Although I didn’t think so at the time, being drafted into the US Army while living in America was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was 19 years old and had just finished high school with the intention of going on to university in California when Uncle Sam called.
During my 3 month Basic Training course I quickly learned self-discipline, self-reliance and developed a grudging admiration for the leadership skills exhibited by the sergeant preparing us for military service. His leadership competencies were founded on army principals of Integrity, Respect and Discipline. He had a clear vision of what we needed to learn and conveyed it passionately.
From start to finish his focus was on teamwork and the need to look after one another, as there was a very strong likelihood we would see combat in Korea at the conclusion of basic training. Throughout, he led from the front through every aspect of the 3 month campaign designed to ensure we were prepared both mentally and physically for the task ahead.
As a by product of this training, I came to better understand and appreciate the historic role played by the military as an incubator for the development of future leaders.
Co-incidentally, the President of the United States during this period was Dwight Eisenhower, formally a five star general and Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War 2.
Likewise, General Douglas McArthur was Commander US Forces Far East and was ultimately given the task of rebuilding Japan after the War. This included crafting a new constitution that would move the country from centuries of feudal military dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature. In doing so, McArthur drew on all of his leadership skills in changing an imbedded culture while persuading the Japanese it was in their interests to do so.
Both displayed extraordinary leadership skills in bringing to a close a world war and then going on to govern from the highest offices of the victor and vanquished countries. In doing so, both demonstrated leadership of the highest level developed from their early days at the West Point Military Academy. Their most obvious skill was an ability to clearly define a vision of what they wanted to achieve and to passionately inspire their followers to work together to achieve the vision.
Both were good listeners drawing on what they heard to help them make decisive decisions. They led from the front at all times and reflected a ‘can do’ persona. Interestingly, good leaders seem to have a natural sense of humor, are incredibly energetic and display moral and effective courage.
However, not one size fits all, as leadership styles can vary considerably. There are Autocratic, Democratic and Charismatic leaders and all can be effective in varying circumstances. Eisenhower would probably fit into the democratic category of leadership. His definition of leadership was, “Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to”.
McArthur on the other hand was more autocratic with a certain charisma that he used to good effect in rebuilding Japan. His view of leadership was, “A General is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him”.
We witnessed an outstanding example of leadership by the Australian Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, responding to a sexual assault and bullying scandal within the military. He produced a 3 minute YouTube video that went viral with over 1.5 million hits, that conveyed a refreshing message to the troops displaying leadership at its finest. His message was delivered in plain English and clearly wasn’t filtered through a focus group or edited by HR bureaucrats and everyone who watched it knew he meant every word of it. He told the army in no uncertain terms exactly what he expected from it.
Military leadership is not confined to the generals but permeates through every command level. Our most recent Victoria Cross recipients exemplify this culture. Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, Trooper Mark Donaldson and Corporal Daniel Keighran were all Non Commissioned Officers who displayed incredible individual leadership under fire in Afghanistan.
Likewise businesses can benefit greatly by encouraging leadership development throughout their organisations. Empowering employees at all levels to take responsibility and exert leadership as required. This frequently leads to increased productivity and a much happier workforce.