Leadership, the Army Way

It's not just how well you shoot, it's about building a team and knowing how best to maintain and deploy its various talents

My friend Dave was in the Army for ages. He's out - he's a civilian lawyer now. But you can tell that he was an Army officer, because he's always cool and calm. I'm theatrical, he's stoic.

I say, "Dave, you running any road races this year?" and he says, "No, I'm not really supposed to race, ever since I broke my neck." He was a paratrooper, in the 82nd Airborne. Oh right, yeah, the broken-neck thing. Dave talks about breaking his neck like I talk about breaking the heel on my Steve Madden pumps.

Anyway, since Dave was in combat multiple times and has commanded lots of people, I asked him about leadership in the Army. We've all seen Platoon - military leadership is pretty much just a matter of screaming at people all the time, right?


"It's not what you'd think," says Dave. "There's very little of that sort of thing, barking out orders." Why? I say. Isn't the Army the epicenter of command-and-control leadership? Nope, says Dave. It's just the opposite. Under fire, guys (a unisex term) have to trust you. Here's a story, he says, to illustrate.

One time, says Dave, he was talking with a fellow in his command about an operation they were planning. There were several officers standing around, and Dave said: "So, here's what I'd like you to do." The fellow replied, "No, sir." He didn't want to do it.

Dave recalls standing there, with everyone watching to see his reaction. It was a bad moment. Then he asked the fellow to walk with him into his office. The way Dave tells it, this is what he said, "Lieutenant, you do a great job. This command relies on you." (That's part one.)

"Then I said, 'It is unacceptable for you to refuse an order, much less to do so in front of enlisted men. I will not tolerate that. I expect you to follow the orders you're given.' (That's part two.)

"And then I said: 'You are a valued member of this command. You have an excellent track record and I have great respect for you. I need you on this team.'" (That's part three.)

This makes perfect sense. Acknowledge, thank, praise -- give the tough feedback -- then acknowledge and praise some more. I wish civilian business leaders had this bit of Army leadership training. How often have you sat in a meeting and watched an apoplectic boss rip off someone's head? It's not a pretty sight. It's demeaning to everyone, especially to the boss who loses his or her cool.


Now, anyone who has been in the service knows that the Army isn't always nice and calm. Depending on where you serve, and under whom, it can still be Patton-esque. And in life-and-death situations, refusing an order usually leads to a more heated and perhaps less-reasoned exchange.

Yet there are also plenty of officers who, most of the time, approach the job Dave's way, which assumes that being embarrassed by an underling is a minor problem compared with ensuring a good outcome for the team. If you're humiliated and furious, you still have to suck it up just enough to say, "You are a good officer, here's what needs to change, and like I said, you're a valuable part of this team."

In fact, as Dave might have gone on to point out, his subordinate was being evaluated on leadership skills -- not just marksmanship or the artful way he jumps out of airplanes. How many business organizations take leadership skills that seriously?


Nine times out of 10, promotions in the corporate world are based on one's functional skills, deal-closing being a particularly salient one. What if the equation were shifted so that the people who are promoted are the ones who lead troops most successfully? If that were the case, we might see fewer Enron-style meltdowns.

As interested as I am in leadership topics, I'm not about to zip down to the recruitment center and enlist. I'm a little too attached to my Steve Madden pumps, for one thing. But it's good to know that there's room in the service for serious leadership, which may even be a model for the private sector. Wouldn't that be a nifty turnabout?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.