Reflections on Persuasive #Leadership: Leading When You're Not In Charge

“I write this after coming to the realization that in my entire time as a Major, I have neither rated, senior rated, nor been in charge of anyone”

Multiple sources describe the future operating environment in which the United States military expects to operate. These include the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, the Joint Staff’s Joint Operating Environment, the Army’s Army Operating Concept, and fictional novels such as P.W. Singer’s Ghost Fleet.[1] These sources describe an environment in which the U.S. military can expect to work with multiple nations, private organizations, and U.S. government agencies. Further, in the future the U.S. will find itself with a higher level of dependence on allies and partners. This requires men and women who can lead teams composed of individuals from various organizations outside their own. This environment demands persuasive leadership: the ability to lead when not specifically in charge of anyone.

...leadership comes from investment in one’s personal resources and relationships to build a foundation of trust amongst seniors, peers, and subordinates...

Throughout the course of a military career, command opportunities are rare. For example, In the Army, officers may spend 18 months as a Company Commander, and then be lucky enough 10-12 years later to be selected for battalion command. Noncommissioned officers do not command units. However, command, according to Richard Neustadt, is but one method of persuasion.[2]

For most officers at the operational and strategic level, persuasive leadership begins as an obscure major or lieutenant colonel on a corps or combatant command staff. On these staffs, the ability to lead through persuasion does not come with an assigned position. Rather, leadership comes from investment in one’s personal resources and relationships to build a foundation of trust amongst seniors, peers, and subordinates. However, persuasive leadership is not limited to staff officers. Indeed, when a commander is at the operational or strategic level, such as combatant commander seeking to influence policy, he or she may not have the authority to do so. This requires persuasive leadership, too.

Four pillars support persuasive leadership. The first is reputation; without a reputation, and ability to lead individuals from various organizations in doubt. The second is intellectual openness; officers must be open to ideas and accepting of products from other individuals and organizations with which they may not be comfortable, but whose cooperation is important to mission success. The third is competence; to persuade others to follow, one must establish a level of professional competence. Finally, persuasive leadership requires a network; professional networks are cumulative and create collective solutions to the problems we face.


A professional reputation can take years to build but can be destroyed in an instant.

Leaders build their own reputation. As officers, non-commissioned officers and government civilian employees progress through their careers they stand on that reputation. Reputation can be good for persuasion or bad, making it easier, harder, or nearly impossible.[3] A professional reputation can take years to build but can be destroyed in an instant. Moreover, in the age of social media, a leader’s reputation (good or bad) carries over from one assignment to another. In the interconnected world, reputation can impact the ability to lead in multinational organizations. Leaders in allied and partner nations can quickly identify the faults of their counterparts with a quick internet search. A leader’s ethics and morals underpin their professional reputation, as those who follow should be convinced of both the skills and values of a leader.[4]

To practice persuasive leadership, an officer must have a reputation for providing informed advice, and when necessary dissent. Speaking truth to power is a unique obligation associated with senior leadership. Officers with a reputation for providing open, candid, and respectful advice often gain the most time and attention from senior decision makers. Further, gaining the reputation for inclusiveness in the creation of orders, plans, and other products from members of a disparate team creates an environment where people want to contribute to the effort at hand.

Intellectual Openness

No one has a monopoly on relevant experience and practical wisdom. Persuasive leadership demands that one be open to different points of view. Indeed, the encouragement of subordinates, peers, and others to express their views as directly as possible is paramount. All members of a team should feel that their views have been both expressed and heard. Failing to listen to other members of a team will only ensure they do not show up when you need them in the future. Further, without buy-in from other members of the staff or team, it is unlikely they will support a leader’s proposal. Persuasive leaders must be open and willing to communicate up, down, and across each level of command.

No one has a monopoly on relevant experience and practical wisdom.

Intellectual openness allows a leader to leverage all ideas on the table, improving the probability of meeting the mission in the best way possible. Moreover, intellectual openness can lead to a positive reputation as a leader who considers all points of view. When a leader can bring out the best ideas through open and honest discourse, the content of their product tends to be looked upon more favorably. This builds a leader’s reputation as a competent individual, tying into the next pillar.


A third aspect of professional reputation is competence. The greater confidence and ability one has in the science of their respective job, the greater leeway they will have in practicing the art. A solid foundation in service and joint doctrine (e.g., Joint Publication 5-0) allows a staff officer leading an operational planning team to use his or her imagination in creating courses of action for a commander.

Similar to professional reputation, competence is cumulative. Individuals must take the time to build up a level of confidence with their peers through participation and constructive input within operational planning teams and working groups. The more one displays competence over time, the more likely he or she will have the opportunity to run their own working groups, planning teams or serve as a project lead. Moreover, clear communication with people inside and outside a respective organization establishes a level of competence for a leader. Nothing will more quickly paint an individual as incompetent than being unable to communicate up the chain, to peers, and to stakeholders outside the organization. Communication alone will not cement competence, as one can effectively communicate bad ideas, but good ideas and initiatives go nowhere without it. Further, people tend to congregate around competent individuals, who in turn continually build networks with other competent individuals. This leads to the next pillar of persuasive leadership, networks.


Professional networks require more than a LinkedIn account or activity on social media. Building a professional network is a cumulative effort. For the military officer, this starts upon commissioning and continues throughout his or her career. Frequently, in leading operational planning teams, writing teams, or other efforts on operational and strategic level (to include multinational) staffs, one must leverage their personal relationships with members of the staff, subordinate, higher, and parallel organizations. Indeed, these personal relationships began in environments such as the Officer Basic Course, Command and General Staff College, Air Command and Staff College, NATO schools, as well as previous assignments. In essence, developing plans and products for senior leaders often requires favors.

Practically, building networks to enable persuasive leadership means offering brainpower to help others when asked. It may mean minor editorial remarks on an information paper, or participation in an operational planning team where your section has no immediate interests. Gaining a second look at a product or participation in an operational planning team may be easier if you have helped others in the past. This network aspect ties into a leader’s reputation.


The ability to persuade others is paramount to success at every level. Effective persuasive leadership can turn ideas into approved contingency plans, doctrine, concepts, or programs of record. Convincing others of the importance of a project or plan to gain their support and effort can be the difference between success and failure.

From the battalion staff NCO to an action officer in the Pentagon, persuasive leadership looks to support warfighters. Walking an idea through the Pentagon or gaining approval through various in-progress reviews for a contingency plan provides the warfighter the best materials, or the most well-thought-out strategy to win on the battlefield. Reputation, competence, intellectual openness, and networks will empower leaders to bring into fruition persuasive leadership at the operational and strategic levels. The satisfaction of this leadership occurs when the officer, looking at the large screen in the headquarters, understands that the icons moving on the map are soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines operating under the best plans and operations a staff could develop.

Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Raven Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) at a combined arms live fire exercise, National Training Center, California. May 2016 | Jason KoxvoldBridge Featured Contributor.


[1] National Intelligence Council. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (2012, December). Retrieved from TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The 2014 Army Operating ConceptWin in a Complex World. October 2014. Peter W. Singer. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2015).

[2] Richard E. Neustadt. 1990. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership From Roosevelt to Reagan. (New York: The Free Press, 28).

[3] Neustadt, pg. 54.

[4] Neustadt, pg. 50.