Leadership: Is it all about position?

 

We talk about leadership at FUMA quite a bit. It's a major element of the FUMA experience. It's so important that we claim that leadership is much of what we do, who we are... but what exactly does that mean? What is leadership? What are the characteristics of a good leader? Is there such a thing as a "natural born" leader? Is leadership genetic? Is it a learned skill? What about personality? Are good leaders necessarily assertive and gregarious, or can they be quiet and reserved? What, in fact, is the definition of a leader?

To answer these questions and to create a dialogue about the subject of leadership at FUMA, we thought we would publish a blog. As this is our first endeavor, I thought I would start by distinguishing between positional and a-positional leadership.

Before we begin, though, allow me to provide my bona fides. I am a retired Army Colonel, and was the Vice President of an international leadership consulting firm before coming to FUMA. I have an MA and a PhD in Strategic/Organizational Leadership. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, what if I told you that I left the Army after only three years and my highest rank achieved was Private First Class. In addition, I am a certified geometry teacher. 

The truth of the matter is that neither of the above is true. What's my point? Did you make certain assumptions about my leadership abilities based on my title? Does Colonel denote "leader" while Private equates with "follower?" Would you be more apt to follow a Doctor than a Geometry teacher?
Invariably, we ascribe attributes, talent, and abilities to one's position. It's quite natural to assume that if one holds a leadership position, he is a leader, and therefore, the higher the rank or position, the greater the ability. That, of course, doesn't mean because someone is a Colonel, he is not a leader. What we mean is that being the boss doesn't necessarily mean the boss is a good leader.  The janitor, who takes out the boss's trash may be, in actuality, the better leader. This is what I mean by positional and a-positional leader.

The positional leader leads, either effectively or inefficiently, while holding a position of authority. This person has been granted authority by an organizational entity and has responsibility and/or oversight of things, situations, and people. For some positional leaders, the ineffective ones, the position is all they have. Their only influence and security come from the title and position. John Maxwell writes in Discovering the Leader Within You that this is the "level 1" leader.

Bosses who lead only by the power of their position love procedures and policies more than they love people. Subordinates of these leaders will do only that which they have to do and will not follow this leader beyond stated authority. As you might guess, businesses and organizations with these bosses have low morale.

During WWI a private on the front lines one evening saw someone standing on a trench lighting a match. He screamed and ran towards the foolish soldier cursing at him to put out the match. As he got closer the private determined that the man he was yelling at was General "Blackjack" Pershing, the Commander of the U.S. expeditionary Forces. When the private tried to apologize, the General replied, "That's alright son. Just be glad I'm not a Second Lieutenant."

While the positional leader is dependent upon a title, the a-positional leader is the leader who leads by the strength of his character. This is the leader we are trying to develop at FUMA. This person has great influence on his peers, his team, his teachers, and coaches. I do believe that eventually this person will be recognized and promoted to a position of leadership, but this person is not dependent upon the position in order to have an impact. We will talk about this leader in great depth.

SGM George Linker was my company Sergeant Major in the mid-eighties. He once told the story of his first day of the Korean War. He had just arrived in Korea as a young NCO and was being driven to his unit when he heard what he thought was the sound of thunder in the distance. He said he turned to the driver and asked in his Carolina drawl, "Why it don't look like rain. Where's the storm?" The driver told him, "You idiot, that's artillery." The driver dropped Linker off with his unit at the base of Pork Chop Hill and went on his way.

Linker did not tell me his exploits, but later I read about them in S. L. A. Marshall's Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, Korea Spring 1953. Here is an excerpt:

When they got to the wire barricade, and started through a gap which had been cut by the artillery fire, grenade and burp-gun fire from behind the barricade met them. The men went flat, and a few of them, including Dobak and Lavoie, replied with grenades and carbines. Seven more
men were hit by the enemy fire before resistance tapered off. A few others weakened and bugged out.

 

When the climb was resumed, only eleven men followed Dobak through the barrier. He was hit by submachine-gun fire before he got to the commo trench. SgL George Linker took charge. He was still present when what was left of the two platoons entered King Company's lines. From beginning to end, the attack had lacked any semblance of military organization. That in the end the efforts of a few willing, unhelped men partially redeemed it was due only to individual dauntlessness. They stayed on Pork Chop until midafternoon, but their force had been spent in the uphill fight, and they did little to help demons. (182)

Sometime between being dropped off at the base of Pork Chop Hill and midway up through a barrage of artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, George Linker made history by stepping up and leading a handful of men to reinforce a beleaguered US unit held at bay by the enemy. What carried George Linker forward? Why would anyone follow George up the hill? Did he roll out his High school diploma, his bona fides? Nope, I don't think he even had a high school diploma. There was something inside George, something about his character that inspired officers and enlisted alike to set their personal safety aside, to allay their agenda for a moment and follow him up the hill.

When we talk about leadership here at FUMA we are not necessarily referring to a cadet's rank. We are referring to the developing of a cadet's character. This school is full of George Linkers.