24 November 2014

Relating Values and Leadership Competencies: How Can We Do Better?

COL Alicia Smith, US Army
In reading a multitude of leadership books written for civilian organizations and business management, I have noted a trend for confusing a leadership competency with a leadership value.  Ideally, one has core values, which lead to the development of leadership competencies and are then reflected in exceptional behavior. From the moment of entry into the Service, each member is treated as a leader in training.  The goal is to create leadership competencies and inculcate institutional values so that regardless of rank, when finding oneself in a crisis, those competencies come to the fore and are reflected in ethical decisions and judgments. 

As an example, numerous authors use "integrity" as a leadership competency.  I argue one can be an extraordinary leader without integrity (the dictionary definition: adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty). For example, Stalin and Hitler were effective leaders, but I would not bet a penny on them possessing integrity.  

An example of a desired leader competency would be "decisive under pressure" (derived from Clausewitz's classic "On War" but is also listed in Wooten & James [2008]). Others could be “persuasive both up and down the chain of command,” “motivating,” and “energetic.”  Wooten and James (2008) list “communicating effectively,” “promoting organizational resilience,” and “sense making,” among several others.

One's "character" is derived from the concepts that an individual consciously decides to value.  If I say I value integrity but you catch me lying on a readiness report, then there is a disconnect between my values and my behavior, thus calling my character into question.

History is rife with military leaders who failed to uphold institutional values and it was reflected in their behavior, but there are differences between character failure and human error. Tom Ricks, in his book "The Generals", makes a persuasive case that the Army in particular has failed to train, educate, and promote good leaders which has led to mediocrity. I don’t completely agree with his assessment, for in my own career I didn’t meet any “donkeys” but I certainly witnessed “lions led by snakes” and “lions led by eagles.”  I have also seen people stumble under pressure, stress, and loss and then be unmercifully sacrificed.  Have we built a culture in our military which construes human error (which I argue can build knowledge and character) as character failures which become career ending?

So my question to the community is: which one value do you see as crucial to military leadership and what is its relationship to the leadership competencies that it underpins?  How can we as a military community do a better job instilling that value or developing desired leadership competencies?

If you don’t mind me quoting you in future articles or discussions please be sure to add “can quote me” at the end of your reply. Thank you!

Comment below or start the conversation here and connect within the military community.

*These opinions belong to the writer and in no way reflect the views of the DoD or other departments of the US government.

Clausewitz, C. (1982). On war. In Anatol Rapoport (Translator). Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Press.
Ricks, T. (2012). The generals: American military command from World War II to today.  New York, NY. Penguin Press.
Wooten, L. P. & James, E. H. (2008). Linking crisis management and leadership competencies: The role of human resource development.  Advances in Developing Human Resources. DOI: 10.1177/1523422308316450.

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