by Dr Paul Vorster | Published on 25 July 2017 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter
Being an industrial/organisational psychologist by profession, and working for years in the field of selection and assessment of leaders in industry, I have come across a large diversity of opinions about leadership. And the truth is, the more I have learned about different perspectives of leadership, the more confused I have become. It seems that everyone has an opinion on leadership: what it is, what is should be, and what it is not.
Recently, I have been reading Steven E. Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers which documents the personal war-time experiences of soldiers in the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division (otherwise known as Easy Company). I decided to read the book after watching the television miniseries of the same name for probably the 46th time. The story of Easy Company is an epic one: this airborne unit had the task of parachuting into Nazi-controlled Europe to support forces landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day during World War II.
I was amazed at the courage of these soldiers, since their job was to parachute into enemy territory without support from ground or air forces. In other words, they were jumping into an unknown and hostile environment with little support from anyone except themselves. To add to this, deploying paratroopers was a new and experimental form of warfare at the time; thus, very little was known about the challenges such soldiers would face.
As I read the story, which I have come to know so well, it dawned on me that this dangerous situation, and the unique form of warfare it entailed, was in fact a perfect real-time situational judgement test for those soldiers. Situational judgement tests, or SJTs, are often used in the selection process, where job candidates are required to explain how they would behave in a particular work-related scenario. This form of psychometric testing is intended to reveal a candidate’s ability to adapt creatively in a specific context and is usually reserved for individuals who would take up management or leadership positions in the organisation. For Easy Company, this was not the kind of SJT that they could fail and live to tell the tale: competence was imperative, incompetence would be punished by death, and soldiers had to trust each other and their leaders to survive. This situation would therefore distinguish good leaders from bad ones pretty quickly.
One leader, in particular, distinguished himself during Easy Company’s campaign, and he is considered by many in the military to be the embodiment of what a soldier and leader should be. This man was Major Richard Winters (a lieutenant at the time of the D-Day landings). Richard Winters commanded the respect of his men throughout the war, taking them from France to Holland, and later Germany itself. Along the way, he obtained the Distinguished Service Cross and was considered for the Medal of Honour (the greatest accolade in the US Military). The role is played brilliantly by Damien Lewis in the television series.
Winters spoke a lot about his own perspectives of leadership after the war. But what was most interesting was the servant-orientation Winters took towards his position of responsibility. He did not, like many other conscripts or professional soldiers, aim for rank or status in the military. In fact, Winters didn’t really want to lead these men because he was so aware of the responsibility it took, which reminds me of Socrates’s observation in The Republic that an ethical person would not be drawn to a position of authority, unless his/her leadership would protect others from being harmed by less ethical individuals in power.
Winters saw his position of leadership as an important resource for the group – an interesting interpretation that is best explained by an anecdote related by the man himself:
“Compton [Lieutenant Lynn ‘Buck’ Compton] had been with the company for six months, and I liked him very much. One problem, however, was that he had gotten into the habit of gambling with some of the men in the marshalling area. That is why I reprimanded him. It is a poor policy, and it puts him in the position, the embarrassing position, that if he wins, he must take from the men.
The point I was trying to make is that you have to be prepared to give to the people you lead. You must give in every way. You must give of your time, and you must be consistent in your treatment of them. You must never take from the people you lead.” - Major Richard Winters
This statement is a powerful one. It reiterates the servant nature of leadership: that it is not a position of privilege, but rather a position of responsibility and a resource for followers.
This basic aspect of good leadership is lacking in the modern world, with ambitious individuals trying their best to climb the corporate ladder and take up positions of power. It is also the fault of corporate organisations who reward competence with privilege, and who do not emphasise the responsibility leaders have for the welfare of their followers. Indeed, leadership in the modern world has somehow become something that benefits the leader, not the follower – and this is painfully true of the current political environment in South Africa.
Perhaps, in the month that we mark the legacy of former president Nelson Mandela, we can also learn from another exceptional leader of the 20th century: Major Richard Winters. Both of these men led by giving of themselves, in a type of servant leadership style that is sorely missing in many aspects of life in the 21st century.
Dr Paul Vorster is a Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute. He holds a doctorate of Industrial Psychology, which he attained from the University of Johannesburg.