Have you ever noticed that the hero leader in any war movie is less than perfect yet seems to motivate and inspire their team to accomplish impossible things? Whether it is Gunny Highway in Heartbreak Ridge, Patton in his namesake movie, SGT Kelly in Kelly’s Heroes, or MAJ Charles Whittlesey in The Lost Battalion each leader is flawed in some way. It does not matter whether the character is real or fictional they, like all real leaders, have strong points that help them successfully lead others in great adversity and flaws they learn to overcome through their strengths and deligation. One could argue that the main characters in these movies are less than an ideal mentor or role model, but others would argue each is the very definition of a great leader. The military is full of commissioned and non-commissioned officers who are less than perfect yet meet the definition of great leaders. This article seeks to identify why the military successfully develops so many leaders who meet this definition.
Before looking at the reasons the military generates so many great leaders, a review of great leadership is in order. Great leaders build enduring greatness by placing the needs of the organization and their followers above their own. They blend humility with personal will-power influencing others to accomplish things they thought impossible. They do the things that need doing, establishing demanding standards. They allow mistakes but learning from those mistakes and continuous improvement. They bask in the reflected glory of the successes of those they lead. They create sustainable leadership development programs ensuring competent leaders continue their success long after their departure. Great leaders are well respected attracting others who want to follow them.
Even the real life leaders mentioned above are fictionalized for the entertainment value for their movie’s success. Their exploits might be exaggerated but typical of many military leaders. They are humble about their achievements by acknowledging the fact they could have only achieved success through the efforts of their followers and subordinate leaders. They set high standards and expect others to meet them not occasionally, but every day. They accomplish those things that need doing whether pleasant or distasteful. They demand their followers achieve excellence and continuously improve their performance. They provide junior leaders opportunities to lead, allowing them to make mistakes, hold them accountable, and permit them to try again until they succeed. These actions set an example for future leaders to follow when promoted.
In the movie Heartbreak Ridge, Gunny Highway’s first impression of CPL Jones and the other members of the platoon was unfavorable. As the new Platoon Sergeant, he established high standards and through his will-power influenced them to achieve those standards and succeed. The platoon went from being the laughing stock of the post to a well-respected organization capable of meeting any challenge presented. He developed other leaders such as Jones and his Lieutenant who tripped when presented problems but learned the value of adapting, improvising, and overcoming to achieve success.
Each of these leaders inherited teams that were expected to fail. They were given missions that appeared impossible but success was necessary to achieve victory. Each leader found ways to put themselves in harm’s way and set a personal example of expected behaviors. Each lived up to the standards they set and expected their people to achieve. Each worked to develop relationships with followers in their organizations. Each personally developed other leaders that ensured subordinate level organizations had reliable leaders and that someone was prepared to replace the top leader. Each understood how to build their teams through hard work and shared challenges. While each had flaws, they did not allow those flaws to hold them or their teams back. Instead, they used their strengths to overcome their shortcomings and found processes and people to make up for those weaknesses.
The true measure of a leader is the legacy they leave behind. We can surmise that in the case of Gunnery Sergeant Highway he retired and CPL Jones went on to become a great leader. With SGT Kelly, he lost his gold and continued to fight the Germans. GEN Patton was killed in a post-war auto accident. His legacy lives on in the Third US Army. MAJ Whittlesey drowned while traveling to Cuba. The 77th Sustainment Brigade, the successor to the 77th Infantry Division still honors the accomplishments of Whittlesey and his Soldiers in 1918. You may not be perfect. Do not let that hold you back from accepting the challenges of leadership. Learn to lead from your strengths. Develop other leaders in your organization. Set and enforce high standards. Build your team through hard work. Find processes and people to fill the voids left by your weaknesses. Never quit. Following each of these principals will help you start on the path of becoming a great leader but it does require you to take that first step.