Leading in The Human Dimension: Exploring the Fundamentals

A week ago, Simon Sinek and Bob Chapman visited the Army Command and General Staff College. Their remarks challenged me to think more deeply about the nature of leadership. Among the many concepts discussed, both offered a simple and personal definition of leadership. Sinek: “Leadership is the sacrifice of self so others may gain,” and Chapman: “Leadership is stewardship.” They each approached the problem from a different angle: Sinek: biochemical and Chapman: relational/parenting, but they essentially reached the same conclusion. Leaders serve their followers. A simple, not entirely new, but profound insight nonetheless.

In order to satisfy the curiosity sparked by Sinek and Chapman, I began to browse through a number of articles, books, and blogs I have read over the years. In my search, I stumbled on an insightful blog post by the The Military Leader that helped guide my thinking. At the end of 2014, he posed a very poignant question regarding military culture and the nature of leadership. He asked: “Is it possible that the critical nature of the military’s mission has caused its leaders to espouse and promote results-oriented thinking, thus failing to recognize, and even stifling, those leaders who express more people-oriented, social leadership styles?” In short, does the military deliver results at the expense of people? Are people merely a means to an end?

The question is not new, nor limited to the military. Leadership researchers have worked on this question for more than 50 years. While there is still no definitive answer, there are three researchers with important contributions to this dilemma. In 1964 leadership researchers, Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, discovered that effective leaders rate highly in both concern for production and people. Effective leaders integrate two seemingly opposing demands, task and consideration. In 1985, Edgar Schein, identified organizational culture as a leadership responsibility. Culture emerges as leaders respond to the challenges of two additional competing demands external adaptation and internal integration. Leaders must simultaneously develop novel ways to survive in ever-changing and complex environments (external adaptation) while preserving core practices, beliefs, and values that bind the group together (internal integration). Finally, Robert Quinn and collaborators, offer a powerful framework that integrates the essential elements of the two previous frameworks into the competing values model. The resulting grid framework provides a spatial reference for leadership behaviors within four quadrants. On one axis is flexibility/discretion/consideration and stability/control/task, and on the other axis internal focus/integration and external focus/differentiation. Effective leaders demonstrate behavioral complexity. That is, effective leaders simultaneously exhibit positive values and behaviors from multiple quadrants. They enter what Quinn calls “the fundamental state of leadership.”

So why detour through 50 years of leadership research and theory? I believe the same four factors are interwoven into the DNA of the military profession. A review of army professional and leadership doctrine reveals four common meta-themes of military leadership.

  1. “Mission First” — Accomplish the Mission (Concern for Production/Task)
  2. “People Always” — Take Care of People (Concern for People/Consideration)
  3. “Servant of the Nation”— Serve the Nation (External Adaptation)
  4. “Member of the Profession” — Steward the Profession (Internal Integration)

How might a military model look if we map these themes onto the competing values framework?

When military leadership is viewed through a competing values framework, insights about the nature of military leadership come into focus. Leadership is not binary, nor is it situational. Leadership is complex and integrative. In Quinn’s own words from the book Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: “Real leadership is about moving forward in faith, and it requires both head and heart. The word courage comes from the French word corage which means head and heart. Without courage, we tend to live in our heads and leave behind our hearts.”

No archetype, metaphor, or model perfectly represents reality. This example is no exception. However, this model provides military leaders with a common frame of reference, based on historical examples, empirical leadership studies, and familiar language. I am not suggesting that you need to be exactly like any one of or all of the leaders in the model to be effective. I am also not suggesting that any of the leaders depicted in the model are limited to only leadership behaviors within the quadrant they are mapped in. Clearly, each of the leaders depicted in the model were very capable and complex leaders. However, each leader’s strengths and shortcomings differentiate them from the others. Collectively, the four hallmark leaders serve as implicit archetypes within the framework of the model. In short, it is a starting point and an attempt to bring clarity to the often confounded topic of military leadership.

So what? Why waste the time and energy exploring theoretical nuances of leadership? If Leader development is clearly a priority, it is important to have clarity and precision in terminology and theoretical foundations. As Confucius says: “If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, then affairs cannot be carried on to success.” The human dimension is simply too important to place at risk.

The recently published Human Dimension White Paper provides the call to action to support this priority: “…the army must fundamentally reevaluate and adapt its approach to the human dimension…” This piece is an attempt to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of the human dimension. In order to sustain the momentum, the army needs leaders to broaden perspectives, deepen understanding of social sciences, and contribute to the dialogue. The Canadian Forces manual Leadership: Conceptual Foundations is a good place to seek out a different perspective and validates the applicability of these concepts within the military. The army must move beyond lists of traits and competencies in leadership models and make room for competing values, and behavioral and cognitive complexity.

Enough with the theory…what does this type of leadership sound and look like? I believe it sounds very similar to the definitions offered by Sinek and Chapman. The mission is the people, and the profession is service. As for what it looks like, I believe this is a good place to start….

*Disclaimer: The material are unofficial expressions of opinion; views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Army Command and General Staff College, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US (or any other) government.