Leadership is the defining skill of a military officer. Intellect and education are important. Indeed, in our technological profession, they are prerequisites. But professional performance and progress depend fundamentally on how well you master the art and science of leadership.
There is a tendency to regard leadership primarily as an art form-we often speak of a person’s “leadership style.” But while style is important, it should not be confused with substance. There are, I believe, a basic set of principles which apply to leadership-whatever the leader’s style or situation. These form the substance or “science” of leadership.
What follows is one man’s view of those leadership principles based on several decades of studying and applying God’s word, the Bible. It reflects a belief that leaders are made, not born, and that substance is more important than style. The principles are presented in the acronym VECTOR, representing: Vision, Excellence, Character, Teamwork, Organization, and Respect. It’s an appropriate term, since vectors indicate both direction and strength.
Vision is the inspiration that motivates us. It’s what gives a sense of purpose to our work and sacrifice at the end of a long day, a long deployment, or a long career. For the Christian, a godly vision is the compass which sets a career and a command on course, and keeps it pointed fair when heavy winds and seas buffet. The short hallway in the Pentagon which leads from the Office of the Secretary of Defense into the National Military Command Center (NMCC) is special to me.
Every day for over three years-encompassing the Persian Gulf War and numerous other crises-I walked down that passageway to meet with the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, often, the Secretary of Defense, to discuss the serious military issues of the day. Just outside the NMCC is a quotation emblazoned on the wall in gold letters. It’s taken from the Book of Proverbs (29:18 KJV): “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
There are few professions for which that passage is more literally true than for the military. It is true at all levels of leadership, from the National Command Authority (NCA) to the platoon leader. A leader without a vision has a command without a vision. And a command without a vision is rudderless.
Excellence is doing it right. It is trite but true-in warfare there is no prize for second place and the winners write the history books. Colossians 3:23 sets the standard: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
But it is not enough just to do the thing right. We are also called to do it in the right way. The end does not justify the means. We do not intend harm to innocent civilians, for instance. And we do not seek personal success at the expense of our subordinates.
Finally, there is a third test, probably the toughest of all. Not only are we to do the thing right in the right way, we are to do it for the right reason. In 1 Samuel 16:7, the Lord instructs Samuel: “…The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God is interested in our motivation-the right reason-for doing the thing right and in the right way.
The connection between leadership and character is a continuing theme throughout the Scriptures. Proverbs 29:2 notes: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.” 1Timothy 3:1-12 and Titus 1:5-9 set out some very specific qualifications for leadership in the church. I believe they are equally good guidelines for those of us in authority in the military. Leadership begins with personal example-which is driven by character. Someone put it this way:
- Your Image is who you want people to believe you are.
- Your Reputation is what people believe and say about you.
- Your Character is who you really are.
Former Secretary of the Navy Dalton put character in perspective: “The question of military character and ethics is not an abstract topic for discussion. It is a readiness issue. It is a readiness issue because without ethical leadership in our armed forces, there can be no trust by subordinates in the orders of their superiors.” Character…is who you are when only God is looking!
Teamwork is the bread and butter of everyday leadership-fostering unity in a diverse group of individuals. Unity is essential. In the words of Luke 11:17: “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a house divided against itself will not stand.” A command which is permeated by jealousy, backbiting or dissension is in deep trouble.
The “how to’s” of building teamwork are critically important, but there is an overriding value which must guide the leader in building a team-the attitude of a servant’s heart.
Christ, speaking in Matthew 20:26, says that unlike rulers of the gentiles who lord their position over their subordinates, “Whosoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” A wise leader will daily ask himself: “How can I use my position to help those entrusted to my leadership?” An important corollary relates to one of the biggest pitfalls a leader faces. That pitfall is pride.
The biblical view of pride is clear throughout the Bible, and is summarized in Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Remember, you do not have all the answers. Proverbs 20:18 applies: “Every purpose is established by counsel, and with good advice make war.” Subordinates must be comfortable approaching you with both good and bad news.
Military officers, especially senior ones, seem to have an obsession for organizational charts. As a junior officer, I never understood that.
To a cynic, this preoccupation with organizational structure is a case of putting form over function. But there is a healthy reason for getting the organization right. It has to do with responsibility, authority, and accountability. Leadership by committee doesn’t work, especially in combat. In a war, knowing who is responsible for what is a matter of life and death.
A corollary of organization is chain of command. The idea of a chain of command is several thousand years old, and while it may seem bulky at times, it is still the best method devised. Check out Exodus 18 for one of the first recorded descriptions of the chain of command.
In a republic it is fashionable from time to time to tear down institutions and to denigrate people in positions of authority. It’s fashionable…but it’s also wrong. Respect is the glue which binds people and organizations together. It’s what makes fighting units successful in combat.
As a senior officer, you become adept at quickly taking the temperature of a command. Good commands all have one thing in common — a healthy atmosphere of respect for authority. You can sense it. Romans 13:1-7 carries a profound lesson both for our society and our military.
Vision…Excellence…Character…Teamwork… Organization …Respect… VECTOR…Lead on!