(Hard) Lessons Learned About Leadership

This past weekend, I found myself surfing WordPress for blogs with tags and topics I am interested in.  I must admit, I’ve become quite addicted to this blogging thing, and to the cyberworld known as the Blogosphere.  I continue to be fascinated with the vast array of  information being shared by some very interesting people from around the World.  In this Blogoshere, many communities of bloggers evolve from topic to topic and become intertwined into circles of influence that, quite honestly, can change the World, let alone the individuals who participate in reading and writing blogs.  Through this exercise, in the short time that I’ve been blogging (51 days), I have connected with people from around the World that have taken an interest in what I have to share with my blog, and I have found a lot of valuable information from them through their blogs, or their comments to my posts.

As I was browsing WordPress, I came across “Ten (Hard) Lessons Learned About Leadership after Eight Months in Command,” posted by a military officer who is apparently guiding troops through Advanced Infantry Training (AIT); training in the Army or the Marine Corps that typically follows basic training (boot camp).  It is very seldom that I come across a military leadership-oriented blog post, and I was quite interested to see what it had to say.  What hard lessons about leadership could have compelled someone to write a post about them?  When I began to read this ‘top ten’ list of what this military officer felt were ‘hard’ lessons, I realized that this leader was struggling with lessons that were both unfortunate and avoidable.  At first, after reading the first couple of lessons, I was taken aback by this blogger’s leadership style and approach.  But, to keep it in perspective, to remain fair, and to properly rationalize each lesson, I took a step back and carefully considered each one.

I had mixed emotions on if these ten lessons needed to be so “hard.”  From some of the lessons on the list, this person gives the impression that they are an autocratic leader.  During the last two decades, the military has become less of an autocratic leadership organization, although leadership by intimidation is still practiced by some non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) and mid to senior officers in all branches of the military.  In the military, there are still those ego-driven, autocratic type leaders (Generals in spurs, like George Patton), and some are well-respected and are followed to the letter.  And, I must admit, some do a pretty good job of leading in their own style, and get the desired results from their people.

Don’t get me wrong, there are hard missions to accomplish, and following direction and paying attention to detail are key.  But, more recently, from the day a recruit goes to boot camp, or a cadet goes to West Point, or other academy, to the time they spend downrange, our military men and women are experiencing a more down-to-earth, mentoring-oriented, lessons learned leadership atmosphere.

Let me go over each one of these hard lessons. Below, I list each of the topical items from the post.  After each one, I provide my thoughts as Command Performance’s Response.  Then, afterward, I will continue with some final thoughts:

1) Someone has to be the bad guy when managing 300+ people (if the other guy isn’t going to do it I have to be the bad guy)

Command Performance’s Response – Nobody should be the ‘bad guy’ when leading people.  Although you may be seen as one by your subordinates because of what you require them to do, and how they may need to go about doing it, the leader is not the bad guy.  However, if, by your very nature as a leader, you convey to your people who you are a bad guy, then followership will diminish or disappear.  No leader should be a bad guy intentionally, or go out of their way to be one.

2) Becoming the bad guy takes practice (The effectiveness of my “bad guy” didn’t take full effect until after about five tries – but I’m good at it now)

Command Performance’s Response – If a leader is working to perfect his ‘bad guy’ image, he is dishonoring his responsibility as a leader, and is creating a hostile environment for his followers.  If a leader has successfully become a ‘bad guy,’ shame on them.  Their subordinates deserve better than that; and, so does the service they represent and the Command (organization) they are responsible for.

3) It’s a good thing for people to walk out of my office feeling bad about what they did wrong (it helps them learn) – don’t give them a “but, you’re doing a good job speech” after the ass chewing.  It ruins the lesson.

Command Performance’s Response – I AGREE with most of this one.  We should never confuse praise with criticism, and never ‘kid glove’ anything that doesn’t deserve it.  As leaders, we have to keep it real.  If someone made a mistake, they should face the appropriate consequences; they should be accountable for their actions.  But, the days of an ‘ass chewing’ are going away.  Although I realize that the military deals with life or death actions (or inactions), and the consequence of failure can be deadly and be damaging to the Command (equipment, morale, mission accomplishment, etc.), most mistakes are not typically that extreme or hazardous.  Great leaders allow their people to fail without giving them the impression that they are failures.  I think that mistakes and failure, to some degree, is a teaching moment.  The “after action” of someone’s failure becomes important.  The leader then becomes mentor and coach.

4) Whenever a subordinate completes a major project applaud them, compliment them, and if possible find something wrong with the way they did things (this way they won’t get too comfortable and they’ll keep producing)

Command Performance’s Response – I AGREE with most of this one.  Not all ‘projects’ or ‘tasks’ are completely perfect.  We should evaluate the work done and provide feedback and CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.  We do need our people to produce, but we need them to develop further to be better producers.

5) Mentoring takes more work than doing it myself but if I mentor now I will work less later on

Command Performance’s Response – I AGREE with every word of this one.  Mentoring is one of the most important jobs of a leader.  And, it develops the credibility and trust that is absolutely necessary in a leader-to-subordinate relationship.

6) Don’t let subordinates know that I’m tired (it gives them permission to be tired as well)

Command Performance’s Response – I AGREE with this one.  It goes along with, “never let them see you sweat”

7) Don’t complain to subordinates about missions given to me by higher headquarters (it gives them permission to complain about the mission to their subordinates – and the job won’t be performed well)

Command Performance’s Response – I AGREE with every ounce of this one.  Never arouse criticism in any unconstructive fashion about anything in an organization.  It is never a good thing to openly complain or talk unfavorably about the boss, the people, the department, the company, etc., in front of anyone within or outside of the organization.  The only constructive criticism should come from the work and production that goes into the accomplishment of the mission.  Becoming a rebel will poison a team.

8) Leaders in ranks beneath me will do well at things I check on, and will do poorly at things I don’t check on

Command Performance’s Response – I COMPLETELY AGREE with this one.  Follow-up…follow-up…follow-up!!!  Then, hold your people accountable.

9) The mission comes before Soldier Care / Soldiers always find ways to take care of themselves

Command Performance’s Response – I AGREE with 98% of this one.  However, we should always be watchful of those signs and indications that an individual or a team needs our moral or command support.  The safety, welfare and morale of our people are important; the glue to esprit de corps and cohesiveness.

10) There’s no such thing as a tired company, only tired company commanders

Command Performance’s Response – THIS IS SO TRUE!!!!


As I stated earlier, this leader’s overall command (leadership) philosophy is not uncommon in today’s military.  But, if it works for him, and he gets the desired results, that is all that matters.  If he is accomplishing the mission with this, without sacrificing the morale of the troops, then he should do what is working for his leadership style.  You can see the dialogue between the blogger and myself in the comments section of the post to see how he justifies and rationalizes his approach to leading his soldiers.

Leading a team is not about command and control, but about listening and communicating – and about learning.[i]  A leader must establish trust and credibility, communicate effectively, employ empathy, intimately know their people’s capabilities, and move their people into positions to be most successful.  I think anybody who aspires to put these things into action can be a leader, over time, practice, and failure, and then learn through their faults and mistakes.

Some leaders are often more experienced at expressing negative emotions – reactively and defensively, and often without recognizing their corrosive impact on others until much later, if at all.  The impact of negative emotions – and more specifically the feeling of being devalued – is incredibly toxic.[ii]  In his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,Dale Carnegie discussed techniques in handling people, ways to make people like you, how to win people to your way of thinking, and how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.  Some leaders struggle with their people skills, and the effects of that are shown through the morale and (lack of) productivity of their team or organization.

Leaders who are facing any challenge guiding their team to success should take a step back and revisit the core values and principles that are the qualities that lead to successCourage to face challenges, and to have the moral and mental strength to properly manage and lead; the commitment to be dedicated, with integrity and respect, to the professional and personal well-being of people; employ the appropriate Justice to be fair and consistent, with professional tact that maintains good relations and avoids problems (polite, calm, and firm); to have the enthusiasm that conveys a sincere interest in people’s performance, while being optimistic, cheerful and willing to help and guide them; and, to be devoted to your people – loyalty.

Today’s post reveals a first-hand account of a leader attempting to understand and overcome people management challenges.  As a result of my comments to his post, I have connected with him, and have had a few short conversations on his blog and mine.  As a result of our connection, we both will be able to interact and learn from each other’s blog, and to openly discuss the leadership challenges that we all face from time to time.

The Command Performance Leadership blog has been created to discuss leadership, the struggles that are experienced as leaders, and the solutions that can lead all of us to victories that before were bitter losses…..stay tuned.

Copyright © Dale R. Wilson

[i]What the Heck is Wrong With My Leadership” – By Pekka A. Viljakainen – Posted Monday, January 23, 2012 – HBR Blog Network – http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/01/what_the_heck_is_wrong_with_my.html – Accessed 24 January 2012 – http://hbr.org

[ii]Why Appreciation Matters so much” – By Tony Schwartz – Posted Monday, January 23, 2012 – HBR Blog Network – http://blogs.hbr.org/schwartz/2012/01/why-appreciation-matters-so-mu.html – Accessed 24 January 2012 – http://hbr.org


Other Sources –

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” – By Dale Carnegie – MindMeister Mind Map http://www.mindmeister.com/40950677/how-to-win-friends-influence-people – Accessed 24 January 2012 – http://www.mindmeister.com

Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People Featuring Dale Carnegie. New York: NBC, 1938.

Related Article –

Ten (Hard) Lessons Learned About Leadership after Eight Months in Command” (antiwasp.wordpress.com)


5 Responses to “(Hard) Lessons Learned About Leadership”

  1. Colleen Sharen Says:

    Thought you might find this article about military leadership from an active Canadian Armed Forces officer an interesting contrast to your hard ten lessons. http://www.iveybusinessjournal.com/topics/leadership/courage-in-leadership-from-the-battlefield-to-the-boardroom

    You might also find the book “Leadership” by Rick Hillier (former Chief of Defense Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces) an interesting perspective on military leadership. Rick is one of the most personable, funny and smart people I have met.


  2. Dee Dub, Nice Post. Couple Notes:

    -AIT in the Army is Advanced Individual Training (not sure what it is in the Marine Corps).

    -What are your thoughts on the Army’s latest push to re-instill the “discipline” of the pre-9/11 1980s and 1990s Army? Leaders push it down to us at the Company Level as “Back to Basics” and “re-becoming a Garrison Army.” I think there’s a counter-trend that has been gaining some literature lately called “The Army as a Profession / Profession of Arms.”

    I think Back to Basics runs counter to your idea of the future of the Army. You seem more like a Profession of Arms guy. I like that.

    -I see what you are saying about Senior Officers and NCOs being more Back to Basics than the junior leaders coming up in the Army (because Senior Leaders were part of the pre-9/11 Army). Many of the Command Philosophies of Senior Leaders inhibit the type of Army you see coming to fruition. It’ll take time for the older leadership to retire before the junior leaders can make changes to policy/environment.

    You need to read Iron Major by LTC David Dunphy to gain a better grasp on the trend you are talking about above:


    Take it easy -antiwasp


    • Sorry for the mix-up with the Army acronym. The Marine Corps is Advanced Infantry Training. I didn’t realize that the Army was pushing to go back to the old (outdated) autocratic style of leadership. Although some in the Army may seem to feel that it is going “back to basics,” I call it going back to an ineffective leadership style that, if implemented, will have a huge backlash among this new generation of soldiers.

      Although there are some who you may be seeing that are ‘old school’ post-Vietnam-era officers and NCO’s, I will assure you that they are few in number compared to the more mentor-oriented, tactful professional soldier. I think the days of ‘in your face’ leadership has past, and will struggle to have a resurgence. It just doesn’t work, and there is no place for it in today’s military.

      I encourage you to read my recent post about General Anthony Zinni, former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). The post is entitled, “Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom,” and can be found at https://commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/leading-the-charge-leadership-lessons-from-the-battlefield-to-the-boardroom/. General Zinni is a Vietnam-era officer who retired in 2000. There is a 1 hour video (it is my video of the week last week), but I have summarized, in detail, the entire video in narration on the post. I think you will find it refreshing that, although this is one of the ‘old schoolers,’ he does not lead in an autocratic fashion. Come back and let me know what you think.

      Finally, I am preparing a new post to follow-up the General Zinni post about making decisions. There will be some important parallels with what you’ve presented here with your comment. Thank you very much for your readership, and thank you for some great conversations since you and I have made our connection. HOOAH!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: