategy, Fort Leavenworth, KS, May 24, 2015.

[2] U.S. Army, Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership, Fort Leavenworth, KS,

[3] These include: Achua, Christopher F., and Robert N. Lussier. Effective Leadership (Mason, Ohio: South-Western, 2010); Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leapand Others Don't (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001); Hersey, Paul. The Situational Leader (New York, NY: Warner, 1985); Hesselbein, Frances, and Eric K. Shinseki. Be, Know, Do: Leadership the Army Way: Adapted from the Official Army Leadership Manual (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004); Ruggero, Ed, and Dennis F. Haley. The Leader's Compass: Set Your Course for Leadership Success (King of Prussia, PA: Academy Leadership, 2003); and Sullivan, Gordon R., and Michael V. Harper. Hope Is Not a Method: What Business Leaders Can Learn from America's Army (New York: Times Business, 1996).

[4] U.S. Army, The Human Dimension Strategy, p.8.

Suggested Reading

  • Achua, Christopher F., and Robert N. Lussier. Effective Leadership. Mason, Ohio: South-Western, 2010.
  • Army Leadership. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Departments of the Army, 2012.
  • Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap—and Others Don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001.
  • Hersey, Paul. The Situational Leader. New York, NY: Warner, 1985.
  • Hesselbein, Frances, and Eric K. Shinseki. Be, Know, Do: Leadership the Army Way. Adapted from the Official Army Leadership Manual. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
  • Kshirsagar, R.K. Social and Political Thought of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. New Delhi: Intell. Publ. House, 1992.
  • Nye, Joseph S. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.
  • Nye, Joseph S. The Powers to Lead. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
  • Nye, Joseph S. The Future of Power. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011.
  • Ruggero, Ed, and Dennis F. Haley. The Leader's Compass: Set Your Course for Leadership Success. King of Prussia, PA: Academy Leadership, 2003.
  • Sullivan, Gordon R., and Michael V. Harper. Hope Is Not a Method: What Business Leaders Can Learn from America's Army. New York: Times Business, 1996.
  • Sunzi, Ralph D. Sawyer, and Mei-chün Sawyer. The Art of War.
  • TRADOC PAM 525-3-1. The U.S. Army Operating Concept, Win in a Complex World. 31 Oct 2014