Leon Steyn is a Public Speaker, Facilitator-Trainer, and international Author of Books and Articles that teach personal development skills and talent development at organizations.


Picture this….

An 18-year old man (or is he still a boy?) has been conscripted into the army to defend his country which is at war against enemy forces. This man is a go-getter and has a growth mindset, so he is quickly identified as “officer material” and passes all the rigorous tests with ease. Within 2 months of entering the army, he arrives at the junior leadership training army base where he is molded into a fighting machine and finishes his 12-month strenuous training phase as an infantry junior leader with the rank of lieutenant

He is allowed 8 days’ break to see his family and is then flown by a C130 Hercules aeroplane to Angola where he is introduced to his “new” platoon of 32 men as

their new commander...he is 19 years old!

His for and neutralize (read kill) the enemy. Full stop!

His apply all he has learned about leadership in order to execute his tactical task and ensure that everyone under his command, returns home (base and actual) alive.

His actions, driven by his intentions, are:

  1. Leading by example in dangerous situations.

  2. Gaining the trust of his team (platoon) as quickly and as effectively as possible.

  3. Ensuring that each member of his team has the tools they need.

  4. Supporting each member of his team to do the best they can with what they have.

One can call this situational, strategic, survival, or command leadership; it can even be a combination - whatever the label, this is pure leadership with sound intent.

Leadership situations on battlefields under horrendous circumstances seem to be an often chosen source of leadership examples. Business schools make frequent use of leadership examples taken from experiences made in battlefields. These stories and analogies are used to illustrate and teach the best-suited style of leadership for leaders in particular industries or situations. Perhaps the proliferation of war movies and computer games produced by filmmakers and producers, make the perceived relationship between soldiers and commanders a concept most people are fairly well acquainted with.

A peek into the real-life world of soldiers and commanders could help us better understand the dynamics of leadership in business situations.

It is generally assumed that the soldiers do not have the right to question the motive or reason for the war – any refusal to follow any instructions related to their tasks is dealt with swiftly and decisively.

Let me ask you this. How would you lead a team of individuals who face constant fear of threats and attacks, who risk losing their lives at work each day and who are motivated by the will to survive death?!

Do you really think they just blindly follow orders and the instructions of their commanders to perform duties such as operating and maintaining military equipment, guarding and protecting people and properties under threat, and helping in disaster relief and emergency management efforts?

If you start looking into leadership under extreme circumstances involving life and death, you will find out that leading with brute force and authority won’t do the job and will only get you so far.

According to The Crisis Group, there currently are 10 wars in the world taking place right now; these wars exclude the unofficial terrorist, gang, and other wars happening across the globe. This means many, many soldiers are in combat zones doing what they are tasked to do, namely to protect. Even if protecting people and properties under threat means removing or neutralizing the threat by killing another person. Under these circumstances, a leader is asking a lot from that soldier who must perform their duty. Knowing they cannot be disciplined because they are merely following instructions allows room for maneuver but is not enough to motivate someone to do something so extreme.

According to Jacob Morgan of The Chief Learning Officer Magazine (January 2020)

“In my mind, a leader is someone who does more than just lead people. They have to be driven by the right motivation and make a positive impact on the people around them.

A leader is someone who can see how things can be improved and who rallies people to move toward that better vision. Leaders can work toward making their vision a reality while putting people first. Just being able to motivate people isn’t enough — leaders need to be empathetic and connect with people to be successful.”

This is why the commander’s intent is so important. It gives everyone on the team a common goal to pursue while understanding the greater good behind the mission’s intention. Leaders can only motivate people who become followers that share the same mutual belief in the same mutual vision of a better state and situation. It’s not about the leader it’s about empowering their followers to believe in doing what is right to pursue that vision and act according to that mission. You see in this scenario, followers are no longer blindly taking orders but actively taking responsibility for pursuing the commander’s intent. By this, they are embracing leadership.

With the current level of uncertainty and fear brought about by recessionary indicators, COVID-19, and a host of other ongoing realities, leaders should be asking more questions, many more questions; not of their subordinates, followers, teams or employees, but of themselves!

To ensure sound intent, and the correct motives, subordinates, followers, teams, and employees should be asking leaders questions, many questions!

At the risk of sounding anti-leader or not having leadership knowledge and/or experience, I am of the opinion that too often, people merely follow instructions because they are fearful of retaliation, bullying, or being fired. If their leaders were to question themselves more often and gain input from peers, and subordinates alike, many difficult situations would be handled in ways that lead to better outcomes, less loss of human commitment and increased bottom lines, and triple bottom lines at that.

During times of crisis like COVID-19, the strong leaders are the ones who can lead their teams of followers during and after the crisis by asking the right questions and by doing the following:

  1. Leading by example in dangerous situations.

  2. Gaining the trust of their team as quickly and as effectively as possible.

  3. Ensuring that each member of his team has the tools they need.

  4. Supporting each member of his team to do the best they can with what they have.

In conclusion to this article and as a start for taking action, depending on where you currently find yourself, the following points may help you lead with sound intent and not with self-preservation as the main motive:

  1. Would you follow you?

  2. Would you forego a lucrative incentive in favor of the right decision?

  3. Would you be able to face the spouse and/or children of an employee who was harmed, in one way or the other, by a poor decision you made?

  4. When last have you undergone a 360-degree assessment?

And finally, why are you in the leadership position you are now?

My hope is that during times of crisis, we can all get through the crisis, by having our motive for the war for survival, crystal clear…

Leon Steyn

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