This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on fixes that could help attract, develop and retain better military leaders.
Like many high-risk professions, the military tends to prioritize technical skills. Traditional military leadership models assume that commanders are either born with leadership skills, or simply pick them up along the way.
Yet this self-generation of new skills is not happening—or not happening fast enough—to meet the needs of our armed forces. The past 10 years and two wars have made clear that professionals working in today’s complex, high-risk operating environments do not need more technical skills, but rather more sophisticated social skills to build their leadership capacity.
The Navy, for example, continues to terminate commanding officers in record numbers for poor performance. In 2010, 18 Navy commanders were relieved of duty. This is an annual high that looks likely to be surpassed in 2011, and it should prompt questions about whether and how leaders have been prepared to tackle new challenges. In nearly all cases, these skippers were fired for bad judgment, unprofessional conduct and creating a substandard command climate, not for tactical failures or deficiencies in their technical skills.
Although these failings trouble me, what I wonder more about is whether or not leadership training, mentoring, coaching or supervision had been offered to these commanders along their career path. It seems that something was missing in their leadership awareness, cultural sensitivity, self-control, and ability to assess and adapt to the challenges of today’s dynamically changing environment.
Research has shown that almost 90 percent of the competencies necessary for leadership success are social and emotional in nature, not technical skills as previously assumed. Brain imaging further demonstrates that the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain are far more integrated than previously thought.
This has given credence to the concept of emotional intelligence, an idea once considered an oxymoron because emotions convey the idea of irrationality and unreasonableness. Today, we know differently.
As a result, the No. 1 fix for the future of America’s armed forces is to foster a new vision of leadership, a perspective less wedded to gender-biased models and more focused on creating an emotionally intelligent warrior.
In the past decade, both technological and social developments have altered significantly the leadership landscape of our military. Women make up a larger percentage of the armed forces than ever before, attend all of the service academies in growing numbers and work in nearly all fields. Female soldiers have proven their competence in combat operations that would never have been available a generation ago. Moreover, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will no doubt produce other, yet-unknown changes to military culture.
Meantime, as we prepare to finally bring our troops home from war, it’s illuminating to take a look at the state in which our veterans return. The unemployment rate is 14.7 percent for post-9/11 female veterans, compared with 11.1 percent for male veterans. Moreover, many of these veterans report symptoms not only of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but of a new battlefield byproduct: “military sexual trauma.” One in five women reports this experience during her intake meeting with Veterans Affairs compared to one in 100 men.
There are, however, positive indications that some areas of the U.S. military have been evolving to include a more emotionally intelligent leadership strategy. For example, in an excellent point paper titled “One Tribe at a Time,” U.S. Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant emphasized that using small groups of specially trained soldiers with “cultural awareness,” “street smarts” and intuitive decision-making skills to work directly with Afghanistan’s centuries-old tribal systems may be the only way to win the war. And the United States Marine Corps deployed female engagement teams in Helmand Province to win support from rural Afghan women.
In his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman observed that emotional intelligence “can be as powerful, and at times more powerful, than IQ” as a determinant of successful performance.
And in Blink , Malcolm Gladwell explored how humans have two different decision-making processes: a conscious strategy, which allows us to recall things previously learned and to puzzle out an answer through logic, and a sixth sense, which operates entirely below the surface of consciousness along indirect channels. Extraordinary performers in many fields have this sixth sense, an uncanny ability to read into a situation using very narrow slivers of experience.
Recent social developments in our armed forces demand a different, more integrated leadership skill set than previous environments required. America’s military requires emotionally intelligent leaders who possess not only the ability to manage anxiety and frustrations, stay motivated and control impulses, but also the ability to keep fear and distress from swamping the ability to think. These emotional skills are critical to decision-making under conditions of stress.
And, most relevant to the development of new training programs, both Goleman and Gladwell contend that these crucial emotional competencies can be learned.
Dr. Amy Fraher is a retired U.S. Navy commander and aviator. She is currently director of the International Team Training Center at San Diego Miramar College and the author of Thinking Through Crisis: Improving Teamwork and Leadership in High-Risk Fields.