Leadership in High-Risk Environments: Cross-Generational Perceptions of Critical Leadership Attributes Provided by Military Special Operations Personnel

Article excerpt


Military cultures tend to be perceived as hierarchal thus creating a climate where there may be a disconnect between the definition of leadership attributes by senior officers and soldiers on the ground. Data provided by 302 former special operations personnel was used to determine the degree of separation between how senior officers (strategic leaders), mid-grade officers (mid-level leaders) and junior officers, senior non-commissioned officers, and junior non-commissioned officers (functional leaders) define exemplary leaders. If the hierarchal hypothesis is correct, each level of the military hierarchy will perceive the attributes of an exemplary leader differently. The data indicates that senior officers, mid-grade officers, junior officers, senior non-commissioned officers, junior non-commissioned officers and covert government operatives spanning a period from World War II to the Afghanistan War all saw competence as the most significant behavior of an exemplary leader. The ranking of the remaining nineteen leadership attributes used in the study provides a worthwhile insight into how this unique population views exemplary leaders. This study may be of value to other governmental organizations designing teams to conduct high-risk ventures and private sector companies constructing teams to engage in high-risk economic projects.


As early as 1953, a stream of leadership research was developing to encourage the leader to be considerate, accepting, and concerned about the needs and feelings of other people (Fleishman, 1953: Stogdill, 1974; Bowers and Seashore, 1966 and House and Mitchell, 1974). This trend continues into recent leadership literature which portrays the effective leader as one who encourages the heart (Kouzes & Posner, 1999), leads without power (De Pree, 1997), makes everyone a leader (Bergmann, Hurson, & Russ-Eft, 1999), and is collaborative (Chrislip & Larson, 1994; Svara, 1994). Fiedler (1967), Hersey and Blanchard (1984, 1993) introduced the concept of leadership effectiveness as being situational. This shift in thinking about leadership provides the opportunity to study leadership in a context where almost all the decisions are hard, time sensitive, information limited, and the consequences significant. This paper explores leadership in the context of the United States Military's special operations community. This perspective is provided by former members of the community (operators) who completed a survey and demographic profile. Data from the survey provides an insight into this unique environment and culture and how they define exemplary leaders. This profile may be of value to business, government, and not-for-profit organizations in search of leaders who can guide their organizations during difficult times.


Before looking at units and individuals that operate at the tip of the military's spear, it is worthwhile to look at the structure of the military. In the eighteenth century, the modern military system took shape and with it came the command and control hierarchal structure led by a professional officer corps (Witzel, 2002). Within this structure officers and non-commissioned officers are selected for a progression of command positions, each of which require a broader view of the role of the military and their place in the institution. This maturation process also required that the individual not loose sight of the basic leadership behaviors dictated by the culture. As a result there is an expectation that as one increases in rank, there will be a corollary development in leadership skills. (Janowitz, 1971). In the United States Army, rank is currently divided into four classifications: Officers, Warrant Officers, Non-commissioned Officers, and Enlisted Personnel. The following chart defines the designated ranks in each category.

The challenge facing researchers is to capture, in an academic analysis, the intensity of feelings toward leadership and leaders by men who lived their lives in hard places, performing secret life threatening missions, and who use a unique set of behavioral absolutes as their compass. …


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