21st Century Military Leadership

The skills needed for effective military leadership have changed.

Posted Oct 06, 2014

The science and the art of leadership are very important to the military.  The military systematically develops both enlisted soldiers and officers to lead in progressively more responsible positions.  Senior echelon leaders are in charge of thousands of soldiers, manage large budgets, and make decisions that in times of war have dramatic impact on both the soldiers who serve under their command and for the strategic goals of the nation.

Military leadership has historically been very hierarchical in nature and, relative to other domains (industry, education, and so forth), relatively authoritarian.  Traditionally, a centralized authority operating in an extremely hierarchical organization tended to ensure relatively fast and accurate transmission of orders and other communications.  Moreover, the job of the military has traditionally been to exert military force – in the form of various weapons – on a target and to destroy that target. I am simplifying this to some extent, but in such a setting a leader needed to know how to exert power over others and maintain focus on a fairly well defined goal of defeating an enemy target. Traits of the “good” 20th century (and before) military leader thus included technical competence, decisiveness, and strong goal-directed behavior.

Rapid advances in information and communication technologies coupled with a change in the nature of warfare may have expanded the skills that are prerequisite for effective military leadership.  Although military organizations maintain their traditional, hierarchical structure, this structure is no longer necessary to expedite clear and fast communication within and between units. With the click of a mouse, the most senior leader can communicate with everyone under his or her command. 

More importantly, the wars thus far in the 21st century differ from those of the past.  Armed conflict traditionally occurred between nations.  There were well defined military and industrial objectives.  Famed Army general George Patton knew exactly what his mission was in World War II, and knew the actions needed to accomplish that mission.  Contemporary wars are substantively different.  The threat posed by ISIS is a case in point.  It does not represent a nation state, has a diffuse and distributed power structure, is ideologically driven, and can only be successful through so-called “asymmetric” tactics (a fancy word for inflicting military and political damage to the United States and its other stated enemies, without facing them in direct military action, something that would quickly lead to their defeat).  In such a climate, leaders must come to understand not only their enemy, but also the social “geography” of where they are fighting, how to negotiate effectively with local leaders, how to use social media to win local support for their actions, and a myriad of other skills and capabilities.

Moreover, as I wrote about in my most recent blog, the national military strategy is shifting from preparing only to fight and win traditional wars, to focusing on preventing (shaping) and discouraging (deterring) armed conflict broadly defined to include war between nations and irregular war, exemplified by ISIS and related threats, of non-state entities intent on achieving their political goals through violence.  It may be odd to say, but destroying a factory or an enemy base is a more definable and probably easier objective than working proactively through military, diplomatic, and economic strategies to prevent war in the first place.

For these reasons, the military must recognize that it needs to develop future leaders that have a skill set that is much expanded compared to their predecessors.  I have written extensively about this idea in my book, Head Strong, but here I will summarize some key leader attributes and skills that should enhance the effectiveness of our future military leaders.  Military leaders must continue to be technically proficient, to understand the theory and practice of war, and to understand how to direct and inspire those they command to achieve the mission.  But now, more than ever before, they need to

  1. Develop an egalitarian instead of an authoritarian leadership style and philosophy.  A highly trained military requires smart and well educated soldiers.  Simply ordering people to do things “because I said so” may work in the short run, but in the long run this approach will fail.  This is also true because military leaders from sergeants to generals will interact with civilians, non-government agencies, and a host of other formal and informal groups to achieve their objectives.  Egalitarian leaders genuinely see all people as important and equal in terms of getting the job done, issue clear guidance to others, and demonstrate high social intelligence.  The “bull in the china shop” approach of an authoritarian leader was never especially effective, and is all the less so in today’s military.
  2. The modern military leader must be transformational, not transactional, in his or her leadership philosophy.  This is somewhat related to the first trait.  The transformational leader empowers subordinates to achieve the organization’s goals. They see developing and growing others as more important than micromanaging schedules, doling out rewards and punishments, and enforcing standards.
  3. Military leaders must be culturally savvy.  To win hearts and minds, and to prevent wars instead of fighting them, they must become skillful at understanding the culture in which they are deployed, and adept at working with people from diverse backgrounds, religions, and cultural practices.
  4. They must quickly adapt to new technology.  Information technology evolves ever more rapidly. Knowing how to harness the power of social media, for instance, enables communication within and outside of the leader’s own organization.  It can be used to reach out to the local population in which he or she is deployed.  He or she must fully understand the technology of their command and controls systems, and of weapons systems they may need to employ if military force is required.
  5. The rules of engagement have changed. Successful military operations minimize killing or being killed.  Knowing how to leverage their military power to achieve objectives without injuring or killing others is crucial to long term, strategic success.  Images of dead civilians from the Gaza Strip in Israel’s recent war illustrate the power such images have in dictating success or failure.
  6. Finally, the successful military leader must be adroit at working with other government and non-government agencies to accomplish their mission.  The military to this day has a unique culture and even its own language (in the form of acronyms and buzzwords). Fostering an environment of true cooperation, basically playing well with others, is essential if we want to use our military to help avoid wars, and not just fight them.

It is hard to imagine Patton effectively leading a coalition force tasked with defeating an enemy like ISIS.  He might defeat ISIS militarily, but he would lose the larger war of political and cultural ideals.  I suspect that some or maybe even all of these recommendations translate well to the corporate world and to other institutions and organizations.  The authoritarian, culturally myopic CEO of days gone by is probably just that – gone.  The military, given its importance to the nation, must be a forerunner in developing better ways of leading others.

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.