I was interested in a recent article which appeared in Thomas Rick’s admirable Task & Purpose in light of the Death of the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush.
The article, was by a former Lance Corporal (“L/Cpl”) in the US Marine Corps who served in combat in Operation Enduring Freedom ("OEF") in Afghanistan. The article, disagreed with another recent article by a retired First Lieutenant ("1LT") in the United States Army which talked about the advantages of negative (or, at least, courser) leadership.
I agree with the author. I also think George H.W. Bush is an exemplar of positive leadership. However, I also believe there is a role for negative leadership, especially in a training environment.
Positive leadership, people who put the people they lead and the mission ahead of themselves and who have empathy where that empathy enhances the accomplishment of the mission, adds a great deal. George H.W. Bush, who enlisted in the US Navy during World War II rather than starting Yale, who became CIA Director when that organization was at a low ebb and needed effective leadership (even though he believed it would have a negative effect on his political career), and who became an uncommonly supportive Vice President to a man who had run against in the 1980 Republican Primaries, is representative of these principals.
However, although it is counter intuitive, let me speak of the value of negative leadership.
In the first place, not everyone leads from the front. Some people put their own interests ahead of the interests of those they lead or even their mission.
Although this is a bit Randian for my tastes, some of these negative leaders have such an importance to the organization in terms of their abilities and contributions that their interests may arguably outweigh, or at least are equivalent to, those other interests.
Donald Trump, unlike George H.W. Bush, does not send nice notes to people. However, at least arguably, he gets things done. While Trump is cordially disliked by many Republicans and hated by most Democrats, George H.W, Bush was also subject to some disdain by both sides of the aisle, as the "Wimp Factor" Newsweek cover indicated.
In the second place, especially in a training environment, negative leadership is effective in giving a stark example of what to avoid. Negative leaders, even toxic ones) give you a perspective on the contributions of more positive leaders that is invaluable. Also, in a training environment, there is value in letting junior leaders consciously chose to be a positive leader.
About 25 years ago, one Friday afternoon, I was talking to my Division Artillery Commander about something (I believe it related to captured Iraqi weapons from the Gulf War two years before). For some reason, we started talking about leadership.
The Colonel (a fine man, who retired as a Lieutenant General) was a Citadel graduate, who had been a Cadre Corporal as a Cadet at The Citadel, as I had been at VMI. I said that I thought the value of the position was that you give a 3d Classman/College Sophomore great power over a squad of Knobs/Rats/College Freshman . . . and you see what he (at that time) does with it. Does he (at that time) lead them or does he (at that time) push them? Does he (at that time) develop them or does he (at that time) oppress them?
Few things test your leadership, your ethics or your character more thoroughly in a training environment.
You think, as a Rat or Knob that the purpose of the process (perhaps better, the ordeal) is to teach you to follow, but the deeper purpose may be to teach the Corporals, Sergeants and Company Executive Officer and other 1st Classmen/Seniors how to lead. (A point made by my VMI Classmate [“Brother Rat”] Tom Berry, XO of Band Co., when we were 1sts in the Fall of 1983)
The value of VMI or The Citadel (or the Service Academies) is that these are environments where the stakes are lower. If someone fails as a leader at these places, they are removed from a leadership position and may be embarrassed. If someone fails as a leader in a war zone, they may have blood on their hands.
Something that was largely missing when I was a Cadet was any formal introspection on these issues. Most of us thought about these things. Many of us talked about it among ourselves, as my conversation with Mr. Berry attests. However, there was, at that time, no formal system for capturing these “lessons learned.”
I wonder how the experiences of 17 years of war have been incorporated into these systems. VMI now
has a Center for Leadership and Ethics. I wonder if they have formally studied this issue.
Finally, there are two men I would like acknowledge for their contributions to my (very modest) military career: John S. Koch, my Rat Squad Leader, and Thomas Scott Fairburn, my Rat Company Master Sergeant, both Marine-Option Cadets. Both men exemplified positive leadership traits that I tried (at best, probably with limited success) to emulate.