Authoritarian Leadership vs. Democratic Leadership ~ The Officer Corps Explained
a.k.a. Autocratic Leadership vs. Participative Leadership
On Tuesday, I was again surfing WordPress for blog posts to read about leadership, the military and various branches of the military. In my search, I 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
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) – http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/milreview/reed.pdf – Accessed 1 February 2012 – Maxwell Air Force Base (Montgomery, Alabama), United States Air Force Air War College, Gateway to the Internet Home Page – http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/
“Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Army” – By Colonel Denise F. Williams, U.S. Army – Report Date 18 Mar 2005 – http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA431785 – Accessed 1 February 2012 – The Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) – http://www.dtic.mil/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) – http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20101231_art011.pdf – Accessed 1 February 2012 – http://usacac.army.mil/ – 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 – http://info.publicintelligence.net/USArmy-ToxicLeaders.pdf – Accessed 8 February 2012 – Public Intelligence – http://publicintelligence.net/
This entry was posted on February 2, 2012 at 7:04 am and is filed under Leadership, Toxic Leadership with tags authoritarian, autocratic, boot camp, command leadership, commissioned officer, communication, democratic, drill instructor, leadership, management, manager, midshipmen, military, military leadership, Naval Academy, officer, participative, participatory, people management, professionalism, relationships, respect, tact, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, USMA, USNA, West Point. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.