Back in the mid-eighties, I was still operating almost exclusively as a freelance instructional designer. Serendipitously, I was being asked by clients to design, produce, and deliver management development workshops. During the course of what we instructional design types called the “front-end needs assessment”, I quickly discovered that most people in management were competent managers but had little understanding of methods for leadership. A great deal of method was devoted to fixing things but very little method was employed in divining the future and orchestrating resources to realize desired outcomes.
While under contract to a large organization faced with transforming itself into a competitor in a newly deregulated marketplace, I set out to design a course that would focus on leadership and action rather than management and reaction. I began with an in-depth review of the literature on the subject, using the academic databases then available online through a service called Dialog. Over the course of several weeks, I downloaded hundreds of articles and abstracts on the subject of leadership. During my review, it became obvious that the majority of materials on the topic dealt with the personal and psychological attributes of individuals identified by some measure, as effective leaders. The articles variously stated that the good leaders identified did this and that, and therefore, we can find good leaders by looking for those traits, or we can become good leaders by emulating those traits.
For an instructional designer, these findings were disastrous. I realized that I can design instruction regarding methods, but I am hopelessly lost if my objective is to transform personalities. What was even more disconcerting was that the personality attributes of “successful” leaders were never consistently correlated, even when the definition of leaderships was similar. For example, some “successful” leaders were aggressive communicators who sought to incite people to greater performance with their enthusiasm. Other “successful” leaders were quiet and contemplative. They listened carefully to others to order to gain new insights and empower their teams.
After a great deal of research I found only a few coherent bodies of work that addressed the job of leadership from a methodological standpoint. Chief among these was military leadership. This body of theory and technique, extending back over 5000 years, contained first principles that had stood the test of millennia under the greatest duress imaginable. It was around this time, coincidentally, that Sun Tzu’s Art of War was just becoming popular in business circles. I re-read the book and came to the conclusion that, although it contained profound observations; it lacked the concreteness that I needed to design an instructional program in leadership methods. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the US Armed Forces, “Principles of War”, that I found succinct, concrete, and well articulated principles around which to build my first leadership workshop.
Over the course of the next 10 years, I developed many leadership methods workshops. I gradually stopped referring to military literature, which was coming to be regarded as politically incorrect, but I am still impressed with how those first principles have stood up in the context of so much of what I have learned since. Today I still believe that an understanding of the “Principles of War” is a necessary pre-requisite for those who would lead.