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Building A NCO: Defining Leadership


J. D. Pendry


All my life, both as a soldier and as an educator, I have been engaged in a search for a mysterious intangible.  All nations seek it constantly because it is the key to greatness, sometimes to survival.  That intangible is the electric and elusive quality known as leadership. - General Mark Clark


Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction and motivation. - FM 22-100


This is the last of the Building A NCO series.  It’s the last, but clearly the most important.  To this point we’ve talked about self-development or taking control of and leading yourself.  The most important thing a NCO does is lead.  To be an effective NCO leader you must understand leadership.  Here’s an interesting and telling exercise for you.  Haul out your little green notebook and compile a list of attributes of the leaders you’ve known and most want to be like.  Then ask yourself if you have those attributes.  When you have your list to ponder, move on to the rest of the discussion.


How many times have you heard or recited the field manual definition of leadership?  More than a few, I expect.  The important question as you become a NCO, or a leader in any capacity, is not whether you can recite the book definition for leadership, but whether you can truly define leadership and then practice it.


Too often, we equate leadership to rank.  This happens because in the structure of a military unit those who are senior in rank give direction and orders to others.


The first step in defining true leadership is to recount your own experiences with different leaders.  I'm sure you've worked for leaders whose orders you carried out with much enthusiasm and leaders whose orders you carried out with little enthusiasm.  When you understand why you responded differently to each leader, you'll have an understanding of what constitutes good leadership.


To assist you with your task of defining leadership, let's break the book definition into its important parts.


·         the process of influencing others


You must gain the trust and confidence of those you lead.  You do that by using the leadership equation.


The first key word in the book definition is influencing.  Influencing someone is much different from telling him or her to do something. Because of rank and position, we all have the authority to give instructions to subordinates.  A good leader, however, influences others to do what needs to be done not because of his or her rank, but because of the trust and confidence their subordinates, peers, and superiors have in them.  That process of influencing will always lead to more enthusiastic mission accomplishment than just telling someone what to do.  Master the steps in the leadership equation and you'll build the needed trust and confidence.


Text Box: Leadership Equation

Modeled Principles  +  Modeled Values  =                  Your Character 
Demonstrated Skills  +  Demonstrated Ability  =         Your Competence
Your Competence  +  Your Character  =                      Your Trustworthiness
Your Trustworthiness  =                                               Level of Trust others have in you
Your level of Trust  =                                                   Your ability to Influence others
Your ability to influence others  =                               The quality of your Leadership










A leader demonstrates his or her character by modeling values and his or her competence by being proficient and continually working to improve.  The demonstration of character and competence earns a leader a level of trustworthiness from peers, subordinates, and superiors.  His or her demonstrated trustworthiness will gain their trust.  With their trust, the leader is able to influence things at all levels.  That is true leadership.  Work at mastering the leadership equation and your ability to influence or lead others will improve dramatically.


·         providing purpose


It's been proven time and again that soldiers perform better when they understand the reasons behind the task.  A good leader takes the time and makes the effort (when it's possible) to ensure that soldiers know how the task they are carrying out contributes to the overall mission.  A leader who makes this a practice during routine days and in training will have the confidence of his or her soldiers in urgent times when there is not always time for an explanation.


When it comes to providing purpose and establishing priorities there is another important thing a leader must understand.


Most leaders, most people actually, function or operate from a set of unwritten priorities.  These priorities are not structured like the ones you've developed, but they are just as real and often override other priorities.  They function much like a person's values and you need to understand them.  You need to understand them in the same way that soldiers need to understand the reasons behind the task because these priorities are often the reasons behind your decisions.


How often have you been curious about why a leader made the decision or choice he or she made?  My guess is often.  You need to understand this phenomena of unwritten priorities that often push the other priorities aside.  To understand what yours are and where they come from you're going to have to do some work.


I discussed this concept at length in Leader's Priorities in The Three Meter Zone.  By understanding the significant events that occurred during the development of our influential leaders we were able to show, through the changes that they caused in the Army, what their unwritten priorities were.


Human nature hasn't changed.  As a developing leader, what's happening around you in the world and the Army is shaping your unwritten priorities as a future leader.  Think about the things going on now with leadership and the Army in general, write them all down somewhere, then check back with me in a few years when you are a senior leader.  I'm betting you'll be able to tie your leader decisions to what you are experiencing now.  That's not always good, because we find ourselves being accused of living in the past where the priorities behind our decisions don't always support what's necessary today.  That's the best reason for you to understand your unwritten priorities.  Don't allow them to interfere with the real purpose for what you are doing.


·         providing direction


You must provide soldiers with expectations. They must know the task, when to complete it, and the standards to meet.  When providing direction, remember that soldiers operate at different levels of development and performance.  Some soldiers require much more detailed guidance than others do.  Three-meter soldiers need detailed direction and much supervision because of their lack of ability and experience.  Fifty-meter soldiers are more able and experienced.  They require less specific guidance and less supervision.  One hundred-meter soldiers are the most able and experienced.  They can perform the mission with general guidance and little supervision.  A good leader knows the ability and experience level of his or her soldiers when providing direction.


·         providing motivation


Soldiers must be motivated to perform their best.  There is only one way to motivate soldiers.  That is by providing them with an out-front, caring leadership example.  Soldiers respond to leaders who are willing to share the work, pass the credit and assume the responsibility.  They also respond to leaders who share the difficult times with them.  The following quote by Sergeant Major John G. Stepanek captures the spirit of motivating soldiers.  SGM Stepanek made these remarks in a speech to graduating officer basic course students.


From most of us you can expect... courage to match your courage, guts to match your guts, endurance to match your endurance, motivation to match your motivation, esprit to match your esprit, a desire for achievement to match your desire for achievement. You can expect a love of God, a love of country and a love of duty to match your love of God, your love of country and your love of duty. We won't mind the heat if you sweat with us, and we won't mind the cold if you shiver with us. - Army Digest, August 1967:"As a Senior NCO Sees It" (Pages 5 and 6)


Defining and understanding leadership, then practicing it as you’ve defined it will ensure your success as a leader.


This is the seventh in a series of seven articles on NCO self-development.  CSM (ret) J. D. Pendry is Author of The Three Meter Zone: Common Sense Leadership for NCOs.


Copyright © 1999, James D. Pendry, All Rights Reserved.