The Sacred Duty of Military Leadership
Because we believe leadership is a fundamental determinant of group cohesion, and cohesion is a fundamental determinant of organizational performance, leadership is a concern of almost every human organization. In spite of its obvious importance, there is no widely held view of what leadership consists of or how to foster it. I present here a simple theory of leadership and argue its powerful utility. I also show how the mortal consequences of military service uniquely obligates military leaders while also showing how inherent internal conflicts place extraordinary demands on the integrity of military leaders.
For thirteen years I directed a program treating returning combat veterans experiencing PTSD and/or medically unexplained physical symptoms (e.g., Gulf War Illness) at Walter Reed AMC. Based in part on that experience, I was hired as a subject matter expert providing services to the Defense Center of Excellence. One of its projects was improving background material in support of the Army Total Force Fitness campaign. I was part of the team examining social fitness through the lens of leadership. Our task was to find a concise method of improving the leadership abilities of senior enlisted and junior officers. After a thorough review of the literature, we had found nothing suitable. Then I came across this:
Muzafer Sherif, a founder of modern social psychology, had formulated a technical definition of a social unit as consisting of a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:
1. Common motives and goals;
2. An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles;
3. Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships;
4. Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group;
5. Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated.
Sherif was trying to identify the necessary and sufficient features to distinguish a social unit from an unrelated aggregation of people, for example, a bunch of people walking down the street. It seemed to me, however, that in doing so he had also inadvertently provided a useful definition of cohesion. I believe most readers would agree that if all five of these elements were true of a group of people, we would expect it to be quite cohesive. Indeed, it's hard to imagine them being true of a group and the group not being cohesive. Perhaps it's also evident why this formulation seemed to me to be just what the Defense Center of Excellence sought: It provides a framework that focuses a leader's attention on critical issues while at the same time defining success as the creation of these conditions.
The word cohesion comes from the Roman military term "cohort" which was the name of a sub-unit of a Roman Legion containing five to eight hundred men. Consider what it says about the consistency, reliability, solidity, focus, cooperation, and drive of Roman cohorts that they became the very definition of unified, coordinated, goal directed action: cohesion. Indeed, the mental image of lines and rows of soldiers all marching in step in the same direction with determined purpose is probably a commonly held defining metaphor of cohesion. That same image also defines our view of how it is leadership that takes a group of aimlessly milling individuals and transforms it into a cohort: a cohesive, purposeful group. It is due to the very fact that Sherif's five elements of a social unit so closely define what we think of as a cohesive group that their relevance for leadership becomes immediately clear and why, therefor, studying their implications has value. Less obvious, possibly, is that this definition has some subtle and important implications.
1. The "truth" that matters here is not the objective specification of these elements, but rather the subjective, psychological realty of each group member.
2. Group members will be simultaneously members of multiple other groups which may have similar, competing, or antagonist goals and this fact defines much of the challenge in creating cohesion.
3. Group norms and values concerning the behavior and motivation of the leader in particular have unique importance in determining group cohesion.
Subjective vs. objective reality
As a social scientist, Sherif was no doubt attempting to develop an objectively verifiable definition of a social unit. While an important goal, it is interesting to note his use of language. Notice that "accepted" appears in three of the elements. "Accepted" is inherently a psychological term, referring to the outcome of a process internal to an individual: starting from a place of doubt or uncertainty and then yielding to an experienced or perceived truth. There is no way to determine if a person has acutualy accepted something; even asking will not suffice since there is always social pressure towards conformity that may influence what people say as opposed to what they truly believe. Nonetheless, we know that people constantly evaluate information and accept or reject its truth according to its fit with their view of the world.
Thus, the accepting that really matters lies in the internal state of each group member. Written policies and procedures may exist that detail goals, job descriptions, rules and regulations, etc., but each person is only "in" the group to the extent that they personally accept the goals, etc. as binding on them. Obviously the degree of acceptance can vary for each person on each element over time. The essential point is that each member is "in" or "out" of the group to the degree that their lived experience in the group leads them to believe that what the group says it is about is really what it is about. Put another way: Their perception is that what really happens in the group is close enough to what should happen according to their understanding of the five elements. Each italicized word in the previous sentence is a subjective judgment each person makes in accordance with his or her experience. I emphasize this point because it is critical to understanding the utility of this approach to leadership. Leadership is the process of influencing those many personal judgments in a desired direction.
Simultaneous memberships and competing goals
People are always members of multiple groups (and sub-groups) meeting these criteria even though some of those groups may have no formal or written explication of the elements. Families, for instance, meet this definition of a social unit even though nothing may be explicitly written (or even said) about an element. Sub-groups of a larger group may coalesce around variations of the group goals, roles, or rules. When one recognizes the sheer number of formal and informal groups a person belongs to, the potential for internal conflicts in a member regarding her/his obligations towards various groups becomes obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is the inevitable additional conflict between group goals and the deep, often unconscious, personal goals of the individual.
Physiological needs, safety, and belonging are well recognized basic goals people pursue. There are, however, many goals we may pursue that are unacknowledged, such as revenge, rivalry, status seeking, power, and excitement. Individual (often called "selfish") goals potentially conflict with group goals. We are inherently attentive to whether we are able to meet our personal goals in a given group or whether membership in the group requires too great a sacrifice on our part. We constantly monitor the balance between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the costs and benefits of membership versus going it alone. If we feel that the group is providing us less than it should, we may not necessarily leave it, but we may psychologically abandon it and put more effort into meeting our individual goals, obviously affecting our contribution to the group.
Just as members are assessing their own goals in relation to those of the group, they are also constantly assessing every other group member's adherence to those same group goals and standards. Since they know that the true degree of a person's acceptance can never be fully known, their assessment is based primarily on observing the behavior of the other group members with respect to the other elements and making their subjective assesments. Are they doing their job? Following the rules? Respecting others' positions? How these evaluations turn out determines how each member sees every other member as being in and of the group versus pursuing personal, "selfish" goals. Even though everyone knows that it is possible to act one way while believing something completely different, we all nonetheless carefully scrutinize the acts and statements of others, believing this is still our best source of information.
Each group member is always somewhere on a continuum from complete buy-in to being on the verge of exit. By buy-in, I mean that based on the person's lived experience this is a group that she/he is a member of. The more true that is for the more members of a group, the more cohesive that group will be. Conversely, the more that group members experience other members as pursuing their personal goals within the group, the less connected and committed to the group they will be, and the more inclined to pursue their own goals and/or exit the group they become. Clearly then, a fundamental task of leadership is to facilitate the belief that group membership will fulfill individual goals.
Leaders and norms
What was said above about members' scrutiny of other members with respect to their fidelity to the group is far truer for leaders. Most organizations delegate authority to leaders which gives them the power to direct members' behavior. All but the most oppressed individuals, however, carry some desire for personal autonomy - a desire to do as they see fit. Given the ever-present conflict between group and personal goals, the directives of the leader will be minutely scrutinized to determine how congruent they are with respect to the leader's proper authority and the group goals.
In addition to that concern, however, there are also many group norms and values that apply primarily or exclusively to leaders. While many such norms and values may be explicit, many also may be individually or collectively held yet never voiced. For example, the fact that we frequently refer to leaders as "authority figures" indicates we have a generally widespread knowledge that leaders are both seen as who they are and also as whom they represent. One representation that is nearly ubiquitous is that we tend to relate to leaders in a manner similar to how we related to our parents. As a result of this tendency, there almost always exists an unspoken expectation that a leader, like our parents, has a duty to care about members' personal well-being. This dynamic is particularly salient in the military due to the fact that the military recreates many aspects of families that effectively invite such expectations. In the military there are designated authorities, expected obedience, sanctioned punishment, restricted liberties, and explicit care-taking (in the form of benefits such as housing, health care, commissaries, etc.) Put another way, in some ways military life psychologically replicates parent-child relationships. As will be shown below, this "duty to care" in the military context takes on extraordinary valence.
It is also worth noting that leadership will almost always be contested within groups. Each of Sherif's elements, along with every one of its numerous specifications, is a subject of scrutiny, interpretation, and debate within the group. Is this person doing his/her job? Was that punishment fair? Did that person get fair recognition? Is this the best way to achieve our goals? Any deviation from either official policy or widely held group norms can be used by the ambitious or the disaffected to lobby for a change of perception about the group, even, on occasion, a change of goal(s). Open rebellion is not necessary for leadership challenges to be successful; the spreading of discontent is enough to effectively change the direction and/or performance of a group.
The Special Case of the Military
Up till now, what I have said applies to all groups. But leadership in the military is an immensely more vital issue because the stakes are so high. The military's job is to preserve the nation, often the most over-arching goal to which people give allegiance. In pursuit of that goal, military leaders have the authority to order, and the power to compel, people to risk their very lives to attain the group goals. Although this fact has many implications, this present conception of cohesion and leadership suggests that for military leadership, one implication is exceedingly important: Everything a military leaders does will be viewed by group members through a lens that evaluates whether or not s/he truly cares about the members, and anything that a leader does that is seen as putting his/her personal goals ahead of of group goals will be experienced by members as destructive to group members and cohesion. Any hint that their sacrifice, their acceptance of another's authority, is being used, taken advantage of, to further that other person's personal goal is extremely toxic - - corrosive to trust, self-esteem, hope, fairness.. everything that makes mutual effort possible. While this may seem obvious, I believe failure to appreciate the importance of this dynamic is a fundamental cause of many, if not most, of the major problems in the military.
This issues is well illustrated by considering this quote attributed to General Eisenhower: “I believe the American soldier can endure almost anything as long as he knows his generals are looking out for him.” Every soldier has a pretty good idea about what is meant by "almost anything:" everything we understand "War is Hell" to mean. But “looking out for him” is more complicated. It surely includes the obvious concerns such as training, equipment, food, medical support, and all the other support services necessary to putting an army in the field. However, while these are unarguably important aspects of generals’ jobs, they are not the foundation of soldiers' endurance. What the soldier needs from the general, what is literally vitally important, is that the soldier believe the general is "looking out" for the soldier's life: he/she will conduct military operations so as to spend the soldiers' lives as dearly as possible consistent with victory. Every action that puts soldiers’ lives at risk must be based on mission necessity and only on that necessity. If necessary, the soldier can and will endure "almost anything" in the attempt to execute the order and complete the mission. In the absence of necessity, however, the soldier’s goal becomes survival, dying becomes meaningless, killing becomes murder, self-sacrifice becomes suicide, and service becomes servitude. This reality defines the sacred duty of military leadership: A leader must purge all self-interest from any decision that puts soldiers' lives in jeopardy. And, because every military leader also relays orders from a superior: A leader must also be willing to sacrifice his/her ambitions, even his/her career, if necessary, in opposition to an order that unnecessarily puts his/her soldiers’ lives in jeopardy.
The importance of this duty can also be illustrated by appreciating how delicately vulnerable troop morale is to the subtlest violations of it: Any act or statement by any decision-maker that casts any doubt on a leader's commitment to these principles will have a corrosive effect on morale, cohesion, and, ultimately, effectiveness. This fact underlies the central importance of Sherif's definition: it identifies the many essential issues wherein actions by leaders have the utmost impact on creating or destroying cohesion. This is true even when the issue may seem to be only tangentially related to combat decisions.
To illustrate this tangential vulnerability, I'll describe two examples of leadership failure that had negative consequences for morale: one profound, well known, and from our common cultural inheritance, the other trivial and from my personal experience. Both cases indicate how attentively leaders' behavior is scrutinized and how impactful are the consequences.
Homer's Iliad provides a well-known example of a failure of leadership that nearly had disastrous consequences for the Greeks. The precipitant was Agamemnon's abuse of his power to seize a war prize that should have belonged to Achilles. While we may have no clear idea how the Greeks decided on who earned what by valor in combat, it is clear that the seizure was experienced by Achilles (and most of the other Greeks) as an obvious violation of Scherif's fifth element. The outrage due to Agamemnon's misappropriation is usually explained as its having been an affront to Achilles's "thumis" or manly pride. The magnitude of the disruption to the war effort that this act produced suggests there is a deeper meaning. Recall how, in response to Agamemnon’s testing of morale, the Greek forces attempt to abandon the war until halted by Odysseus. Though there may have been many other reasons for their discontent and desire to cease fighting, lack of faith in Agamemnon's leadership as a result of his seizure of the war prize clearly played a role. Agamemnon's act reveals his corruption. He shows that he is not motivated solely by the desire to achieve victory, but by jealously and/or competitiveness and a desire for personal gain. He shows that he is willing to abuse his authority in service of attaining his personal goals, thus acting in a way that violates Sherif's elements one, three, and five. If the kin, in effect, abandons the war effort by pursuing personal gain, why shouldn't the common soldier do the same and go home?
This example of leadership from our common heritage illustrates a gross failure, obvious to all. In order to show how more subtle violations can also have negative impact, I will share an episode from my time as a young Naval Officer on a destroyer in the South China Sea during the Viet Nam war.
At this time I was a newly commissioned Ensign three or four months into my first deployment and was the Junior Officer of the Deck, learning ship-handling and Naval operations while seeking to become qualified as the Officer of the Deck. The OOD is the person with immediate authority to direct the ship's actions in accordance with the Captain's directives and attaining the qualification is a vital milestone on the road to command. As the JOOD, I was responsible for maneuvering the ship under the oversight of the OOD. Our destroyer was following in the wake of the aircraft carrier, in "plane guard" position where we were ready to rescue any pilot whose plane might crash on landing or take off. Though an important function, at that time we were merely "station keeping" as there were no planes taking off or landing. The task force was simply tracing an imaginary square in the ocean while awaiting the next operation.
The aircraft carrier signaled and then executed, a 90-degree left turn. My ship, however, doesn't make the turn at that same moment. As we are supposed to follow a mile behind the carrier, we proceed on the old course until we come to the point where the carrier turned and then make our own turn. But, of course, there is no road, or any marker where the carrier turned. As JOOD, it was my job to take into account all the available information and turn our ship at just the right moment. Too soon and we end up of to the left and too close to the carrier, too late we end up off the right and too far behind.
I had a nickname then of "Bullet," given me by another OOD for the way I ricocheted around the bridge checking the course, wind, carrier's position, etc. Obviously, then, I did not take my duties lightly. As I took in a breath to give the order to the helmsman, the OOD said, "Put the helm over."
By not letting me execute my decision, and bear its consequences, the OOD robbed me of the opportunity to hone my judgment and increase my ship-handling skills. But far more important here is why he elected to make that decision. I believe he feared negative consequences if my decision was at all off. Worse, I believe he had good reason to.
If our ship ended up "off station" because I turned too early or late, there was a real possibility that the task force commander might send the ship a message directing us to resume station. If that had happened, the Captain would likely experience that as a reprimand, however mild. Depending on his leadership abilities, he might very well chastise the OOD. The OOD prevented this possible negative outcome by temporarily relieving me of my responsibility and authority and issuing the command.
For learning to occur, mistakes must be made. Only by seeing the result of my decision would I be able to see if my judgment had been correct and be able to make corrections if it weren't. Learning, and its consequent improvement of performance, therefore depends on leaders being willing to accept a short-term performance loss in the interest of long-term performance gain. In the military, where performance has life or death, mission success or failure, consequences, skill learning is of the highest importance. Yet this OOD elected to sacrifice my learning, with its benefits to me, and hence, to the Navy, instead selecting "CYA."
This is a trivial failure of leadership, but that's exactly the point. It is an example of a common occurrence and anyone who has spent any time in the military could come up with examples of their own including ones far more consequential. On a daily basis, in war or peacetime, leaders make decisions and take actions that experientially define Sherif's five elements for the group members. In the military, every one of the elements is fully specified by written rules and regulations and everyone knows exactly the way "it's supposed to be." Any perceived difference between how things should be done and what a leader does will be scrutinized. If a leader is seen as unwilling to do the right thing out of fear or self-interest, it will have substantial impact. For a military leader to display any lack of moral courage during peacetime, let alone during war, is to call into question his/her character, his/her willingness to "look out" for the troops, his/her commitment to act only out of necessity and, hence, his/her fitness to lead. In combat, any such failure will be experienced as a betrayal of sacred duty.
Every decision or act, in war or peace, by every leader contributes to the lived experience of every soldier who then holds a view of each leader as fitting somewhere on a continuum of acting out of duty or self interest, and therefore, as trustworthy or not. If a leader is seen as not trustworthy, the soldier’s commitment to the group and the group’s goals will be affected negatively as will group morale and performance. A thorough understanding of this argument defines the content, scope, and vital importance of training in leadership for all military leaders.
There is, however, one aspect of military culture that makes such training exceptionally difficult and merits mention. The military values of duty, service, and self-sacrifice are deeply held. Emphasis on them may cause conflicts with the various personal goals mentioned above. If, though, personal goals are devalued they may become harder to acknowledge, be suppressed, and may come to operate outside of conscious awareness. We all have the capacity for self-deception and are capable of denying motives that may cause us shame (e.g., being “selfish.") Successful leadership training in the military will require a recognition of this dilemma and a cultural change which allows for acknowledging the legitimacy of self-interest while helping leaders develop the self-knowledge necessary to see and shun it when unit cohesion is on the line. The toxic effect of covert career ambition and avidity for war on unit morale and performance demands no less.