The US Military, Leadership, and the Harder Right

chaplainAn institutional bias is often found in many large organizations, including the US military: The desire that employees simply do their jobs and bring no attention on themselves or the institution. In point of fact, this bias may actually be stronger in the US military by virtue of its strict reliance on uniformity — and its resulting institutional disdain for those who appear to break with such single-mindedness.

In some instances, this bias leads to an injustice: For example, when a subordinate or employee makes a special request for accommodation, it may be granted out of obligation, but that employee has, for better or worse, highlighted himself as someone requiring additional effort — something rarely viewed positively by such institutions. Or, if a subordinate or employee is criticized or attacked for permissible conduct that others might have found disagreeable, this bias may cause a superior to try to appease the critic to make the boat-rocking go away, rather than take the extra effort necessary to defend their subordinate.

Regardless, this bias represents a failure in leadership. It is the easier wrong rather than the harder right, and it is the elevation of convenience over conscience. A true leader will defend their troops because it is the right thing to do, but just as importantly because those troops are theirs. Loyalty breeds devotion, unit cohesion, and mission effectiveness. The contrast — a manager who martyrs their troops on the altar of uniformity to avoid personal discomfort — breeds mistrust, engenders timidity, and undermines readiness.

If a subordinate is guilty of misconduct, they should certainly face the appropriate reactions of leadership for their actions. But if a subordinate’s conduct is permissible, their leaders should defend them from those who would attack them — even if the leader disagrees with what their subordinate did.

That is leadership. It isn’t always easy. But if you can only “lead” when its easy, you’re not leading at all.