What is Leadership?
Leadership, noun, the action of leading a group of people or an organization. It seems a pretty straightforward thing to understand, but as we choose to understand the term it is more than just being in charge, there is implied understanding that leadership must be effective if we are to look favorably on the leader. There are a number of favorable and unfavorable adjectives normally associated with the term when we are describing an individual’s leadership. Inspirational, personal, focused, by-the-book, incompetent, detrimental, schizophrenic are all terms I’ve heard used.
But before we talk about leadership we need to understand some basic principles. First, many believe there are natural leaders. I disagree with this idea. Leaders are made. They may be made at an early age by good parenting, or life experiences, but we all come into the world as individuals who place their individual needs first (there may be an exception in the case of multiple births where they may act for the collective, but the studies I’ve seen are inconclusive on this). As we grow we come to understand the society and our role in it. This is where training and guidance help shape leadership. I believe this is the guiding principle that forms the foundation for the service academies. But the best leaders seem to develop much earlier -- in their formative years while living at home. There is much evidence that a strong maternal influence can help shape the individual with the confidence and charisma to lead large organizations. For examples you can look to Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Douglas MacArthur, both of whose Mother’s played a central role in their lives.
Next, as General Olds points out, there may be leaders who are effective in one climate and totally ineffective when the circumstances change. The US Army offers us example after example of this phenomenon. We can go back to the Civil War, where the Union struggled with Commander after Commander, each rising to that position through the normal chains, or political connections and each failing to grasp the principles that General Lee and his subordinate Corps Commanders seemed to understand so well. It was not until Ulysses S. Grant, a drunk from Ohio, but also a graduate of West Point, was appointed did the Union Army effectively engage the Army of Virginia leading to their surrender at Appomattox. The same holds true in every war we enter into. We seem normally to plan for the last war and initially have to replace ineffective leadership at the onset of the next.
Finally, the organization, and the organizational goals ultimately frame the leader’s perspective and ability to lead. Understanding the organization, the framework within which it fits, and the end product of that organization are critical to determining the success or failure of a leader. This is probably the hardest of the the variables to quantify for as General Olds points out. “In my view, current Air Force philosophy and practice have all but eliminated any meaningful role playable by an officer placed in a so-called position of command. Authority has evaporated, sucked up to the rarified heights of “they,” who are somehow felt to exist in the echelons above. For your information, “they” do not exist. Neither is there any “he” fulfilling that role. Authority is expressed through the medium of committee consensus, leadership has become a watered down adherence to the principles of camp counsellorship, with a 90% emphasis on avoiding any action that may in any way be questioned by any one of hundreds of piss ants on the administrative ladder above.”
The focus of this discussion will be on identifying the basic construction of the organization, how the reality of that construction differs from the public statements of its leaders, and how this leads to the perception of poor leadership. To do that based on the statements of General Olds I think first it is critical we understand how different the society is today, compared to the society of 1945. I say this for the simple fact the Air Force is not an entity isolated from the world around it. It is, in fact, a reflection of that society and the individuals who come from it into the organization.
[to be continued]