For many medically released veterans, leadership was a key factor in the development of their OSIs. There is a vast literature on military leadership and special schools dedicated to training and honing the management skills and abilities of future leaders. The performance evaluation and promotion systems are geared at identifying the best of the best - built around competition with one’s peers, standing out, and also engendering the right relationships with key people – likeability by the right people is an important asset for career-minded people. In all organized workplaces, however, individual values, desires, and motivations can create problems for formal systems. Among the serving and released memberships, leadership is usually divided into two distinct groups: The first group are those people deemed to be self-interested ‘ladder climbers’, preoccupied with promoting themselves – from taking their subordinates work as their own, withholding information from superiors, or blaming subordinates for their own faults. Veterans describe these people as the looking up group who are often seen as incompetent but protected by a ‘godfather’ system of promotion. Then there is the second group - looking down - who place priority on protecting the welfare of their subordinates; the ones more likely to challenge poor decisions that could adversely affect their subordinates. They are often well-liked and respected by their subordinates, even though they may be deemed to be too familiar with their troops by the upper chain – sometimes deemed to be weak leaders, passed over for promotions or desired postings, or in some cases these leaders may refuse promotions to stay with their guys.
Does the formal system ensure that the best competencies and personal traits are represented among the leadership or is it a ‘popularity contest’? The guys I know would say that it depends on who you ask. Senior leadership often want those people who can handle problems and get things done without ‘push-back’ or creating other unnecessary headaches for them – the team players. The rank and file members want leaders who are competent and also willing to go to bat on their behalf. Of course, leaders do not exist in black-white categories; they are various mixes of ‘self’ and ‘other interested’ people, otherwise, the system would grind to a halt. We do need people who can make tough decisions regardless of whether they are liked and we also need leaders who look out for the welfare of all of their troops. It would be instructive to understand the distribution of leader types within the military from the viewpoint of subordinates and whether rates of OSIs within particular units are related to particular leaders. To me, this would be an important step in unraveling the context of operational trauma.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.