Talking About Military Leadership


W.J. Astore

In 2004, when I was still on active duty, I spoke on leadership at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, California.  At the time, I was the associate provost/dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

To prepare for my talk, I jotted down a few notes; I’ve decided not to update these or change them.  (I’m sure I’d say a few different things today; then again, I’ve been retired from the military since 2005.)

Here are my notes from 2004 (with a few additions for the sake of clarity):

What is uniquely military about military leadership?

  • Life and death situations (but also true of Police, Fire, MDs, etc.)
  • Mandate to take the lives of others under certain ROEs (rules of engagement)
  • Inherent chaos (fog and friction) of war.  Thus leaders must promote cohesion—bonds of trust within a unit—else the unit may collapse under the stresses of war
  • Possibility of routine loss of leaders on the battlefield requires the development of junior leaders with the willingness and emotional strength to take command when needed
  • Importance of an officer’s commission from the president, and his/her oath of office to the Constitution.  Fidelity to the Constitution, and Integrity and Honor in general, are essential qualities
  • Role of long-serving NCOs (non-commissioned officers)—take care of them, and help them take care of junior enlisted.  Put their needs before your own.  Share sacrifices: Yes, RHIP (rank has its privileges).  But officers should eat same grub as grunts.  Take care of the needs of the men and women you’re leading before you address your own needs.

No one personality type.  Our greatest leaders have been everything from vainglorious (MacArthur) to self-effacing (Gen Bradley)

“They don’t care how much you know, but they’ll know how much you care.”  Actually, your subordinates care about both.  Combination of emotional intelligence with intellect and hard work.  You don’t have to be the brightest or best, but you may need to compensate with work.

Respect for subordinates; and don’t play favorites

Listen before acting

Keep calm in times of stress

Role model: As a leader, you are always being watched

Humility but not diffidence: If you don’t lead, who will?

Refuse to tolerate incompetence

Recognize top performers.  Don’t take your best people for granted.  Remember to reward them.

Communication: Telling people to suck it up sounds tough and appropriate in a military context.  But are you sucking it up too?  Nothing more corrosive than hypocrisy at the top.  Integrity and sincerity are essential.

Look inside yourself.  Why do you want to be a leader?

Academic leadership: Irony is that many academics avoid leadership positions because they distract from individual scholarship and academic achievement.  [This mindset is] foreign to the military.  Officers and NCOs trained to lead.  Necessary because war might quickly knock out commanders; subordinates must be ready to act.  Thus department chairs [in academe] often rotate; “burden sharing” rather than leadership.  Healthy iconoclasm in academe, but it should not get in the way of leading.

“Question authority” is not enough.  “Change authority” or “Become authority” if you don’t like the answers you’re hearing.

At the USAF Academy, there was a “Bring Me Men” ramp, but that slogan was removed due to sexual harassment scandals, even though the sentiment was based on a quotation from the late 19th century.  But what it always was intended to mean was “Bring Me Leaders.”  Leaders have moral courage to take responsibility and report clearly to the people.  As commissioned officers, we swear an oath to the Constitution, and to protect it against foreign and domestic enemies.  We do not swear an oath of allegiance to a specific leader or monarch.  But an officer must also respect the chain of command.  You go outside that chain at your peril.

Get to know your military.  How many of you plan to serve in the military?  Congress is ignorant of military matters.  A minority have served (about 30%, whereas in 1969 it was nearly 70%) and even fewer have sons and daughters who are willing to serve.  Only six congressional representatives and one senator have children serving in the military.  7/535 members = 1.3%.  Among the rich and connected, the military is not seen as a desirable profession compared to law, medicine, business, or other, honorable professions.

How to get to know “your” military: Take an ROTC course at your college/university.  Attend a military ceremony.  Ask questions.  The U.S. military needs your interest.  Perhaps too narrowly drawn from the lower classes, but that’s not the military’s fault.  No recruit is turned away because he or she is too rich or because he or she attended Stanford or Berkeley.

How would you like to be the leader of a U.S. military unit in Iraq that was expecting to rotate after a year, after which your men and women are told they have to stay for six more months, possibly longer?  How do you keep people’s spirits up?  Keep them focused on the mission while they’re separated from loved ones for months at a time?

End of notes.  Comments, readers?

16 thoughts on “Talking About Military Leadership

  1. Col. You are correct on all counts. As a retired AF Msgt,I would say I encountered many if not all the points you raised and not in a favorable way. Too many me first officers,some senior NCO’s also.I would have enjoyed serving with you.


    1. Thank you. Any young officer should look to experienced NCOs to keep him/her out of trouble.

      I lacked ambition but I tried hard to work as a team with all my people, which included military, civilian contractors, MITRE, anyone, really.

      One of my prouder achievements was graduating as a DG from SOS but also being selected by my flight as its most valuable contributor. When you’re selected by your peers for an award, it has real meaning.

      Otherwise, I did my job, made the normal promotions, and retired after 20 years before I really got angry or frustrated or bitter.


  2. Thanks for another great post about the realities of combat & repeating the oath of office & ROEs points. In the fog of Trump & impeachment the press & the web are in a fog of communication overload.


  3. The present Commander in Chief of all military forces dodged the draft with a bone spur. Obama never served, Bush found refuge in the national guard during the Vietnam era and Clinton dodged it academically…but let’s see what readers have to say about this part of your text—does the Commander in Chief fulfill what you demand of an offer? To quote you:
    Importance of an officer’s commission from the president, and his/her oath of office to the Constitution. Fidelity to the Constitution, and Integrity and Honor in general, are essential qualities
    Does the existing Commander in Chief pass the test you insist upon?
    Impeachment may not work but is this the person you want to have for another 4 years?


    1. Well, that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? Who is qualified to be “commander-in-chief”? I’ve never been comfortable with its “comes with the territory” perk-status.
      The people who populate The Pentagon (lobbyists excluded) have rank & uniform & tons of medals for dubious adventures/accomplishments, and they are certainly in the military, but are little more than administrators and not particularly good ones at that.
      Non-military occupants of the Oval Office lack strategic & tactical sense (and certainly discipline, these days) and eventually get caught up in the “Leader of the Free World” nonsense. They get to sit in the Big Chair and wear their Big Boy pants and have Final Say and can determine the fate of nations. That’s heady stuff.
      No one person should have that power, but the panic on The Hill and across the nation in the wake of 9/11 has ensured one person always will.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As I understand it, POTUS doesn’t actually “become” C-in-C until war is DECLARED by Congress. Ergo, one can argue we haven’t really had one since end of WW II!!! What we’ve had is a series of conniving criminals launching wars of CHOICE, with a feeble (conveniently so, for the warmongers) Congress mostly signing off on the funding. A helluva System, oh yeah! Any Constitutional scholars out there like to comment on this?


        1. Greg, I think it’s clear we’ve reached a point in history where the Constitution means little or nothing to too many of those who have sworn to uphold it, especially – what else? – in the wake of 9/11 which has become justification for anything & everything.
          It’s been 19 years (and counting) and a more convenient and sweeping carte blanche we’ll never see. It’s more than a little ironic that the events of that day – still considered a great national tragedy and dubbed “Patriot Day” – have resulted in the trashing of the document that once set the U.S. apart from the rest of the world. The endless wars of choice and now we’ve entered the realm of assassinating foreign nationals and extorting our weaker “allies,” all the things we used to say were the difference between us and our enemies, whose level we would never and could never lower ourselves to, thanks to the Constitution and God’s grace. Yeah, well.
          You still believe in the Constitution, as do I and – I think it’s fair to say – the readers and contributors to Bracing Views. But no one’s asking us …


          1. Without the least doubt, the “Patriot Act” was one of the greatest abominations in US history. Who, exactly, killed JFK? (“After all, it was you and me” declared the Rolling Stones! Bloody Brits, sticking their noses in our business!) After 56 years and counting, it still hasn’t been revealed to the public. One needn’t be a Conspiracy Theorist to have grave questions about how the events of 9/11 really came to pass. The Trump presidency is revealing just how flawed “our” System really is. We have a SCOTUS leaning ever farther to the right, and now a simple thing like GOP majority in the Senate is empowering an emperor in the White House. GOP Senators continue to argue today (I am NOT following the proceedings in real time, however) that it’s perfectly okay to use office of POTUS, and thus the powers of the Fed. Government, to seek “dirt” on a presumed election opponent. Could any reasonable person really have foreseen such a development a scant few years ago??


  4. I just left a comment…a follow up of my reply regarding the existing Commander in Chief and how he matches the requirements given for a US Military office…I have two honorable discharges from the US military…US Navy and US Army Infantry—just wanted to let you know


    1. John Patrick Gilroy–The present occupant of office of POTUS is unqualified/unfit for that office in so many ways that we needn’t even drag in the question of military affairs. In my observation–no, I’m not a headshrinker by profession–he is literally mentally deranged. If “The System” was actually functional, he would have been removed from office on those grounds long before the impeachment process was launched. But we can hardly expect a sycophantic, toadying Cabinet to act under provisions of the 25th Amendment, can we? And all these bozos would have us believe they are “patriots”!! How low our nation has sunk!!


      1. Afterthought: Remember Capt. Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny”!! They took their sweet time about it, hesitating and hesitating, but finally the subordinate officers took action!


  5. Speaking of civilian presidents as commanders-in-chief, we might think of several roles, including ceremonial (something Ronald Reagan was great at), inspirational (JFK), and smarts/compassion/intelligence/determination (Abraham Lincoln).

    Who’s the last effective presiden in the CIC role? Jimmy Carter got lost in the details (like the former nuclear engineer that he was). LBJ got destroyed by Vietnam. JFK — we’ll never know — he was still growing. Probably Ike was the last effective CIC. FDR and Truman were both good, and FDR arguably great during World War II, despite his flaws.

    Times are tough — but the times aren’t producing even mediocre leaders in the Oval Office. Bush? Trump? Disasters. Obama — ineffectual. Sigh.


    1. Bill A.–Unless some Constitutional scholar can refute my earlier statement of my understanding of under what circumstances the civilian POTUS transmogrifies into being Commander-in-Chief, I will have to argue that none of the following were C-in-Cs: Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in the Big War, but Korea was a “UN police action” (ha!), not declared war; JFK/LBJ/Nixon/Ford–Vietnam never a declared war; Carter didn’t get to oversee a large-scale military operation (no wonder rightwingers still express their disdain for him!); Reagan, Heroic Conqueror of tiny Granada–undeclared; etc., etc. up to present time.


  6. Lots of great stuff in here, applicable in general! But my favorite line is: “Nothing more corrosive than hypocrisy at the top.”


    1. What needs to be examined, in terms of “hypocrisy at the top,” is the fundamental problem of Wars of Choice as the excuse for the bloated Pentagon budget. Presidents of both major parties–practically speaking, in terms of electability to national office, we may as well deem them “the only parties”; Bernie is a rare exception, having risen to US Senate as an independent–continue to sign off on these dubious overseas adventures. They drain our national resources, get our personnel killed and maimed (though on a much smaller scale than Vietnam days) AND they sure as hell are NOT “winning hearts and minds” for the idea of loving the USA!!


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