By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
I used to tell my journalism students, any professional writer worth his or her salt (pardon the cliché) is able to write with deftness and some semblance of authority on just about any given topic. At least he or she better be able to at the beginning of their careers if they hope to break into the business and earn a living at it.
Flexibility, adaptability, and capability are keys to success in the writing business.
It’s the same for truly good leaders. A skilled leader should be able to lead different types of groups; and he or she needs to be flexible, adaptable, and capable to do it.
The men I led (and the mission I had) when I was a young Marine rifle-squad leader was infinitely different than the students I taught (and the responsibility I had to teach them) years later when I was an adjunct professor. That said, many of the fundamental principles – discussed at length in this series so far – were the same.
HAND AND TOOL
The ability to lead different groups requires an artful hand and lots of tools in the belt. Talented leaders should be able to apply different hands and tools with equal effect no matter the group to be led. Some leaders may balk at this notion, preferring to lead only in their niche, operating in their comfort zone. But great leaders want to lead groups outside of their zones.
Great leaders know that the greater the variety and diversity of the groups he or she leads, the more tools he or she will develop over time, each with a unique albeit parallel application which may be employed when the unexpected – perhaps unconventional – contingency develops and there are no conventional approaches to deal with it.
I discussed this with my good friend, Lt. Col. Bill Connor, who – reflecting on his 25 years of experience as a cadet at The Citadel, a U.S. Army infantry officer, a Ranger, and a combat commander – tells us:
“If there is one leadership principle I have embraced more closely than others, it is the principle I gleaned during my first year at The Citadel,” says Connor, the former senior military advisor in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. “Leadership is an art, and success is found in the following factors: The leader, the led, the situation, and communications. The leader must properly evaluate himself and the group he is to lead, including personalities and group dynamics. He must also understand the situation in which he is to lead, and how he will communicate properly with the group in that situation.”
According to Connor, his leadership style as light infantry company commander was by necessity quite different from that which he employed when he commanded a Ranger training company.
With the light infantry company – men, mostly in their early twenties – Connor’s style was to inspire and pump them up like a high school football team. They were tough young infantry soldiers and needed a charismatic leader.
Connor describes how – during company runs – he would be out in front of the formation literally running with a sledgehammer. “The guys loved it,” he says. “Kind of like Patton’s approach with his ivory handled pistols.”
Strict discipline was also the order of the day with the light infantry company, as were demands to adhere to exacting standards and a policy of non-fraternization within the rank hierarchy.
As successful as the “sledgehammer style” was with the light infantry company, Connor concedes it would have never worked with the Ranger training company – primarily senior NCO and officer instructors, very experienced men, 30-35-years-old – who required “intellectual leadership,” he says.
Moreover, the relationships between NCOs and officers were much more relaxed and familiar in the Ranger Training company. No one man lorded over other men. That type of dynamic – though wholly necessary with lesser experienced soldiers (who need regular reminders of standards and protocol to help mitigate corrupting civilian influences) – is unnecessary and sometimes stifling with seasoned professionals like Rangers.
INSTANT WILLING OBEDIENCE TO ORDERS
The two differing though parallel styles Connor describes are not unlike that which we experienced as leaders in the Marine Corps. On the front end, the demand – “instant, willing obedience to orders” – was (as it is today) hammered into young Marine recruits and non-rates – privates, PFCs, and lance corporals – until it became instinctive.
Whereas, Marine infantry NCOs and junior officers – though also disciplined and obedient – were (and are) taught to be innovative and creative. Physical fitness, mastery of the rifle, and combat leadership are the defining characteristics of every Marine from private to general-officer. But innovativeness and the intellectual gifts are also prized – and demanded – as the Marine is given greater responsibility, moves into more specialized fighting units, and/or rises in rank. Consequently, the leadership styles used to lead a Marine rifle platoon as opposed to a Force Recon platoon – though similar because they are both Marine platoons – are quite different.
Connor reminds me that some military officers are able to easily make the necessary transition between different styles. Others cannot.
“I found success in both, using two different styles and ways of interacting with those I led,” he says. “The leader must also remember the common thread of success in all leadership positions is the integrity of the leader. Integrity is the one non-negotiable for leadership success.”
Ah yes, integrity. He who does not have this on the front-end should – as we used to say in the Marines – pack their trash.
Stay with us. There’s so much more, including a great deal more on leadership style and adaptability. Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here. If you have questions or suggestions, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor who writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He directs the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. Smith’s website is uswriter.com.