Lead the pack by boosting your social skills

Strong military leadership is crucial for mission success, safety, and unit performance. Military leaders are expected to help their Warfighters balance physical and mental well-being with training and professional development. Leaders are also expected to demonstrate ethics and values. Effective military leaders improve unit performance, particularly in challenging, uncertain, or stressful conditions.

A key skill many great military leaders share is the ability to build relationships with their Warfighters. They know what kinds of relationships they need to build for their team to be successful, and they have the interpersonal skills to do so.

What’s your style?

There are two ways to think about how you approach relationships with those you’re leading. On one hand, certain situations require a direct approach, where your Warfighters follow instructions and comply with orders because they’ll be rewarded for doing so (or face consequences if they don’t). You might consider taking this approach when you have a specific goal or complex task to be accomplished.

On the other hand, some situations call for a more collaborative approach between leaders and team members, such as when you need your Warfighters to find meaning in the mission, be self-motivated, or commit to the task. As a leader, you might need to focus on inspiring your team by setting an example, earning their respect, showing optimism, encouraging innovation, and mentoring your unit members as individuals. In military settings, the best leaders use a combination of these two leadership styles to build healthy teams.

Expand your interpersonal leadership skills

Work on honing the following social skills to improve your leadership skills:

  • Adaptability. Leaders need to be flexible in order to respond to different situations and environments under various stress levels. You also need to adapt your leadership style to interact with your Warfighters in a way that lets you accomplish team goals in the most effective way. For example, you might be in combat one day and take part in a local community development project the next. You need to know your audience and know how to adjust your interactions with your team based on the tasks at hand.
  • Emotional intelligence. Strong leaders need to know how to interact well with others. This might include “reading” the needs of your Warfighters and displaying warmth and openness while being assertive. For example, a strong leader will recognize when a subordinate is struggling and provide the support needed. Effective leaders also know how to manage their own emotions, prevent impulsive or angry reactions, maintain optimism, and project confidence. Rather than reacting to your emotions, practice using them to guide your leadership choices.
  • Ethical conduct. Honor and moral conduct are key traits all Military Service Members should strive for. The best leaders know how to set an example with their own conduct to strengthen their relationships and teams. Serving with honor, honesty, and integrity will help you inspire confidence, respect, and trust.
  • Cultural competency. It’s important to know how to build trust across diverse populations—whether it’s within your own team, in the community, or while deployed. An effective leader needs to know how to engage with others to cooperate and avoid conflict. You have to be willing to see people as individuals and understand their motivations.
  • Teamwork. Effective leaders know it’s the strength of a team that makes it possible to accomplish tasks. The best leaders encourage cohesion and see each Warfighter as an individual they can provide with opportunities for personal achievement. You might encourage further training or delegate your responsibilities to empower others. It’s important to recognize the needs of the whole team, including those who might not report directly to you. Effective military leaders take into account the families and social support systems of their units when considering what will help the team perform best.

It takes time to find the right style and gain confidence when you take on a leadership role. Just remember that strong relationship skills are the foundation of effective leadership.

Resources

Bass, B. M., Avolio, B. J., Jung, D. I., & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting unit performance by assessing transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 207–218. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.207

Kirkpatick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Leadership: Do traits matter? Academy of Management Perspectives, 5(2), 48–60. doi:10.5465/ame.1991.4274679

Larsson, G., Bartone, P. T., Bos-Bakx, M., Danielsson, E., Jelusic, L., Johansson, E., . . . Wachowicz, M. (2009). Leader development in natural context: A grounded theory approach to discovering how military leaders grow. Military Psychology, 18(sup1), S69–S81. doi:10.1207/s15327876mp1803s_6

Laurence, J. H. (2011). Military leadership and the complexity of combat and culture. Military Psychology, 23(5), 489–501. doi:10.1080/08995605.2011.600143

McColl-Kennedy, J. R., & Anderson, R. D. (2002). Impact of leadership style and emotions on subordinate performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 13(5), 545–559. doi:10.1016/s1048-9843(02)00143-1