Tag Archives: leadership

who’s side are you on anyway?

I’ve been doing this “leadership” think for a while now. I’ve done the NCO thing in the military, I’ve moved up the supervision chain in LE, etc.

While I hesitate to speak from a position of “expertise” on leadership ( I always feel like I’m still learning), there is an aspect of it I seem to see time and again that I would like to discuss and that is  the confusion over “where your loyalty lies”.

In a nutshell the question is this. Are you a representative of management there to “keep an eye on things”, implementing your superiors policies and looking for “violators”? Or are you a “representative of your men” who looks out for their welfare and protects them from the wrath of your bosses? This issue is sharpest for that mid level leader like a Sergeant or Lieutenant who has direct contact with “the grunts”.

In my opinion this is the first hurdle every new leader seems to face. If not understood it can become an entrenched mindset throughout their career, and only becomes magnified the higher up the leadership ladder they climb.

Of course…as with any complex issue, the reality is never as black and white as I paraphrased above. A good leader has to realize that he has a foot in two worlds. It’s your job to make the ship go in the direction your superiors want it to go…you are not “one of the guys” anymore. However, you are never going to be the “leader of men” I would hope you want to be if you look at the people actually doing the work as drones vs “your people”.

I look at it like this:


With superiors above you and subordinates below you you can look at yourself as an “advocate” for either side. Ideally you want to span a place somewhere in the middle. It’s your job to implement the decisions of your superiors AND it’s also your job to look out for the welfare of your subordinates (both personal and professional welfare) and to be a representative for them when dealing with your superiors.


If you tend to be a leader who “sides” with your superiors in all situations, with no interest in standing up for your subordinates when you believe that a new policy is wrong, or that punishment being levied is unfair or excessive you will be seen as a suck up at best or a tyrant at worst.

If your boss tells you to “write someone up” for something you don’t believe they did wrong, do you just do it? Are you always afraid that if you argue or disagree with your boss that you may harm your chances for a promotion? Are you “scared” of your boss so you just do what your are told with no regard to your personal opinions of right or wrong? You are placing yourself and your concerns over those of the people you are responsible for.

Of course there is the flip side:


Are you afraid of being disliked? Do you avoid difficult discussions or dread delivering orders that you know are necessary but are going to be disliked? Do you overlook things because it’s easier than dealing with them?

You can’t be “one of the boys” either. Part of your job is being the person who has to do the tough thing when it comes down to it. If you don’t act like a leader your career as one will either be short lived or come to a dead end.

My suggestions? You have to look at yourself and make an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses. A person who, in their heart of hearts, knows that they tend to be “one of the boys” has some hope. He/She knows that they have a weakness and that’s the first step to correcting it. Small changes over time is usually the best remedy vs trying to become a “hard ass” overnight. It’s the people who sincerely believe that their subordinates are simply people to step on in the climb for advancement that are the real problem.

And in conclusion:

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a bad decision now?

Thinking RFID
Thinking RFID (Photo credit: @boetter)

I have heard the “a bad decision now is better than a good decision later” meme spouted in places as varied as military NCO schools, police academies and SWAT sources as advice to individuals. I think people who say stuff like that need to be clear that this applies in special circumstances… primarily “life and death” moments. I know a few people who would probably still be alive if they had slowed down and thought about what they were going to do before they did it.

never confuse movement with action

Action (supermarkets)
Action (supermarkets) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“It is even better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past.” -Karl Von Clausewitz

I’ve seen/heard/read variations on this sentiment over the years and I agree with it on a conceptual level. If you hesitate when you need to act it can mean the difference between mission success or failure…or life and death.

What I’m less clear on is what happens with this saying on a practical level. WHEN is it better to act quickly? Always? Is it always better if you don’t hesitate? Will your boss support you if your actions result in an unsuccessful outcome? Will the military, the media, the government back you if your act on the battlefield results in civilian casualties?

I’m not asking if they SHOULD back you. That’s an entirely different matter.

I think this concept is situation dependent…if bullets are flying and you have to move, that’s different from considering your next step in a barricade call-out.

I also think that this idea can be expressed in a metaphor of a street fight. There are always two considerations in a self defense situation…the immediate issue of survival and the need to act within the scope of the law. While the first should always take precedence, failure to consider the second can turn survival into a Pyrrhic victory.

In my opinion the only way to approach crisis decision making is to have a solid grasp on the “higher order” concepts; tactics, law, ROE, etc and ingrained physical skills that don’t overburden your thought process. Hopefully you get to road test these skills enough so that experience will allow you to adapt your training to the chaos.

planning vs execution

Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visi...
Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visible on the ball, indicating the direction of rotation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Something I learned when I crossed the rank barrier into “administration” is that 99% of the game lies in actually getting the thing done. There is always a lot of talking, planning and meeting but less “doing” than what could be done. It’s always easier to plan than it is to execute.  I try to actually get something “done”… if not daily, than at least weekly.

From the leadership side of the coin, some leaders are better at planning operations than they are at carrying them out. When it comes to operations things never go as planned..Clausewitz called this “friction” and he had the following to say about it.

This difficulty of accurate recognition constitutes one of the most serious sources of friction in war, by making things appear entirely different from what one had expected. The senses make a more vivid impression on the mind that systematic thought – so much so that I doubt if a commander ever launched an operation of any magnitude without being forced to repress new misgivings from the start. Ordinary men, who normally follow the initiative of others, tend to lose self-confidence whey they reach the scene of action. Things are not what they expected, the more so as they still let others influence them. But even the man who planned the operation and now sees it being carried out may well loss confidence in his earlier judgment; whereas self-reliance is his best defense against the pressures of the moment. War has a way of masking the stage with scenery crudely daubed with fearsome apparitions. Once this is cleared away, and the horizon becomes unobstructed, developments will confirm his earlier convictions, this is one the great chasms between planning and execution.

-Clausewitz, C.V. (1984). On War. P. 119-120

What he’s saying (in essence) is that some leaders go in with a plan and when the @#$% hits the fan they start to second guess their plan and loose confidence. This friction causes some leaders to abandon their plans and start to lead reactively..which is rarely good because reactive leadership seldom takes the whole picture into account, it tends to obsess on stamping out fires.

Clausewitz also said:

In short, most intelligence is false, and the effect of fear is to multiply lies and inaccuracies. As a rule most men would rather believe bad news than good, and rather tend to exaggerate the bad news. The dangers that are reported may soon, like waves, subside; but like waves they keep recurring, without apparent reason. The commander must trust his judgment and stand like a rock on which the waves break in vain. It is not an easy thing to do. If he does not have a buoyant disposition, if experience of war has not trained him and matured his judgment, he had better make it a rule to suppress his personal convictions, and give his hopes and not his fears the benefit of the doubt. Only thus can he preserve a proper balance.

Don’t panic..don’t abandon your plan…develop the situation, get things done.

Of course..I can only hope that I adhere to this advice myself. Like I said from the beginning..”its easier to plan than it is to execute”…it’s also easier to give advice than it is to take it.

are you a shepherd, or just a hired hand?

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus' description of himself "I am the Good Shepherd" (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows a close up of the key features of the scene. The memorial window is also captioned: "To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gospel at today’s mass was from John 10: 11-13;

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

It made me think about my profession. Who among us are just the “hired hands” who are ONLY here for the money? Everybody probably knows at least one. The guy who wanted the job for the benefits, health care, retirement pension, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t do this for nothing. I’m not saying that fighting for a decent wage or contract is wrong. I’m not saying that departments expecting you to work overtime but not pay you for it is right either; but if money is the ONLY concern you have are you not simply a hired hand? Who do you want racing to your child’s school to face the wolf if something terrible happens, the Shepherd or the “hired hand”?

my latest read

Cover of "The Virtues of War: A Novel of ...
Cover via Amazon

I’m currently in the last third of Steven Pressfield’s The Virtues of War, which tells the story of Alexander the Great’s campaigns across Persia from the first-person perspective of Alexander himself.

I’ve written about Pressfield before and first became aware of him when I read The Gates of Fire, the historical fiction retelling of the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. Pressfield, a former US Marine, has become sort of an authority on classic military history, the warrior, and leadership on the battlefield. His books routinely address the role of the leader, the human dynamic on the battlefield and what it is about combat that has captivated humans..mainly men..throughout our history. Since I’m reading it on a Kindle, I have been highlighting passages I find interesting with the intent of discussing some of them here. For example…

On decision making:

How is one to command? By consensus of his subordinates? Listen indeed. Weigh and evaluate. Then decide yourself. Are you stumped at the crossroads? Pick one way and don’t look back. Nothing is worse than indecision. Be wrong, but be wrong decisively. Can you please your constituents?  never let me hear that word! The men are never happy with anything. The march is always too long, the ways too rough. What works with them? Hardship. Give your men something that can’t be done, not something that can. Then place yourself at first hazard.

This sentiment is nothing new and I have heard/read similar in various places. I have to say that while I agree with it in general ( it IS the leaders job to make decisions), there are varying degrees of “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead!!” leadership.

I understand that in the context  of the book the decisions mentioned are battlefield decisions. The question is “How is one to COMMAND?” When lives are at stake and you are the leader, yes, indecision kills.

But to take the lesson from the war-room to the board-room, so to speak, the spirit of the passage, while still important, can be taken too far and turn you into a little Napoleon. Not every decision has to be a “Because I’m in charge and I say so” affair.  As anyone who has ever experienced a Second Lieutenant fresh out of ROTC can attest to, the pressures of leadership combined with inexperience can lead to interesting situations with the senior NCO’s who posses the experience but not the rank.

Personally, being in a leadership/supervisory role, I sometimes ask myself if I am being decisive enough, is this a situation where I need to take COMMAND, or would doing so only be because I feel like I should SHOW that I’m in charge vs actually accomplishing a goal? Sometimes the inner talk, self-expectations and wondering what others think are a greater leadership burden than the actual requirements of the job.

I think that the nack lies in knowing your mission first and foremost and doing what’s required to see that its accomplished. Sometimes that means knowing the difference between the decisions that need to be made immediately (take that pillbox or pass it?) and those that you can table and think over for a while.

Combat Leadership: Lt. Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy, highly decorated 3rd Infantry Di...
Image via Wikipedia

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army, Company B 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division.

Place and date: Near Holtzwihr France, January 26, 1945.

Entered service at: Dallas, Texas. Birth: Hunt County, near Kingston, Texas, G.O. No. 65, August 9, 1944.

Citation: Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.



the little tests

Wimberley zip lines- a recreational destinatio...
Image via Wikipedia

I have mentioned in previous posts that I subscribe to the idea that:

A man’s ordinary life at peace reflects his courage or cowardice just like a mirror…Having the least bit of spare time, he will put his mind to Learning, and not be negligent in his practice of the martial arts…He will protect his health fully and will keep in mind the desire to perform at least once in his life a great meritorious deed.


It’s my opinion that a person should, on occasion, test themselves. Large, life altering tests are not as necessary as frequent, smaller tests.  These “little tests” can be as simple as; speaking up when you see something wrong, being the person who takes the lead when it’s obvious that everybody else is looking for someone to make the first move, making a public speech, etc.

In this day and age there are also many opportunities to test your “gut” in a relatively safe manner. There are numerous adventure and X-sport opportunities out there to test your mettle; rock climbing gyms, skydiving schools, SCUBA courses, etc. I recently had the opportunity to do a high angle “adventure” course. You may have seen them, cargo net climbs, wire/plank bridges between elevated platforms, zip lines.

Now, I’m not claiming that doing stuff like this is somehow going to guarantee that you will perform well under stress, or make you magically courageous (my daughter and niece went on this course with me btw) but any opportunity to associate that little twinge of fear with fun is an opportunity that you can use to prove to yourself that you CAN override fear and do what needs to be done.

I look at opportunities like this as a chance to “practice” those things that you don’t/cant practice by shooting at targets or even by trading simunitions with another living person. There is no (or very little) pushing past actual fear in a lot of tactical/weapon training, you get to fantasize about what you “would do” in real life, but it’s still just training. There is a reason why most military boot camps run their recruits through “confidence courses” and obstacle courses…and it isn’t to train them to perform common soldier tasks.

What I found interesting in this latest excursion was the ratio of young people to adults. It’s somewhat amusing how many parents will let their kids do the course but will pass on doing it themselves. Granted, youth has long been known to be more adventurous, but where is the line between adventure and the over-cautiousness of adulthood?


why do we need ranks?

Colonel rank insignia for the United States Ar...

Image via Wikipedia

A while back one of my readers asked me to help him in a debate he was having with the leader of a military simulation group he was a member of (computer gaming or Airsoft I assume). This “leader” was apparently against assigning leadership positions because he believed that there was already a “natural leadership” in place. Some people took it upon themselves to call the shots and others followed and he did not want to upset this “democratic army”.

Now, my opinions of gaming and/or MilSim aside, I thought this was a good opportunity to try to define MY concept of leadership, rank and the necessity of both..here is what I wrote.

A “democratic Army”…excuse me while I chuckle at that one. My drill Sgt. said in one of his first soliloquies..”This is the ARMY! This is not a democracy, it is a dictatorship and I AM THE DICK!!” Said for effect of course but there is truth in it. Effective military operations do not happen due to consensus.

If by “MilSim” you mean Airsoft or something of that nature then I guess you guys can run things any way you like, but if you are truly attempting to simulate a military unit than you should have a rank structure. ALL successful militaries, from the Romans to the US Military, have succeeded because of a clearly defined rank structure. Hell, a rank structure is what defines an “Army”…without one all you have is a mob. Rank structure is how an organization remains an organization. People come and go, they die, they retire, they get injured, they get promoted and move on. The “unit” remains because the rank structure provides…well…structure. Even with all new people it can operate as smoothly as it did before. In a “charismatic” group, when people leave it is no longer the same group in an operational sense.

I think your friend is confusing “leadership” with “command” (also known as management). Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction, and motivation. The lowest ranking person can be a good “leader”. Command is the authority a person lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of his rank and assignment or position. An organization needs both.

Command is how you sail your ship. The Captain of a ship isnt given responsibility for a vessel because he stepped aboard and began ordering people around. Should the Captain be a good leader? Ideally yes. But in the end what matters is that someone with a modicum of skill and knowledge is vested with the authority to call the shots. That is done by defining someone as the Captain.

Ideally you put good leaders in position of command, but even with substandard leadership, goals can be reached as long as a command structure exists. Thats why you hear all of those WWII stories of privates winding up sergeants or lieutenants by wars end. As the leaders fall someone HAS to take their place. To operate, the command structure HAS to be maintained.

Sure 4-5 guys can get along with no defined “leader”..for a while…but when you are dealing with larger numbers of personnel you have to deal with a concept called “span of control”. For every 3-7 people (5 being ideal) you need someone in command of the group. Defined leadership is the only way to allow a large organization to act “as one”.

Do you routinely train by “killing” the leaders to see what happens? What happens when the “followers” disagree with the “leaders” orders in the heat of battle? With a defined structure you follow the lawful orders of those placed in command.No matter what your leader says, in the real world military/LE operations are not run by consensus.

Even in SAS/Delta..sure they are more flexible in the planning process and less strict in protocol, but you can bet your ass that they adhere to a “who is in charge” system (based on rank) when the green light goes on.

In the real world simply “being the leader” (natural or not) is what is required most of the time. I refer you to:


The problem with the “some guys are natural leaders” meme is the question, “how do you know what a good leader is?” and how do you really know that this guy is the best choice?

Most people I have run into who hold similar beliefs as your guy are usually reluctant to tell the bossy “natural leader” to step-off..or is friends with the “natural leader” and is afraid to rock the boat by assigning positions. Trust me, you will probably find that some of the people your leader thinks are not “natural leaders” would probably turn out better leaders than the guys he thinks are “naturals” if they are given the training and the opportunity to lead. Most of the time issues like this stem from EGO. In a well operating unit you follow the orders of your commander. And a good commander realizes that some of his subordinates may be better “leaders” than he is…and he uses them accordingly.