Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained

a.k.a. Autocratic Leadership vs. Participative Leadership

I recently came across a post called “The Officer Corps Explained.” In this post, the author features a series of cartoon screens that depict a Roman military officer having a conversation with what is portrayed as a younger, lower rank soldier. In the cartoon, the officer and the soldier have a conversation that becomes a debate about authoritarian (or autocratic) leadership vs. democratic (or participative) leadership.  In order to understand the context of what I’m about to discuss, I encourage you to visit the blog post “The Officer Corps Explained” before continuing with this post.


Obviously, the cartoon is a satirical view of officership in the military, and military leadership in general. But, there are a few things that should be highlighted from their conversation. I’m not going to dissect this frame-by-frame or word-for-word, and I don’t want to insult your intelligence by defining what you’ve already read and figured out. But I do want to discuss some important parts of it.

First, there is a certain level of respect to be rendered to a commissioned officer, usually in the form of a salute and/or courteous greeting; even before true trust and respect are earned by that officer. And, that is illustrated by the soldier when he said that respect is earned, especially if he didn’t know the officer. But, at the same time, an officer should not demand such respect. In this example, however, there is a military protocol where there should be a customary rendering of respect by the junior soldier; in this case, a salute.

Second, it is obvious that the person posting this cartoon is attempting to express his opinion of how the social status of an officer within a military establishment is harsh and totalitarian. It is quite possible that he has experienced this first-hand in his life as a member of the military. It may not be a true depiction of his experiences, but it seems he has observed or experienced a military officer who was autocratic, domineering and/or rude. But, if we cut through the cynicism and sarcasm, you can obviously see the point of his post. Unfortunately, if it is true that he has seen, or experienced, this type of officer, that is a shame; especially if the officer threatened him with certain punishments for failure to obey or conform. Don’t get me wrong, we have to follow orders, but we must do the right things, for the right reasons, at the right times.

Unfortunately, this cartoon’s portrayal, to some extent, remains a factor in today’s military among those who lead and those who follow. There are a few ego-driven officers and NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) who think they can bully their way, through fear and intimidation, to better performance of their team. Power, titles and rank seem to be more important to a few officers than taking care of their troops and earning their trust; it gets to their heads. So, I won’t sit here and deny that there are leaders like this in the military. Autocratic leadership had been the standard in the military. But, the military has realized, gradually over the last couple of decades, that kind of leadership style is somewhat archaic. It is becoming less top-down and hierarchical leadership structure. As a result, the number of officers and NCO’s who practice an autocratic leadership style is diminishing.

At one point in the conversation between the soldier and the officer, the soldier asks him, “what if you’re wrong about something? Can I question you then?” The officer’s reply is, “only if I let you, and only if you do it like you’re tiptoeing on egg shells.” As I stated on this blog in a recent post, the military is moving more toward the type of leadership organization where it invites participatory involvement in decision-making; where people at every level, from the sides and the bottom, have a voice and a view, and are permitted and encouraged to provide feedback. In the private sector, more leadership organizations will find that transforming to a more ‘democratic’ leadership style, where everyone is a leader, everyone has a voice, and leadership at every level produces better, timely and more successful results.

I resent the notion that many (or most) military leaders conduct themselves in this fashion. Too often, military leaders are painted with a broad brush as tyrannical and authoritarian. Maybe we can thank Hollywood:

Of course, this is boot camp, and those of us who lived the 8 to 13 weeks of Hell at basic training can relate to this, and know that the real military is nothing like it. But, my point of using this video was to illustrate Sergeant Harman’s tyrannical, authoritarian leadership style. He is your typical drill instructor portrayed by Hollywood, and much of what you see in that Full Metal Jacket clip can no longer be done or said in today’s military boot camp; no, not even the Marine Corps. Boot camp, as well as military academies, have become more instructional. An example is at The United States Military Academy at West Point’s R-day (receiving day), the first day of Beast Barracks, where new Cadets (Plebes) are to report to the ‘Cadet in the Red Sash.’ Watch the following video to see the contrast in instruction and interaction between these Cadets, from what you saw with Sergeant Harman.

You can see that the ‘Cadet in the Red Sash’ is giving orders and instructions in a much different tone of voice than Sergeant Harmon. The senior Cadet tells the Plebe what he expects, instructs him how to accomplish the task, and observes his actions. For example, as soon as the new Cadet does not salute properly, the instructor quickly corrects the Plebe in a mentoring fashion, and teaches the Plebe a more proper way of saluting. It may seem insignificant or trivial about how to properly salute, but what is really happening here is the senior Cadet is teaching the Plebe, while establishing trust and credibility. He is not yelling at him; he is not in his face. He is not coming across as the boss, with a “you better listen to me” attitude. He is practicing a more democratic/participative style of leadership, although the Plebe doesn’t have much input in the decisions that are made, nor the way tasks are to be completed. The tone is more professional and tactful, and the senior Cadet is able to get more out of his subordinate. The senior Cadet is quickly establishing the required level of respect and trust necessary to successfully lead his followers. Let’s look at a similar example from the Naval Academy’s I-Day (Induction Day):

What is important, above all else, in these examples is for the Plebes to pay attention to detail and complete the task properly and completely. You can see in this video that the Plebes were not completely following instruction. The senior Midshipmen patiently instructed them until they mastered the task. The Plebes continued to work on getting it right until their senior instructor was satisfied. The group of Plebes worked as a team, and so did the senior Midshipmen in the way they instructed.

Then you have Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, fictitious officer in the United States Marine Corps, from the Movie “A Few Good Men.” In A Few Good Men, Col. Jessep, commanding officer at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, orders a couple of low-ranking NCO’s to haze a weakling in their unit — an unofficial military procedure otherwise known as a ‘code red.’ Unfortunately, this kid dies in the process, and the colonel lets his subordinates take the fall. When Jessep is finally asked to explain his actions, he barks that what he has done might be considered offensive to some — but, ultimately, American soil is a little safer because of his unpopular executive decision. This, again, is an example of an autocratic style:

I think (and I hope) the extremely autocratic, authoritarian military leader gets washed out early in their career before they can damage the morale and effectiveness (esprit de corps) of the troops under their command. There are much more mentor and servant-oriented leaders in the military, and I am certain that the new and improved leadership style is cascading down the ranks to the young officers and NCO’s, and also to the military academy Midshipmen, Cadets and Airmen. The “in your face” style is old; the servant leader is the leader of the future. Hopefully, once the changes in leadership styles take hold in the military, the stereotype of the military leader changes as well.

Copyright © Dale R. Wilson


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There are a few online resources that discuss this very topic specifically.  Rather than attempt to echo what they say, and risk plagiarizing their content, I will provide you the various links.  I encourage you to check them out:

“Toxic Leaders” – By Colonel George E. Reed, U.S Army – Military Review – July – August 2004 (pages 67 thru 71) – – Accessed 1 February 2012 – Maxwell Air Force Base (Montgomery, Alabama), United States Air Force Air War College, Gateway to the Internet Home Page –

“Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army” – By Colonel Denise F. Williams, U.S. Army – Report Date 18 Mar 2005 – – Accessed 1 February 2012 – The Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) –

“Toxic Leadership: Part Deux” – By Colonel George E. Reed, Ph.D., U.S. Army, Retired and Lieutenant Colonel Richard A. Olsen, D.Min., U.S. Army, Retired – Military Review – November – December 2010 (pages 58 thru 64) – – Accessed 1 February 2012 – – United States Army Combined Arms Center

“Antecedents and Consequences of Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army: A Two Year Review and Recommended Solutions” – By John P. Steele – Technical Report (2011-3) – Center for Army Leadership – Report Date 30 June 2011 – – Accessed 8 February 2012 – Public Intelligence –

15 Responses to “Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained”

  1. I loved your post, you made some really great points. Keep it up


  2. DW,

    Your hope for the wash-out of authoritarian leaders may come true. We’ll lose 80,000 Soldiers in the Army over the next three years. There will not be any physical interviews to ask us about our philosophies, though. A board will be assembled of senior ranking officers to review officer files and select those who will be retained and those who will be cut. There’s no appeals process once the decision is made.

    In the files review officers who have been most effective according to their report cards will be the ones that stay. Those that completed projects with the best results will be retained. If the democratic style of leadership is to succeed in the Army it needs to retain democratic leaders now.

    I attended an OPD Session by BG Gwen Bingham (Quartermaster General) last week where encouraged candor among the NCOs. She said she expects from them, “what I need to know, not what I want to hear.” She also instructed all leaders in the audience to provide both a “task” and a “purpose” to subordinates when giving orders. This way subordinates have meaning in the tasks they complete . . . they see the bigger picture. BG Bingham is a democratic leader.

    The cartoon oversimplified so much that it missed point. The blogger, “the wise sloth,” stands not only against commissioned officers, but also against the Army’s principles. If he’d spent any time in the military he’d recognize that it generally isn’t officers that demand a salute, but his subordinates that demand it of each other for the officer. The enlisted enforce it among themselves. He’d also see that the subordinate can apply for the officer school at any time – and he should if he wants it. Demanding to be an officer without Officer Schooling – instructing him how to become an officer – is dumbfounding. It’s equivalent to demanding to be considered airborne qualified without having jumped out of a plane at Army Airborne School. -antiwasp


    • anitwasp,

      Unfortunately, it seems by the law of averages, many good and bad will be washed-out as a result of the reductions in Army manpower. Your comment brings many thoughts to mind, and has inspired me to feature your comment for a forthcoming post this week. The post will focus on leaders putting there direct reports in a position to succeed, tasking for success and advancement, and the dreaded decision-making process that goes into manpower reductions, among other important points that spawn from your comment.

      As alway, thank you for your comments and readership.



  3. […] Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained. Dale Wilson. […]


  4. Gen. Wilson,
    I have always believed that a person con not be a good leader if he/she con not be a good follower.
    Also, I am glad to see that the word ‘MANAGE” has finally been removed from most Military discussions. I was in when the issue of “TOTAL QUALITY MANAGEMENT” was “the new thing”. I always believed that you manage money and things but, you had to lead people.



    • Smadge,

      I agree that a good leader MUST be a good follower. The TQM concept has transitioned to Six Sigma and Lean Management. So, it still exists; just more formal in its management principles and training. NCO’s and officers must certify in such training. It exists in both the military and the corporate world. You’ll see more about Six Sigma, if you haven’t already.

      Thanks for your comment, and thank you very much for your readership.



  5. There are instances when leaders, at least in the line Infantry, require “colorful language” and perhaps snatching him from the back of his body armor to get his attention. Usually during moments of “stress” such as live fire exercises and when deployed and an element makes contact of any sort, such as direct or indirect fire attack or IED attacks. Usually they’re new to that form of stress.


    • I understand. That is certainly different, and warranted, as it is meant to get someone’s attention at a time when they need to become more aware of their situation, when time is sensitive, and when lives or safety are at risk. Similarly, a football coach may grab a player’s face mask or shoulder pads when the player did not execute a play properly, and give him some “colorful language,’ as you say. I see it as a character developer, not an act of authoritarianism.


  6. Great and thorough – well done! Leadership is one of those things…it is an art no question. So many forms and styles, especially in the military. It is interesting, but the various services have their own “flavor” when it comes to leadership. That is way too long of a topic for a comment, but the missions and cultures of the services play a role in leadership styles. Just as the personalities and experiences of those leading and being lead play a role.


  7. […] Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained ( […]


  8. I significantly enjoy your posts. Many thanks


  9. […] Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained […]


  10. I almost never comment, but i did some searching and wound up here Authoritarian
    Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The
    Officer Corps Explained | Command Performance Leadership.
    And I actually do have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind.
    Could it be only me or does it seem like a few of the
    remarks come across like coming from brain dead individuals?
    😛 And, if you are posting at other social sites, I’d like to keep up with
    anything new you have to post. Could you list of the complete urls of your
    communal pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?


  11. Those Navy cadet trainers didn’t seem very democratic to me. They still seemed authoritarian, only they didn’t cuss, and were larger in number. You don’t have to cuss and be a single person to be authoritarian. You can still be an authoritarian oligarchy.

    Democratic would be more along the lines of: Let’s get together and plan goals for what we need to do. There can be multiple ways to accomplish our goals, but let’s talk about what the best course of action, and any considerations before execution to make sure everyone’s needs are taken care of and we’ve covered all of our bases.

    You can tell in “Cadet in Red Sash” when the guy yelled at the new cadet to hurry up and move, just as he was picking up his bag and leaving, that the new cadet hesitated for a second, as though he was being berated and felt a reluctance to follow his leader’s command. It sort of shows the leader’s lack of observation, and his inclination to want to make himself seem more like a “proper” leader by yelling and berating.


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