‘Leadership’ is the military’s snake oil by BRUCE FLEMING


DeM Banter: WARNING! Here in lies the tension between the academic and the practitioner. I have been pondering this one for several days… so like Professor Fleming’s article or not…it should make you think. My fear, most folks believe exactly what he is selling… leadership just is…you might be one, you might not…but who cares, just be good at what you do. He mentions doctors are not leaders, they are just doctors…really? I know several that are stellar leaders, we train those “leaders” here at OTS… In the end… not sure it is a good idea to take leadership advice from an English professor…but I encourage anyone to read the article…agree or disagree…it should make you think–and he does have some good points.

washingtonpost.com / May 23rd 2013 / View Original

“Leadership” is the snake oil of our day. Everybody is peddling it, it’s offered as a panacea for anything that ails us, and there’s no proof it has any benefit at all—or for that matter, even exists.

Our current infatuation with leadership, particularly in the military, is behind the unsettling rise in malfeasance in recent years, whose headline-grabbers include the Defense Department’s current sexual assault scandals, David Petraeus’s resignation, and two directors in a row with U.S. Africa Command being removed for impropriety. Why so much now? They’re high on the idea that they’re leaders, and it’s our military’s fault. Rather than prioritizing decisions based on justifiable evidence, we’ve been training our high-potential officers to believe their internal compass is king.

Our societal infatuation with leadership starts early. The sign down the dirt road to my children’s day camp reads: “Slow Down! Future Leaders at Play!” Really? All the kids who go to this day camp are going to be leaders? It’s true that if you can afford to send your kids here or care enough to do so, they’ll likely have the advantages of going to good schools and drifting into cushy jobs. But will they all be leaders? Only if leadership means making more money than others do.

This is mirrored in the lip-smacking behavior of our top military officers, who are laden with (as The Washington Post put it) “the imperial trappings that come with a senior general’s lifestyle” and “an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire,” all at taxpayer expense. Being treated like a king tends to make people believe they are kings—and we’re inculcating that mindset in officers from the very beginning of their military schooling.

Our society’s obsession with leadership not only fuels an industry of consultants and management schools offering leadership education, it insinuates itself into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and my home institution, the U.S. Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 26 years. Here, the word “leadership” is heard multiple times daily. The students have to take a mandatory leadership course (“It’s a joke,” students tell me), and our Web site even boasts the slogan “Leaders to Serve the Nation,” which seems to suggest that all our graduates are leaders, rather than pilots or ship-drivers.

What it doesn’t say is anything about bad leaders. Roughly a third of Navy commanding officers removed for malfeasance in 2012 were Naval Academy graduates, when these graduates make up only 20 percent of the officer corps.

Be wary of any institution that claims it can teach you to be a leader. There’s usually an inverse relationship between good marketing about leadership and good instruction. Has your doctor recently claimed that she is a leader? Not likely. She just focuses on being a good doctor. If you get a PhD in theoretical physics from MIT, will you hang out your shingle as a leader or a physicist? And Juilliard doesn’t claim it makes great leaders, just great violinists.


2 Replies to “‘Leadership’ is the military’s snake oil by BRUCE FLEMING”

  1. Very interesting article, but I think his logic is fairly poor.

    If I can paraphrase his argument:

    Intro: Leadership may or may not even exist
    1) High-profile military leaders are increasingly dubious… because they follow their internal compass rather than use justifiable evidence (!?!?!)
    2) Society misvalues leadership- questions essence of leadership
    3) Generals have too many perks
    4) USMA/USNA cadets are inculcated with leadership propaganda
    4a) Pilots and ship drivers produced by USNA are apparently not necessarily leaders
    4b) A disproportionate number of failed leaders were USNA grads
    5) Other professions focus on competence instead of leadership
    6) Leadership (which he said doesn’t exist earlier) is known when observed and largely can’t be taught in the classroom
    7) Leadership can be bad
    8) Enlisted do everything, calling officers leaders a sign of inability

    Conclusion: Somehow, because of everything said already, leadership shouldn’t be taught in school

    Before I respond to what he’s said so far, I will say as a past USAFA grad that I think that formal leadership taught at the academies is fairly awful. But the academies have many mechanisms to teach leadership away from the classroom. And this isn’t to say that formal leadership can’t be useful, just that at USAFA it wasn’t.

    Now onto Fleming’s article…

    Intro: This is clearly a stupid statement. Of course it exists, and he below discusses relative merits of several leaders.
    1) I don’t understand the moral compass connection!? How do extramarital affairs relate to insufficient justifiable evidence? It seems like we need our leaders to have better moral compasses, but the logical connection he makes completely confuses me.
    2) Yes, society likes leaders. But why do we care? Because of 3…?
    3) If the argument is that generals have too many perks therefore they are bad leaders, then how does this fit into the larger argument about us wasting time training leaders? But remember, leadership is snake oil, doesn’t really exist, and therefore these generals really aren’t leaders in the first place.
    4) All military officers are or will be supervisors. Period. Every officer will be a leader. The question is, will they become a good and effective (very different things) leaders. Also, if USNA grads are failing as leaders, it sounds more like USNA needs to rethink it’s leadership teaching strategies than anthing else. ROTC/OTS teaches leadership, and if they’re succeeding more maybe USNA should steal something from them. In any case, his argument is a poor argument if he seeks to show that leadership should be ignored at military academies.
    5) Other professions aren’t military officers, where our job is to lead first.
    6) Debatable- and while Fleming seeks decisions based on evidence, this rather key argument is rather unsupported.
    7) Of course leadership can be bad. That’s why we need to teach our leaders to not be bad! And this happens in the classroom.
    8) The enlisted do a ton, which is why we need leaders! But then again, if they did everything how does point 4a stand up, where officers aren’t leaders but technical specialists. Either officers have technical expertise and therefore don’t need to lead, or they don’t and are impotent leaders. Sounds like a rather confused (and not well supported) argument here…

    Conclusion: A statement of his displeasure at leadership should not be confused with rational, well reasoned discourse. His article has a lot of thought provoking sentences, but when strung together it seems to be muddled.

    1. Brian: you are the man…and I smiled the entire time I was reading your post…I agree 100% and if you google the author’s name you will find more articles of the same ilk. I think he only gets published because it stirs the pot and probably generates a lot of response for the paper. I’m sure he feels safe with whatever tenure he had. We had a similar professor at The Citadel, Professor Hudson.

      Thank you for the comment…love it…

      J. William “Bill” DeMarco @jstfly21 https://m100group.com/ http://about.me/Demarcobanter

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