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  • LEADERSHIP AT THE LOWER LEVEL

    The military aspects of the following article are based on the experiences and observations of Tony Wass and confirmed by those of Peter McDougall. Both have had extensive experience working and training with US Army Officers and Non Commissioned Officers during operations in war and in training situations.

    The references to other organisations reflect the experiences of The Leadership Academy staff in training many hundreds of people from many different organisations in leadership, and their ongoing research into contemporary leadership issues and practices.

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    The recent ill treatment of prisoners in Iraq demonstrates the importance of good leadership at the lower levels. Observing American forces on operations in South Vietnam and in more recent times in their barrack and field environment, it is obvious that a great deal of importance is given to preparing leaders at the middle to higher levels. Unfortunately the same cannot be said at the junior leader level, particularly in terms of being given and accepting responsibility and accountability and understanding the effects of their often unthinking “Yessir” mentality.

    The appearance before a Senate Committee of three senior Generals, one of them General Sanchez, the Commanding General in Iraq, was shown on SBS TV on Wednesday 19th May. On two separate occasions the generals stated that they at the Leadership level had not been aware of the ill treatment of prisoners in Iraq and certainly did not give any orders or direction to go beyond accepted Geneva Convention guidelines in dealing with them.

    Their denials suggest that ill prepared junior leaders were left to decide their own actions with consequent disastrous outcomes. Apart from the question of where the buck stops, there is a lesson here that applies to both the US Defence Forces and larger organizations in general. Big organizations, irrespective of their structure, need to give greater emphasis to leadership at the lower levels if they are to maximize their chances of success. It is at this level where balanced and firm leadership and influence counts because it is here that the problems first appear and where they can be fixed before they escalate. These ‘front line leaders’ should be cognizant of the vision, mission, goals and culture of the organization and trained and trusted to uphold the values and standards set by higher level leaders.

    Just as Generals in defence forces have limited influence, it is impossible for corporate CEOs or General Managers to lead everyone, no matter how much ‘walking around’ they do. They will lead in creating the vision and setting the compass for the direction the corporation needs to follow, but they will only exercise effective direct leadership over their managers at the next level down. To assume limitless influence or attempt detailed, micro leadership beyond this level is neither practical nor achievable. There is much evidence to suggest that leader influence decreases as the size of groups or teams increases beyond 8 to 10 people.

    Generals and CEOs should particularly note that with the advent of flatter organizational structures, it is often leaders at the lower levels who have the largest number of direct reports and who must deal face to face with difficult issues relating to behaviour and performance. These are issues that very often are hidden from leaders at the higher levels, and unless they are dealt with effectively they can become big issues of disastrous proportions as has been the case in Iraq.

    Tony Wass, May 2004