Another Kind of Leader

My father, a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, and I speak periodically about leadership. As someone with leadership experience in combat and the combat of organizational politics, he is a valuable source for effective practice. Here is an insight from a recent conversation.

 

Exterior, fall 1960, Alameda Naval Air Station, Fort Lewis Washington. The 47th infantry group was conducting a field training exercise, a regular drill designed to simulate battle conditions.

Captain Warner, the company commander and leader for the entire field operation, sat at a table. He was eating a plate of cinnamon rolls. Warner ate the rolls slowly, savoring one after another. In front of him three first lieutenants stood at attention, silently watching their leader eat. The silence and waiting went on for a while.

When the captain finally finished eating, he addressed the lieutenants.

Perhaps Warner was just a guy eating some cinnamon rolls. But perhaps the small act of making his three officers watch him eat spoke volumes.

 

Subjugating fellow leaders to his whims said to them, your work – and you – are less important than me.

It said, I am the boss and you must submit to my authority.

Warner was one kind of leader. He was comfortable with and encouraged clear distinctions in rank. Warner wanted everyone in the company to know he was in charge. 

But, everyone in camp already knew the commander was in charge. Making his lieutenants watch him eat didn’t clarify any confusion about who was in charge; the three men at attention already knew Warner was the boss. Making the men wait didn’t help his authority. It could be argued, in fact, that it hurt his authority.

The lieutenants were highly perturbed by the captain’s behavior, and rightfully so. It was a little act of humiliation designed either intentionally or unintentionally to assuage the commander’s ego and sense of self-importance by degrading those who might otherwise challenge him.

I once read an apocryphal story about President Lyndon B Johnson, and I cannot cite the source, in which LBJ made a group of aides follow him into the men’s room and take notes while he sat on the head and even while he finished his personal business.

LBJ’s behavior is more extreme but illustrates the same kind of person. One kind of leader enjoys his position and the opportunities that the importance his rank offers to the tasks he does. This kind of leader is unconcerned with the tasks of others; rather, he is concerned with his personal motivations and needs, and, as important, with the perception he creates for himself as he does them.

It could even be argued that such belittling acts reveal a deeper pyschosis, a dim view of self and humanity that other people aren’t to be trusted or given respect and responsibility, lest they usurp your power and authority and take what is yours. It is a type of leadership that is, fundamentally, insecure.

Warner’s actions didn’t engender support but rather division and discord.

 

Another kind of leader is also concerned with his personal tasks but is equally as concerned with the welfare and tasks of his subordinates. 

This second kind of leader understands that his subordinates are in charge of tasks that are equally as essential to the proper functioning of the company, and that perhaps at a given moment even more important.

While maintaining his own agendas, this kind of leader recognizes the value others offer and builds them up, authorizing both their work and them as people.

As my father says,

Warner’s behavior was inexcusable and it affected the efficiency of the organization.  People still did their jobs but there is a way to do your job from a sense of obligation and even duress.

There is also a way to do you job eagerly and from a sense of wanting to accomplish it.  An example of the second kind of leadership was displayed by Hyrum Dalinga, Colonel, Infantry, Commanding Officer of the 2nd BCT Training Brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas fall of 1967 through Jan, 1969. We were training men for battle in Vietnam and Dalinga had been a paratrooper in World War II so he had a good idea of what awaited our trainees.  His goal was to train them for that ordeal.

The problem was there was a trainee who thought that Dalinga was abusing him and others.  I don’t remember the nature of the guy’s complaint; I only remember that he precipitated an investigation.  This was a serious turn; Dalinga could have been relieved from command.  An earlier complaint over in the 1st Brigade had resulted in the relief of at least one, very competent and able officer, and black marks against several others.

Toward the end of the investigation, I drove over to where they were conducting their investigation.  I told the Inspector General what I knew of this bogus complaint and that Colonel Dalinga was a damn fine officer who merited exoneration.  When I finished, the Lt Colonel conducting the investigation said, “Did Colonel Dalinga ask you talk to me?”

I replied, “Hell, no!”

I later learned that every staff officer and almost every company commander in the Brigade had stopped by the Inspector General on their own instigation to repeat, in similar form, what I had said.

Dalinga inspired loyalty among his subordinates. He was a man who inspired confidence and loyalty.  An old time infantry officer, Dalinga pushed people to the limit, and even beyond, of their ability and their endurance, at least beyond what they thought was the limit of their ability and their endurance.

But in so doing he helped you learn how much better you were than you thought you were. And he would never ask you to do anything that he had not done already or was ready to do alongside of you.  He demanded much from you but no more than he demanded from himself.  He treated you fairly; if you screwed up, he told you about it, but he did not hold it against you. And he rewarded good performance.

A leader has two responsibilities: get the job done and take care of the men, including officers and non-commissioned officers.

Warner, the captain who disrespected his officers, was one kind of leader. Such leaders may get the immediate job done, but they do not take care of the men and ultimately do damage to the organization.

Dalinga was another kind of leader, one who worked with others, not above them. He saw those under his care and responsibility as fellow soldiers and colleagues worthy of respect. This doesn’t mean Dalinga allowed others to eschew responsibility or ignore accountability. On the contrary he expected excellence from them. But he did it in a way that inspired loyalty, and in the process brought out the best in others. Dalinga didn’t just view others as a means to accomplish his personal goals. He viewed them as both associates and valuable assets.

Another kind of leader would have invited the three lieutenants to sit down and share a cinnamon roll.

An intemperate leader wreaks havoc in lives; you’re smart to stay clear of someone like that. Good-tempered leaders invigorate lives; they’re like spring rain and sunshine.Proverbs 16:14-15 (The Message)

What kind of leader are you?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).