The psychology of leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gregory Frana
  • 56th Operations Group
When given the opportunity to lead, how do great leaders ensure people want to follow them?  In the military it is sometimes the case that followers simply have to follow, but what makes people want to follow? 

The study of leadership has been taking place since the beginning of time.  Great philosophers and warriors like Plato and Sun Tzu have dedicated lifetimes to studying leadership.  Since there are an endless amount of resources available to leaders, the search for effective leadership skills can prove to be difficult.

I am certainly not Plato or Sun Tzu, though in my 15 years in the Air Force I have noticed three distinct character traits that are displayed by the leaders I most wanted to follow.  Those traits are credibility, trust, and clarity.  In my experience, if a leader is credible, trustworthy and able to provide clarity and context to followers they will inspire great things no matter the situation. 

Identifying these key traits in leaders is one thing, but displaying them is another.  So how do leaders work on developing these characteristics?

In our work areas, our credibility is directly related to our job knowledge.  Airmen are considered credible if they are consistently able to perform their duties.  The same holds true regarding leadership credibility, credible leaders continually perform the mission.  Establishing credibility as a leader starts with being real.  Nothing will erode credibility quicker than followers hearing you say one thing and then doing another.  Being true to who you are and portraying that to your followers is the first step in developing credibility. 

Effective leaders build trust with followers by listening, respecting and understanding their concerns.  When people feel that a leader will listen to them, hear them and act on information, they will become more comfortable in their relationship with leader.  Showing concern, understanding and respecting your followers will help to build trust.

Finally, effective leaders provide context and clarify the role of the team or organization.  In clarifying, effective leaders provide vision, simplify complex situations, prioritize and direct the organization's efforts towards the most critical tasks.  While providing context and clarity to complex situations the team will start to form a team identity.  The organization will begin to rely on each other because they all know they can rely on you.

For thousands of years leaders have been studying how to effectively lead.  Undoubtedly they will continue for thousands more, but as military professionals it is difficult to find a more true and profound quote than that of Sun Tzu from over 2,500 years ago. 

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. -Sun Tzu