‘Leadership’ is the military’s snake oil

May 23, 2013

(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

“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.

There is no evidence that leadership is anything more than shorthand for a basket of quite disparate skills and abilities that, together, sometimes mesh into what we think of as a leader. We presumably know a leader when we see her—but can we produce leaders, or just identify them after the fact? A lot of people are going to be out of work when we decide it’s the latter.

Leadership is an overlap of many things rather than a commodity, a combination of the more prosaic traits of developed intelligence, self-confidence leavened by humility, poise in public, and interest in other human beings. Some of these constituent parts can be modeled, some can be transmitted in the classroom, but many just have to be picked up—that is, if the person even wants to pick them up.

Besides, who says being a leader is necessarily a good thing? History consists to a large degree of charismatic leaders who devastated the people or institutions they led. Adolf Hitler’s informal title Der Fuehrer means “The Leader.” And yet we still don’t allow for the fact that sometimes the best leadership consists of maintaining the status quo, not striking off in new directions.

Our infatuation with leadership seems to be a nostalgic harkening back to a time when the individual, rather than the machine, held sway. As the military becomes increasingly technological and run by specialists (which is to say, by the senior enlisted troops who actually understand the machinery), the function of the officers overseeing them becomes unclear. Draping these officers in the cloak of leadership is a sign of frustration and impotence, not of strength.

Exacerbating the problem is that nowadays the military seems to lack a clear mission: What exactly was the benefit of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Because the military can’t plausibly tell its officers that they’re defending their country from the enemy, as it could in World War II, it appeals to their pride and desire for purpose by assuring them they’re better people—leaders—than the civilians they’re meant to defend. And this goes to their heads.

I’ve had enough of this obsession with leadership. Let’s go back to teaching subject matter in school and letting kids have fun at summer camp. And let’s make the military justify its decisions by appeals to rationality, not by waving the magic wand of leadership.

Bruce Fleming is an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of "Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide," among other books.

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