This week’s guest post comes from MAJ John Williams, former Chemistry instructor at the United States Military Academy and current Army Acquisitions Officer. He asked you to reflect and see how “infectious” your leadership is. Start a conversation, spark a transformation!
In late 2004 at my Officer Basic Course, one of the instructors, a senior NCO, provided an interesting nugget of advice to the roughly 60 young 2LTs in the course: “Leave your DNA on your Platoon.” While the comment was met with the maturity expected from a room full of recent college grads, this message has been a guiding theme for my military leadership and it is at the heart of this forum. Leaders reproduce after themselves and inevitably will leave an impact, good or bad, on those they lead. The army definition of leadership, as provided in AR 600-22, is “the process of influencing people by providing direction, purpose, and motivation while accomplishing the mission and improving the organization.” This definition describes the lasting impact of a leader’s behavior as influence with a purpose. This influence, whether good or bad, is a reflection of the leader’s behavior. Recent discussions on toxic leadership have distilled this thought to a biological metaphor, where the behavior of the leader is poisonous, or having a detrimental impact on the well-being of the follower. I believe a more appropriate biological metaphor would be that of virus, a microscopic agent that invades living cells to replicate its own genetic code. Understanding leadership as an infectious interaction forces leaders to determine if they are a disease, destroying the organization they lead, or a vaccine, strengthening the organism for greater challenges. The difference between the two types of viruses is leader’s DNA. For the sake of this article, which is more of a cry for self-inventory, we will define the components of a leader’s DNA into three categories: soundtrack, habit and character.
The first category is the soundtrack, or what your subordinates hear from you. What are your sound bites? What stories do you tell? What quotes do you provide? Are you a leader who gives long eloquent speeches, or short and memorable pithy quips? How do you speak? What is the tone of voice? And what kind of language do you use? One of the great features of the Army is its diversity, where people from different parts of the country can come together in a single unit. This creates a melting pot of languages, dialects, accents, and vernacular that is unique to the unit. The way the leader speaks will often be reflected in the unique language of that unit and is easily the most commonly replicated aspect of the leader. Does your soundtrack build or break down your subordinate?
The second category is the habit. The American philosopher and author Will Durant (among many others) once said “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” While this quote focuses on excellence as an objective, it also applies to leadership. As leaders, our regular actions will leave a much longer lasting impression than any single act or any of our words, and thus will be replicated in those we lead. The way a leader spends his day, accomplishes the mission, or addresses challenges will be observed and dissected by those they lead. Your subordinates will emulate you, whether you spend your spare time reading, working out, on Facebook, or with your family. They will often take your approach to problem solving, whether it’s by planning, delegating, winging it, or just complaining. Your habits will have a lasting impact on those that follow you, and leaders should ensure they are intentional about the patterns of behavior they exhibit.
The third and most critical category is your character. The classic Army model of leadership was simplified into three words: Be, Know, Do. Be was placed first because who you are is always more important than what you know and what you do, especially in the frame work of leadership. The Army has worked to elevate character within the military with regular training on SHARP, and EO, as well as including adherence to the Army Values as a part of the evaluation system. Your character as a leader will echo within your organization more than anything else you do. Your values, how you treat people, and most importantly, how you make others feel is how you will be remembered. Are you a person that shifts the atmosphere with a cheerful disposition, or does your regular sour or non-enthused glower consistently dampen the mood? Are you a vocal optimist driving the team towards success, or a sullen realist creating the stagnation of the group? Do you inspire those around you? Do people want to follow you? Do they trust you? In a 2012 Forbes article, Walter Pavlo took issue with Coach John Wooden’s famous quote “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Walter suggests, and I agree, that the most critical test, especially for leaders, is what you do when everyone is watching.[i] Because frankly, everyone is always watching, and your character will be reproduced in those who follow you.
This biological metaphor for infectious leadership and the inevitability of leadership DNA can be said many ways. This isn’t just in my head; Forbes and Harvard Business Review have wonderful articles on the positivity of infectious leadership. You reap what you sow. You can’t plant apple seeds and get oranges, because ultimately the DNA of the seed will bear fruit.
[i] Pavlo, Walter. Character is what you do when everyone is watching. Forbes Oct 2012. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/walterpavlo/2012/10/23/character-is-what-you-do-when-everyone-is-watching/#440d58cfc6d3