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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

A priority, not an expense

The United States military has been successful in replicating a type of leadership that has consistently served the nation well. In most cases military leaders lead by example and balance a sincere care for their people with an unrelenting drive to accomplish assigned missions. We admire their courage, discipline, competence, and sacrifice. When I think of the most noble and selfless people I have ever known, my mind always turns to the soldiers I served with.

Our military wields awesome destructive power, yet its leaders willingly submit to civilian control and dominance. That is a key reason why the American people have had little reason to fear their own military. We sometimes take for granted how remarkable it is that a large, standing military so assiduously avoids engagement in partisan politics. That is certainly not the case in many other countries, and that kind of ethos doesn't happen by accident.

Military personnel actually express disdain for those in uniform that are "too political" and former military officials who engage in politics or other endeavors after leaving uniformed service often see some of their public luster diminished. While public service as an elected official is an honorable endeavor, we also react negatively to the seemingly shameless self-promotion inherent in elections and the fractious nature of party politics that too often appears to put self-interest above the public good.

Wealth may be an important measure for Wall Street, and power courses through the offices of elected officials, but the faith and confidence of the people is the currency that counts for the American military. That faith and confidence is derived from acts of selfless service in defense of the principles of the Constitution. When military leadership reflects the best of American values, public confidence rises, and when the military fails to achieve the public's high expectations, confidence will most assuredly fall.

It would be a mistake to attempt to apply military templates of leadership wholesale to other sectors and vice versa. Context does matter in leadership, and the military differs in many important ways from any other sector. There are, however, some lessons that can be learned across contexts, and here are a few.

In the military, leadership development is not viewed merely as an expense to be justified and contained. It is viewed as an essential investment in its people and the long-term health of the institution. The military provides leader development and learning opportunities at every level, and not just to a few "high potentials."

The concept of leadership, and dedication to developing the next generation of stewards of the profession, are deeply embedded notions in military culture. The military has a common language and set of expectations for its leaders, expressed in regulations and field manuals, and those expectations are driven by an extensive, and admittedly expensive, network of schools and courses that are tied to selection for promotion and key assignments.

The military view of leadership places a premium on competence and a form of high-accountability influence that is at its best when the team and the mission take first priority--when the leaders set not only the standards, but the example as well.

By George Reed

 |  November 3, 2009; 11:31 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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