More thoughts on leadership.

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Great leaders are a rarity. The US Army takes the view that leaders can be made, and attempts to construct leaders of adequate competency in the factories of WCS, BNCOC and ANCOC

It is true that these courses can teach the mechanical aspects of leadership; paperwork, toughness, etc. But they lack subtly, the artistic aspects of leading men and women that only “natural” leaders possess. Anyone can take an art class. Only a Van Gogh or a Devinci could make a masterpiece from his lessons. Perhaps these courses can awaken and mold the Diamond in the Rough, but they cannot make diamonds. 

A great leader is made from many materials. He must be intelligent, yet have the courage to admit he doesn’t know everything. He must be a person whose ego doesn’t get in the way of truth. He must have tact, knowing the right things to say and whom to say them to. A leader must make a study of psychology, so that the mysteries of human behavior lay open to him. He must care for his subordinates as he cares for himself. 

Most importantly, a great leader must know himself. He must consider his own motivations, and he must be able to control his emotions. Arrogance makes leaders look stupid. And arrogant leaders are stupid– and oft times downright evil. 

I know I have the ability to lead. As to if I’m a great leader, I’ll leave that to others to decide. I observe some of the leaders that surround me here in the Army, and many times I’m left wanting. Part of this is because I always expect from others what I myself give and am capable of, and this is not always fair, since frequently I’m not capable of doing what others can. I’ve tried to trim my expectations of people recently. I do try to never expect from others what I don’t expect of myself. 

I have a book. It’s in my mind. The pages are blank, but for a few scribbles in the beginning pages on which I’ve made notes. Those notes are to remind me how not to lead. When I see something a leader in my unit does that is obviously detrimental to his cause and to the growth of his Soldiers, I record the event in my book. Swearing at Soldiers as part of daily routine. Calling them disrespectful names to get them to do something that needs getting done. The leaders doing these things know nothing of the art of leadership. They’re not naturals, they’re frightened and lack confidence. They’re also causing Soldiers to be frightened and lack confidence, and so we create a whole generation of Soldiers who are timid. I see a lot of timid Soldiers, and the ones who aren’t are the rambunctious, troublesome sort who get arrested for DUI and think it’s funny. A Soldier should never be timid. He must go boldly. 

A leader must have experienced life’s pain. Churchill and Lincoln are two examples of men whose life was filled with pain. Pain made them realize that sometimes you have to make a stand. The Righteous perish without strength. 

Too often I see that the Army Values are violated by those in leadership positions. For those who don’t know what those values are, I’ll list them: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage. The ones I see violated the most are Respect, Honor, and Integrity. I know it’s not just the Army–it’s Humanity. It just looks worse when people who have such power display the basest of attributes. I also know that there are many, many great people in the military. People who give their all and have done things that they get little publicity for. People whose understanding and adherence to the Army Values surpasses mine. I hope and pray I can learn from these people.


Scipio Africanus defeated the world's greatest General--Hannibal- at Zama. Scipio inspired his men with an iron will, laser intellect and respect for his troops. He never lost a battle.
Scipio Africanus defeated the world's greatest General--Hannibal- at Zama. Scipio inspired his men with an iron will, laser intellect and respect for his troops. He never lost a battle.



Toughness must be moderated by fairness and justice. I think of Scipio Africanus, Rome’s great General who after meeting and defeating Hannibal’s army in the Battle of Zama, gave mercy to Carthage. Scipio understood counterinsurgency. Scipio never lost a battle and his men loved him and were extremely confident and motivated. I doubt he gained their confidence and respect by treating them unfairly. 

In ending, let me summarize. Some are meant to lead. Some are meant to follow. Only those who want to be great leaders will be. It takes a strength of character unusual, especially in today’s world of lax morals, easy lies, and opaque honor.


8 thoughts on “More thoughts on leadership.

    T. J. Babson said:
    May 24, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    “I have a book. It’s in my mind. The pages are blank, but for a few scribbles in the beginning pages on which I’ve made notes. Those notes are to remind me how not to lead.”

    Here is a page for your book. It happened 30 years ago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center (boot camp for sailors).

    Our Company Commander came in one day and told us that a sailor in another company had died during PT. We were all pretty shocked. Then our CC said something like: “Yeah–it’s pretty bad–cost his company 50 points.”

    After 30 years, it still makes my blood boil to think about this.

    magus71 responded:
    May 24, 2009 at 5:25 pm


    That guy ruined the service careers of some sailors there, I guarantee it, because like you, it stuck with those men for their entire terms of service.

    Thank you for your service by the way.

    Dawn Dougherty Ravan said:
    May 24, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I’m surprised you didn’t touch on the difference between leadership and management. The WCS, BNCOC and ANCOC factories you describe sound more like “management” development and less like “leadership” development. It’s easy to make managers. It’s less facile to find a true leader.

    I’ve never been in any branch of the service and so I feel painfully unqualified to offer an opinion in that area. However, the characteristics of leaders you describe above are characteristics I also see lacking in the medical field. Arrogance abounds and is often mistaken for “leadership” in the hospital. I disagree, however, with your statement that “only those who want to be great leaders will be.” George Washington was not overly enthusiastic about his leadership role: “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”–excerpt from a letter to Henry Knox in 1789. In my experience, the truly great leaders are those who don’t want to do it. Those who want the position are usually too greedy, too arrogant and should be kept far, far away the position.

    Give me a reluctant leader any day. They seem to understand both the burden and the necessity of leadership.

    Daniel Griffin said:
    May 24, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Reluctant, yes.
    I’d rather the world be such a place that there were no reasons for war, but since the world is not such a place, I want to be the best warrior I can be – a great warrior. I want to only b/c I would have immense difficulty living with myself otherwise – seeing that the world is as it is.

    I see duty as overriding that reluctance –
    “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less. ”
    -Robert E. Lee

    The idea of the reluctant leader is interesting, is it an attempt to signal humility, or actual humility? Why is Washington our standard? Are we less frightened if we think they are reluctant?

    kernunos said:
    May 28, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    It is only semi related as being a great leader but George Patton has two quotes I really like that I heard just the other day. The first was something like ‘If a group of people all think the same way then someone isn’t thinking.’ The other was ‘Pressure makes diamonds.’

    kernunos said:
    May 28, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    “Why is Washington our standard? Are we less frightened if we think they are reluctant?”

    This probably has to do with trust. It is easy to assume they are not power hungry and are doing their duty for a more virtuous reason. This is very similar to Thomas Jefferson running for the presidency. He certainly didn’t want to but was fearful of the fate of the country if he did not.

    magus71 responded:
    May 29, 2009 at 7:36 am

    To be honest, I’m very skeptical about the reluctant leader theory. I think all good leaders are driven people. They have ideas that they want the rest of the world to see and adhere to.

    General David Patreus has been called ambitious. I think he is, but this isn’t a knock. He sees a challenge and wants to overcome it.

    As to if they would be called great leaders in our modern world is difficult to say. But all of the Roman generals and leaders were very politically ambitious. When we look at some of their speeches though, it seems clear that they felt a heavy sense of duty to the state. Julius Caesar was ambitious in the extreme. But we must also consider Augustus, who ruled Rome for 40 years and is well regarded as a man of the people, despite ruthlessly subjugating Rome’s enemies.

    No–I think great leaders want it. But leadership means different things to different people. To Washington, and many of our Founding Fathers, leadership was being a servant to the people. To many others in history, leadership was merely asserting power.

    kernunos said:
    May 30, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Even if we call them ‘reluctant’ leaders they at least wanted the position enough to take it for whatever reason. A truly reluctant leader would not step up.

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