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Likership vs Compassionate Leadership

June 11, 2018

When I was a young leader, my natural inclination was to "be nice" to my subordinates.  To cut them some slack.  Fortunately, I had this largely burned out of me before I was commissioned.  

 

Learning to be a compassionate leader can be difficult because your actions and feelings appear to be contradictory.  You care about your subordinates, but you treat them harshly.  You want your team to be happy, but you enforce high standards.  You want others to succeed, but you challenge them with difficult tasks. 

 

The easiest way to see why compassionate leadership is often harsh is to undergo it.  As a cadet in college, I competed in the Ranger Challenge competition four times, the last time as the team commander.  For a college student, the training was time-consuming and hard.  Punishing PT every morning.  Afternoon training sessions twice a week.  Entire Saturdays spent doing land navigation, practicing rifle marksmanship, or rope bridge crossing rehearsals.  Our instructors were harsh, the senior cadets were harsh, and along the way, I learned to be harsh.  I learned by seeing how it affected me.  As I trained, I began to realize that I could not hope to get tougher or succeed in the competition without hard leaders.  I could not go as far on my own unless I was pushed in training.  Infantry basic course and Ranger School put the icing on the cake.  We were brought to the point of mental and physical exhaustion, and then pushed some more.  We endured cold, heat, hunger, and lack of sleep.  And through it all, the instructors demanded high standards of performance. 

 

When I trained my platoon before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I pushed them hard.  While other platoons spent time relaxing in our camp in Kuwait, my platoon was out in the sand practicing maneuvers.  My machine gun teams drilled constantly on getting their weapons into action.  It was compassionate leadership.  I did not want to lose soldiers or fail because I was too soft.  Later on, during the invasion, one of my fire teams was pinned down by enemy fire.  My machine gun team slammed down their tripod, mounted their machine gun, and directed accurate fire on enemy positions within seconds.  The enemy was driven off. 

 

On the eve of battle, soft leadership could lead to dead soldiers.  It could lead to breakdown in discipline through boredom and being over-friendly with the troops.  It could lead to soldiers that were unprepared for the mental and physical rigors of combat. 

 

The main rule of hard, compassionate leadership is that you must push yourself as hard or harder than you push your subordinates.  You must set the standards.  Otherwise you are just a bully that will be unprepared for the conditions you are training your team for.  You will be the weak link. 

 

Likership is what you get when you prioritize having the subordinates like you over having them prepared for their mission.  And likership always fails.  It fails to prepare the team for their mission as it focuses on relaxing standards, giving breaks, and failing to enforce discipline.  And it fails to make the team like you as a leader.  Teams may enjoy soft leadership at first, but low standards will lead to low performance.  Low performing teams will be ostracized, disciplined, and ridiculed.  Nobody will want to be part of the team.  The team will rightly begin to resent the soft leader.  People want to be part of a disciplined, high performing team. 

 

Compassionate leadership prepares your subordinates for success.  Likership paves the way for failure.  Having your team respect you is far better than having them like you.  I like ice cream.  I respected my company commander.    

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