I have been in the military for nearly two decades and have followed many leaders throughout my career. To this day, I contemplate about memorable supervisors in an effort to gain a fundamental understanding of why they did some of the things they did. I remember them for different reasons and even try to emulate the qualities I most admired from each one. Amongst the great ones, I also remember the bad, the indifferent, and those who often times made me wonder how they even got to influential leadership positions in the first place. I have worked for the anecdotal natural born leaders, others who appeared well trained and some who were simply the by-product their superior’s power and influence.
Leadership traits were of high interest throughout the 20th century, and their studies resulted in “great man” theories that focused on identifying characteristics and qualities possessed by great leaders (Northouse, 2016). Scholars suggested that social, political and military leaders all had similar innate traits that only “great” people were born with. Throughout the years, characteristics such as intelligence, confidence, motivation and sociability have been linked to leadership effectiveness. Indeed, I have come across the charismatic supervisor who effortlessly outshines others, and excels at most things as if it all simply comes “naturally” to them. They certainly appear to be born, natural leaders who people gravitate to as if they had no other choice.
On the other hand, I have also had supervisors whose leadership skills were sharpened by experience, education and coaching from mentors who deliberately focused on their development as military leaders. Albeit effective, leadership did not seem to come natural to them; instead, they had a polished approach that often times seemed scripted but was effective nonetheless. In contrast to the “great man” theories that suggest leaders are born, the skills approach to leadership focuses on capabilities that can be learned and developed. More recently, Mumford and colleagues developed a skill-based model of leadership using the results of a study founded by the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense. They concluded that capabilities can be developed through education and experience, and that problem-solving skills, social judgement skills, and knowledge can account for effective leadership performance (Northouse, 2016). Leadership is therefore, or perhaps, something that many people can do and not an opportunity only reserved for the gifted few.
Often times, my most memorable supervisors integrated traits such as intelligence and confidence with acquired skills such as knowledge and problem-solving. However, I also worked for ineffective “leaders” who had neither traits nor skill but held a key position assigned by someone with greater influence and power to make it happen. I once heard the term “legacy child”, which referred to someone whose father was a high-ranking officer in the military. As such, he had been vectored or “chosen” for jobs that would likely catapult him up the military chain of command even if he lacked the skills or abilities to lead high-performing teams. I now realize that instead of skills, some people can learn and exhibit the right behaviors to come across as an effective leader in front of others.
The behavioral approach to leadership focuses on the actions of the leader, on what they do and how they act (Northouse, 2016). There are five basic styles: 1) country-club management, 2) team management, 3) middle-of-the-road management, 4) impoverished management, and 5) authority-compliance management. Furthermore, there is another concept under this theory that encompasses all five styles. Opportunism, according to Northouse (2016), refers to someone “who uses a combination of the five basic styles for the purpose of personal advancement (pg 77).” It is likely that some legacy children and others in the military may see, learn and exhibit behaviors to gain personal advancement. Consequently, they are chosen for jobs they do not deserve and placed into positions for which they are ill prepared.
Decades of experience have taught me that we must learn as much from the bad leaders as we do from the good. Through the study of leadership, I have fortunately gained a better understanding of how and why my most memorable supervisors acted the way they did to effectively lead and manage their teams. Like other things, leadership is something people may be naturally good at, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we must also be intentional in honing the skills and abilities we need to become better, more effective leaders.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.