By Colonel (Retired) Joe LeBoeuf, Ph.D., Monday, April 25, 2022
As a newly commissioned officer, standing in front of my first platoon in a combat engineer battalion in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1975, I really did not know what kind of leader I wanted to “be.” My leadership and military skills training to that point was about “knowing” and “doing” appropriate to my rank and experience, the transactional aspect of leading. And, yes, the Army’s training and educational system is the best for enabling the knowing and doing. What was missing for me was the more transformational nature of leadership, the being, and the ability to answer the question – who am I as a leader?
What has become clear in my life’s ‘rear view mirror’ is that leaders must be firm around who they are, the good they are trying to achieve, and their purpose as leaders. And leaders must be more intentional throughout their careers in the sharpening of their leadership perspective, their sense of being, as they grow in rank and experience. Accidental leadership has no place in the military; it is inefficient and ineffective. Leaders must lead with intention.
The operational context in the Army today, as compared to 1975, is a volatile, complex, uncertain, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, and requires a different notion of good, effective leadership. Bob Johansen, a futurist, in his book The New Leadership Literacies, suggests that the VUCA world (and he uses this term) creates a disruptive force, a gale-like headwind that does not allow leaders the luxury of experimentation around leadership but requires that leaders have “deep roots” around who they are and how they lead in order to hold up in the face of this VUCA gale.
This notion of “deep roots” is ably reflected as a military notion in Karl Weick’s (a noted organizational theorist) metaphor around a map versus a compass within the context of environmental uncertainty. Maps are useful guides when there is certainty in the terrain (or operational environment), and one can navigate directly and successfully, from point A to point B.
The VUCA operational terrain, on the other hand, is quite different in that the context is unknown, and changing in a way that current maps are not useful for accurate navigation. In this context, compasses are more useful when you are unsure of where you are and have only a general sense of direction. Compasses enable one to orient on true north even when the terrain is unknown. The compass required for effective leadership is a well thought out and mindful leadership point of view that enables the leader to behave with clarity, not map-like certainty, yet know in which cardinal direction to move.
So, how do you build your compass, your leadership point of view, that will enable effective navigation in the VUCA world? Let’s talk about the materials that goes into this process of building an intentional leadership point of view, a compass, that will guide behavior under conditions of uncertainty. The cornerstone of effective leadership, and where the leader’s point of view emerges, is a deep understanding of self, understanding how to “be “as a leader, and not just the “knowing” and the “doing."
This notion of Being, Knowing and Doing emerged as the core of the Army’s leadership doctrine with the publication of FM 22-100, Military Leadership, in the early 1980s, and remains a cornerstone in the current FM 6-22, Leader Development. Warren Bennis (one of the youngest infantry officers during WWII, and noted leadership scholar), in his book On Becoming a Leader, goes a step deeper and states that “people begin to become leaders in the moment they decide for themselves how to be.”
This knowing how to be, the critical activity of becoming self-aware, is at the core of your compass and the point of view that emerges based on two intentional constructive actions leaders need to take:
- Leaders must prepare for their leadership role (the be, know and do), construct their compass, and
- Be able to project that preparedness and effectively use the compass as a navigation tool for others in uncertainty through a clear, well-developed leadership point of view, the source of the leader’s credibility.
What does “prepare” to lead mean?
Preparing to be a leader requires a significant amount of intentionality, intellectual effort, and deep reflection, spent in understanding who you are and what you stand for. While there are many ways to achieve this sense of self-awareness, there are several common elements:
- Leaders must understand the good they are working to achieve,
- Leaders must have clarity of purpose,
- Leaders must clearly discern their values and guiding principles, and ensure their behavior is aligned with and reflects these values and principles 24/7.
Leaders need to be a force for good, and practice good leadership that enables good consequences --- the connection between good means and good ends. Good leadership must be technically good; leaders must be competent (the Know and Do) in the knowledge, skills, and abilities required at each level they are leading. And good leadership must be morally and ethically good (the Be); leaders must be people of character and understand the nature of their ethical and moral decisions and can build an ethical and moral ecology that enables effective behavior in others.
Next, leaders must have a clear vision for how they intend to lead, in other words, they need to know their purpose. A leader’s purpose is knowing who you are, and what makes you unique; it is about understanding your authentic self. As Craig and Snook (a retired Army colonel) suggest, in their Harvard Business Review article, Purpose to Impact, finding one’s purpose might be the “single most important task you can undertake as a leader.” The best leaders, from my experience, are consistently purposeful in their vision for how they are leading and have sight-picture clarity in the 2nd and 3rd order effects of their leadership as it relates to the development of their soldiers, and the long-term health of their units.
The next core element of preparing to lead is achieving clarity in values and an understanding of the behaviors, or principles, that describe how the leader lives these values. As leaders, we improve our character by thinking critically about our values, and how they are operationalized through principles that describe our behaviors and define our professional identity. These values, known by the acronym, “LDRSHIP” are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage, are the script that define a leader’s way of being.
Values create the ethical and moral ecology that enable soldiers to work together effectively in team-based activities and enable them to place the needs of others and the mission ahead of self. A sense of shared purpose and values matters in all Army operations and enables the conditions of cooperation and collaboration essential for high performance.
What does “project” as a leader mean?
Once leaders have prepared, they are clear on the good and their purpose, have discerned their values, and operationalized them into specific behaviors, they must give voice to this process, and project their leadership through the capacity to tell others how they intend to lead. This leadership point of view does several important things:
- Provides insight into who leaders are, what they stand for;
- Identifies central values and beliefs;
- Establishes the leaders view of a healthy organizational climate, culture, and community;
- Establishes a framework for consistency, predictability, and accountability.
Leaders must be able to describe to others how they lead, what others can expect of them, and what they expect of others. In effect, leaders must put their point of view into practice --- share it, live it, and be accountable to it. It is an expression of the most common understanding of effective leadership --- leading by example.
Your leadership point of view is really expressed in behavior as a promise to those you lead. David Brooks, author of the The Road to Character, suggested in a graduation speech at Dartmouth in 2015, that a leader’s promise is really about making a deep and abiding commitment to others and is fundamentally a moral act. This commitment is much the same as falling in love with something: leading others, doing good, mattering, and then building a coherent leadership point of view, around that commitment which becomes the foundational guide for behavior.
Leaders must be clear on the good they are trying to achieve, their purpose, and behave in a way completely aligned with their core values. It is the essence of what it means to be a leader of character in the profession of arms. It is the promise military leaders make to American soldiers they have the privilege of leading. Keeping this promise takes intentional effort, reflects the essence of who you are as a person and is the core of your leadership compass, the essential tool for navigating in the VUCA world of the US Army.
*This article was originally published by Army Magazine in August 2021*