In Extremis Leadership

Leading others when the chips are down.

Posted Jul 26, 2014

In last month’s blog I suggested that psychology should be the disciplinary home for the scientific study of leadership.  One of the most exciting recent developments in leadership research is the emerging focus on in extremisleadership.  This refers to leading others in situations that involve a tangible threat to life and limb, and to psychological well-being. The military, law enforcement and fire departments, and emergency first responders are obvious examples.  Others include mountain guides, parachute demonstration teams, and dangerous industrial settings, such as mining.

Leadership scholar Thomas A. Kolditz.

Dr. Thomas A. Kolditz introduced the concept of in extremis leadership in a 2007 book entitled In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended on it (published by Jossey-Bass).  Kolditz, the former head of the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department  at West Point, and currently a Professor of Practice in Leadership and Management at Yale University, is a social psychologist with a life-long interest in leadership, from both a scientific and personal perspective.  Soon after completing his doctorate in social psychology from the University of Missouri in 1985, he was commissioned as an Army officer and spent the next 26 years serving in a variety of leadership roles. He led platoons, companies, and battalions through difficult and dangerous training as well as operational deployments.   At West Point, he served as the officer representative of the parachute team.  Along the way, he had many occasions to observe others leading in these challenging and often dangerous situations, and began taking note of behaviors, traits, and characteristics that differentiated those who were able to lead successfully in those situations, and those who could not.

After joining the West Point faculty in 2000, Kolditz began a program of empirical research into what he soon dubbed in extremisleadership.  Using a variety of research methods including observation, interviews, and surveys (this is not a topic that lends itself to controlled experimentation!), Kolditz identified a consistent pattern of traits, skills, and attitudes that characterizes those who are successful in leading others in these dynamic and dangerous settings.  Specifically, he found that successful in extremis leaders (1) possess an inherent motivation for the task, (2) embrace continuous learning, (3) share risk with their followers, (4) adopt a lifestyle in common with their followers, and (5) are highly competent, and inspire trust and loyalty in others. 

For example, consider two hypothetical army company commanders.  A company commander is in charge of about 150 soldiers.  Even in peacetime, training can be dangerous.  And in the past 13 years, these commanders also have led their subordinates into combat.  Who would you rather have as your commander?  Consider the case of “Bob.” Bob joined the army for a steady paycheck and job security, spends his spare time studying the stock market instead of learning new military tactics and procedures, and orders his soldiers out on missions while staying at his desk.  Rather than live on post with his soldiers, he rents an expensive condominium miles away and is seldom seen by his soldiers except when at work.  Moreover, he doesn’t possess the same degree of competence in basic soldier skills as the sergeants under his command.

In contrast, “Ray” wanted to be an army officer since childhood, and loves every aspect of the job.  He takes every opportunity to learn new skills, is the first member of his company to jump out of the airplane, and he “leads from the front” (putting himself at equal or even more risk than his soldiers).   Although he maintains a professional relationship with his subordinates, he lives on post near his soldiers and joins them in recreational activities.  He thoroughly understands the workings of every weapon or system in his company, is well versed in tactics and procedures, and respects and values his soldiers.

Clearly, most people would prefer to be led by “Ray.” He possesses all five of the characteristics identified by Kolditz.  Altogether, these characteristics result in a leader whom followers trust with their lives, and who inspires soldiers to excel in the most dire of circumstances.

It is worth commenting further on the role of competence in leading in dangerous contexts.  Dr. Patrick Sweeney, now the Director of Leadership, Character, and Ethics Initiatives at Wake Forest University, conducted a very insightful field study of leadership in soldiers engaged in actual combat operations.  In 2003, while still in graduate school working on his doctor of philosophy degree in social psychology, Sweeney was personally contacted by David Petraeus (a major general at that time, and commander of the division) who asked him to join the U.S. Army V Corps as it prepared to invade Iraq.  Seizing the opportunity to both serve his nation in combat and conduct a study of leadership of real soldiers conducting real combat missions, Sweeney quickly devised a series of questionnaires that he administered to soldiers and their leaders.

To a large degree, what Sweeney found is consistent with Kolditz’s findings.  But his most interesting finding may be that it was competence that was essential to leading others in combat.  If a leader was not competent, he was not trusted by his soldiers.  Lack of trust is devastating to a combat unit.  Without it, both morale and performance degrade.  It is important to emphasize, however, that competence, while necessary to be an effective combat leader, was not in and of itself sufficient to that end.  The competent leader also had to show genuine caring for his soldiers, model and display high character, and empower and trust his soldiers to do their jobs.

As interesting as this emerging area of leadership science may be, what does it imply for most of us who will never lead soldiers into combat, direct others in fighting a fire and rescuing people, or direct police officers in handling a violent crowd?  I think it is important to begin studying how the traits and characteristics of in extremis leaders may play out in other settings.  Usually members of a large corporation are not at direct risk to their lives, but often their emotional and psychological well-being is subject to compromise.  Corporate “leaders” (I think they are more often managers, not leaders), may benefit from studying the characteristics of successful in extremis leaders, and adapting these traits and behaviors to the corporate context.  I suspect their “soldiers” would be grateful for better leadership, and individual and corporate productivity may well indeed rise.

There is much yet to be learned about the dynamics of successful leadership.  The application of the research methodologies and conceptual models of social behavior may ultimately improve the quality of working life for all of us, not just soldiers and others who risk their lives in their daily jobs.

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.