By Brigadier General Robert A. Borcherding, Colonel Eric W. Widmar, & Colonel Andrew K. Kernan
In his initial message to the Army team as the 40th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General James C. McConville asserted, “People are always my #1 priority: Our Army’s people are our greatest strength and our most important weapon system.”1 His statement immediately reminded me of Colonel (COL) (Retired) Kevan “Jake” Jacobson’s brilliant presentation on the principles of leadership during the 2014 Worldwide Continuing Legal Education forum.2 If you truly believe in putting people first, take the fifty minutes to watch it, take notes, and incorporate his wisdom into how you lead. Beyond that unqualified endorsement, yet consistent with its core message, this article focuses on providing leadership that empowers our top priority—people. We hope the framework below gives you something to think about as you develop and adapt your own leadership approach.
In our view, leadership is about more than just maximizing the performance of your people toward mission accomplishment. It certainly is that, and there are undoubtedly times in our careers when the gravity and exigency of a particular mission justifies a steely-eyed, utilitarian approach to leadership that measures success almost purely by client or commander satisfaction. The “Gets Results” block on our officer evaluation reports is there for a reason. However, your broader goal as a leader should be the creation of a professional environment your team looks forward to being in each day.
Enter the Empowering Leader. Most offices across the Judge Advocate General’s Corps are full of attorneys, paralegals, warrant officers, and paraprofessionals who are highly competent, motivated, and mission-oriented. The most impactful bosses are often those who seek not to boost their own profile, but rather to create an environment where their people feel empowered to innovate, make decisions, and represent the office. In other words, good leaders in high-functioning organizations set the conditions for success, trust their people to execute, and remain engaged in order to coach, teach, train, and mentor to ensure mission accomplishment and help those within their stewardship reach their full potential as both military and legal professionals. So what does it take to become an empowering leader?
1. Only Do What Only You Can Do
No, that’s not a typo, and you don’t need to say it five times fast. But it is a critical operating principle often overlooked by our most talented leaders who have succeeded based on their individual abilities. Fight the temptation to validate your awesomeness by stepping in and doing someone else’s job simply because you have done it before. Only do what only you can do (by position or authority). This will be uncomfortable at times, which is likely an indication you’re doing it right. As a leader of other aspiring superstars, your primary role is not to craft every argument, draft every memo, or build the most exquisite staff product—but to set the tone in the office and provide the resources necessary for others to learn and grow in their professional journey. Lieutenant General (Retired) Charles “Chuck” Pede was fond of quoting Rudyard Kipling’s timeless advice to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . .”3 Being calm in the face of deadlines, crises, and emotions from others is arguably the most empowering ingredient a leader can provide their team. By matching or amplifying fear or alarm, leaders fail to restore the group equilibrium that enables subordinates to focus and problem solve.
The other big “only leader” task is leading by example. We hear that often, but how do we do it? It’s the leader who has the focus of the entire team, and while people may hear what the leader says, they will more often understand by watching what the leader does. Actions do speak louder than words. Your actions will set the office’s priorities and standards. If leaders want a physically-fit and motivated office, they should actively participate in office physical training every day possible. If subordinates leaving at a reasonable hour is a sustainability priority, the leader should not infrequently be the first one out the door at the end of the duty day.
The most impactful bosses are often those who seek not to boost their own profile, but rather to create an environment where their people feel empowered to innovate, make decisions, and represent the office.
2. Invest in People
Everyone has potential; your job is to help them fulfill it. With limited exceptions, you don’t get to pick the members of your team—the Army or Joint Force assigns them. Not every judge advocate is a future candidate to be The Judge Advocate General, or every paralegal a possible Regimental Command Sergeant Major, and that’s okay; we can only have one of each at a time. The best leaders make early investments in learning about their people, to include what best motivates them and how they best receive feedback, and then help to maximize their potential. Informed by both good and bad examples of mentorship throughout your career, invest in your people. And don’t give up on them even if you think they’ve given up on themselves. I have not always done this well.
Let me offer you a personal experience I had with COL Jacobson, the people-investor whose presentation I encouraged you to watch at the beginning of this article. This experience has left an indelible impression on me and reminds me of the kind of leader I strive to be. In the final days before his retirement, when he had so many things in his personal life to manage while making the transition to private life, COL Jacobson took the time to individually contact his adopted sons and daughters (as he called his teammates). Somehow he found the number for the only unclassified line in the Joint Special Operations Command Joint Operations Center. He called it one night and asked the person who answered to find me. This was so unusual that I answered the call apprehensively, wondering if something was wrong. Turns out, he just wanted to talk to me one last time before calling it a career—and also to tell me that he was proud of me. Who does that?! Maybe more of us should.
3. Empower and Highlight
Consistently seek to raise subordinates’ profiles with both their and your clients. As a leader, you are in your position at least in part because you’ve proven your ability to advise your commander or senior leader. Now it’s your turn to develop that competence and confidence in subordinates. For example, when a staff judge advocate (SJA) sits down for the first time with their commanding general (CG), it should not be their first time briefing a general court-martial convening authority. While serving as a senior trial counsel in the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, my SJA, COL Joe Frisk, took me to several CG appointments and even once let me brief the CG. I appreciated the experience at the time, but not as much as I did seven years later. As a brand new deputy SJA at 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley who was the acting SJA, I had a CG appointment two days after signing in. Yes, I had to quickly get up to speed on the substance of the actions—but if Joe Frisk hadn’t shared his spotlight with me and showed me how to advise a CG years earlier, I would have stumbled my way through that experience far worse than I did.
Our business is a human business, and people are generally more complex and multi-faceted than they appear to be.
4. Remind Them That Their
Work Is Important
People will row hardest when they feel like it matters—not just in the bigger picture of the Army or the nation, but also in the more personal way of mattering to “the boss.” When people feel like their work doesn’t matter, your average subordinates will gradually withdraw and decrease output—and your best people will accomplish the mission in quiet desperation. Both raise sustainability concerns. In this regard, we offer a few suggestions for the Empowering Leader. First, routinely ask subordinates what they’re working on . . . and stick around long enough to hear (and remember) their answer. Relatedly, periodically ask them to brief you personally on an issue they are involved in. Subordinates understand that your time reflects your priorities; time spent with your teams—engaging personally and purposefully—speaks volumes. Finally, look for ways to incorporate their work into your higher reporting—whether in command or legal tech channels. Public acknowledgement is powerful.
5. Cultivate and Communicate
Genuine Care for Their Well-Being
It’s one thing to ensure your subordinates are motivated and dedicated to the mission. It’s another thing to ensure they are motivated and dedicated to life itself. Our business is a human business, and people are generally more complex and multi-faceted than they appear to be. No matter the brave face our teammates put on every day, most of us face emotional struggles from time to time. As such, empowering leaders create a culture of communication about life outside of work. They learn about their subordinates’ family members, their hobbies and passions, and their priorities away from the office. While much of corporate America may frown upon discussing personal issues with subordinates, corporate America is not asked to make the sacrifices necessary to fight and win our nation’s wars. We are. As a starting point, we encourage having your folks complete an Article 6 “Facebook” page as part of their in-processing. Why wait until a senior leader visit is imminent to learn about your people? And don’t just store these in a binder in your office. Use them as a foundation to go deeper—have appropriately-engaged leadership. On the flipside, nothing generates openness from subordinates like a leader willing to offer a certain level of transparency about their own life, to include their successes and challenges. Finally, empowering leaders carve out time in the business day for nothing but socializing. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, get out of your office every day and connect with your team. Put it on your calendar if you need to!
Ultimately, an effective leader is one who truly cares about their people as people— and takes steps to ensure they know it! We all have important missions to accomplish. But amidst the grind of achieving results, leaders also need to view the emotional health and personal and professional development of their subordinates as co-top priorities. More than your impressive resume, evaluations, awards, or publications, the people you have the privilege to lead will be your legacy. Give them the leadership they deserve. People First! TAL
BG Borcherding is the Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C.
COL Eric Widmar is the Staff Judge Advocate for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
COL Kernan is a Deputy Legal Counsel in the Office of Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C.
1. General James C. McConville, 40th Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, Initial Message to the Army Team (Aug. 12, 2019), https://api.army.mil/e2/c/downloads/561506.pdf.
2. Colonel Kevan Jacobson, Address at the Worldwide Continuing Legal Education Training: Principles of Leadership (2014), https://tjaglcs.army.mil/principlesof-leadership.
3. Rudyard Kipling, If, Poetry Found., https://www. poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if--- (last visited Jan. 28, 2022).