Are Transformational Leadership Approaches relevant to leadership roles in the Irish Defence Forces?

Professor Eunan O’Halpin writing in the 2011 edition of the Defence Forces Review, concluded that the Irish Defence Forces will be challenged ‘to maintain the capacity to prepare for and to manage a spectrum of duties in an era of brutal austerity, where the first instinct of the policy system will be simply to continue to cut and to cut and to cut’.[1] In the past the Defence Forces have gone through similar challenging times, including protecting the state from terrorism during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, and will succeed again if military leadership can respond to the new challenges which include: the army being reduced from three to two brigades, promotions for officers and NCOs becoming uncertain, recruitment becoming haphazard, outlying barracks closed, and the opportunity for overseas service reduced for young officers and enlisted personnel. These will adversely affect morale, ‘the maintenance of which is a function of military leadership and a prerequisite for a military force to succeed.’[2]

In academic and business literature, and even in some military publications, the word leadership is frequently used interchangeably with management. But of course, there are not synonymous. For Zaleznik, [3] managers ‘maintain a low level of emotional involvement, are regulators of the existing order of affairs with which they identify, and from which they themselves gain rewards.’ On the other hand, the ultimate task for the military is getting individuals to willingly perform some act that they would not otherwise wish to perform and in so doing risk their lives for the mission.[4] While it may be possible for someone to manage troops from the rear to the battlefront like chess pieces, only genuine leadership can get soldiers to willingly ‘go over the top’ and put their lives at risk for some greater cause. Napoleon put it distinctly when he stated that ‘a soldier does not get himself killed for a halfpenny a day or for a petty distinction, you must speak to the soul in order to electrify the man.’[5] One can compare and contrast the leadership displayed by the victorious British Army against the larger but poorly led and demoralised Argentinean Army in the Falklands/Malvinas War.[6] The very successful and ultimate general leader George S. Patton got to the very essence of the spirit of military leadership when he stated that ‘wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.[7]

What is being described here is transformational leadership, which according to Bass[8] is a superior form of leadership. Burns[9] who first introduced the concept of transformational leadership described it as ‘an ongoing process by which leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation in which leaders offer a purpose that transcends short-term goals and focuses on higher order intrinsic needs’ and ‘when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality’.[10] According to Conger & Kanungo[11] ‘transformational leadership’ is the best counter-force when followers perceive change, instability or when there are high levels of follower disenchantment.

A different style of leadership is known as ‘transactional leadership’, this is where leadership is based on a transaction between managers and employees. For example, followers are rewarded for their good performance/behaviour or are threatened with disciplinary procedures for doing the opposite. While there are obvious benefits from this transactional style of leadership, and has a role to play in some organisations, it has its drawbacks. Gardiner[12] notes that with transactional leadership: trust can be low; information shared on a limited basis; participation is controlled or has little influence on outcomes; and, divergent thinkers can be viewed as ‘trouble-makers.’ Bass acknowledges that transactional leadership works reasonably well if the followers value the rewards provided but, in many instances, it is a prescription for mediocrity[13] and grounded in self-interest[14].

In the early 1990s, the Irish Defence Forces went through a series of organisational reviews, the first known as the Gleeson Report resulted in a major reorganisation of the forces. At that time, writing in An Cosantóir Review, I wrote that during times of imposed reform on the military by civilians the distinction between management and leadership could become blurred. I argued that it was imperative that ‘the Defence Forces should seek leaders who know how to manage, as distinct from commanders who saw themselves as managers. I went on to highlight an important comment contained in the Gleeson Report[15] that ‘officers provide leadership and direction for the Defence Forces … it is essential therefore, that the promotion system ensures that the best and most suitable people are selected for promotion.’ Gleeson wrote that ‘a commonly-stated perception among officers of all ranks was that individual officers can best protect their career prospects by avoiding positions which carry risk or extra responsibilities’.[16]

As a result of the Gleeson Report the officers’ promotion system was changed to what was termed ‘promotion by merit’. Promotion changed to being based on a combination of a scoring from an individual’s annual performance appraisal reports, and an interview in front of a board comprised of more senior officers and retired civil servants. The inclusion of former civil servants in the interview system to select military leaders must be considered ironic as it is a commonly held belief that by the very nature of their previous employment, civil servants are known for having a love of bureaucracy and a phobia for risk-taking. Traits that are polar opposites to the type of individuals that Gleeson was suggesting should lead the Defence Forces.

Under this system, if they wish to succeed candidates competing for the small number of promotion positions need to have excellent yearly personal appraisal reports. With competition strong among candidates, any adverse comment in a single annual personal report is detrimental to an individual’s chances of success; in the USA military this is known as having a ‘zero-defect. Therefore, during the year, taking risks, straight-talking, having moral courage could result in adverse comment; a defect ending promotion possibility. Because these reports are written by the individual’s immediate superior, who is also seeking promotion by the same system, individuals know they must do nothing that could adversely affect their or their superior officer’s changes of promotion. Dixon, a former British Army engineer officer, described this system as ‘stick to the rule book, do nothing without explicit approval from the next higher up, always conform, never offend your superiors, and you will float serenely if a trifle slowly upwards.[17] Malone[18] informs us that, in the process of climbing to positions of leadership, many ambitious people become obligated to their bosses, with some feeling that they must sacrifice the needs of their subordinates in order to ensure their own continued success.Such a combination of factors invariably results in a system that produces: compliant non-divergent thinking as distinct from fresh and inspiring ideas; managers as distinct from leaders; and bureaucrats as distinct from risk-takers. A system totally opposite to what Gleeson intended.

To finally seal the fate of inspirational leadership, the military authorities, the officers’ representative body (RACO), and, officials from the Department of Defence reached an agreement that all officer appointments at a particular rank would carry equal weighting no matter the risks associated with different appointments. For example, every officer knows that commanding troops brings high risks, the higher the number of troops under a commander’s authority the greater the risk that something adverse will occur. On the other-hand, officers serving in administrative appointments, working in a headquarters, training establishments, or general officers’ personal staff officers, face little or no risks but these positions are held in the same regard as the riskier commanding troops appointments. Consequently, it is now possible to reach the highest ranks without ever taking a risk, displaying leadership, or leading a large unit of troops either at home or abroad. Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore ‘The First Lord's Song’ guides personnel to ‘stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navy’. As a result, some twenty years after the promotion process begun, it has become possible to identify Defence Forces authorities as managers implementing Department of Defence policies and diktats rather than being leaders leading a military force setting the agenda with innovation and dynamism. This transactional style of leadership will not be sufficient to safeguard the future of the Defence Forces.

Military leadership is synonymous with inspiring confidence in those who follow and it should never be forgotten that it is up to the followers to decide whether to follow willingly or not.[19] In this regard it should not be forgotten that while the titles of command, authority, and management are bestowed upon individuals from above, leadership can only be bestowed by those from below. With the adverse effects that the downturn in the economy is having on individual’s aspirations, and the concomitant personal financial difficulties that soldiers are enduring, Defence Forces commanders will be challenged to maintain soldiers’ loyalties, motivations and morale. This is not just of academic interest as the ultimate defence and security of the state depends on these very people.

Bass[20] for his part, as if he had the Defence Forces in mind, informs us that transformational leadership transforms and motivates followers to do more than originally expected. Transformational leadership approaches are therefore of major interest for the Defence Forces to ensure that soldiers buy into the values of the Defence Forces, remain loyal and motivated, and go beyond the normal demands of the job. Government ministers and military authorities are great at making laudatory speeches to military personnel but Edgar Guest poem points out: “I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way. The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear, fine counsel is confusing, but example's always clear”.[21] It is accepted that senior commanders set the example for those who follow. Machiavelli’s adage should not be forgotten that ‘what a prince does the many also soon do, for to their eyes the prince is ever in view’.[22] The fear must be that NCOs, who since Rudyard Kipling’s time, have been described as the backbone of an army, will now look-out only for themselves and not care for the development of their subordinates, and, become cynical and unconcerned regarding their duties to the Defence Forces. Such an outcome would be a disaster and therefore points to an urgent need for transformational leadership.

Tichy et al.[23] provides a road map towards achieving transformational leadership. The first item is to recognise the need for revitalisation which involves identifying the need for change, disengaging from past practices, and avoiding the quick fix. For the Defence Forces this could very well be the most difficult part of the road map. This is because stagnation occurs in an army when it is not tested in its primary role which of course is war fighting. Nye[24] describes the stifling effects of peacetime bureaucracy and the penalties for making unpopular decisions. It can often be more convenient to let the current system in place, after all change can be difficult, change can make things worse, change can expose the shortcomings of those in charge. Vandergriff[25] points out that those in charge invariably do not recognise or may not want to recognise the need for change, after all they got to their top position under the current system. Consequently, change may need to be imposed from the outside.

Defence forces leadership must be more concerned with their units and subordinates. Human resources management polices need to be changed to ensure that officers in command positions remain long enough to get to know their troops and vice versa. Leaders need to foster a clear set of values which they themselves will adhere to in every action, even at their personal expense. Bass et al.[26] lists these values as honesty, loyalty, and fairness, while Malone[27] adds the ability to communicate, empathy, health, vigour, and basic intelligence. Leaders must lead by example, personal behaviour needs to be consistent, ethical and above reproach, and leaders must be expected to emphasise key values, display convictions and take unpopular stands at times, again even at personal expense.[28]  

Charisma and transformational leadership are often associated with each other. Charismatic leaders personify ethical values, they appeal to the emotions of their followers through inspirational messages, and, they inculcate a visionary spirit in their followers that leads them forward into transcending their own self-interests.[29] It is possible to learn charismatic approaches. Training in verbal and non-verbal charismatic performance should become a major part of Defence Forces leadership training at all levels. Adoption of these approaches must be authentic, and commanders should be measured in their performance of their duties against these values; true practitioners should be viewed as the future leaders of the Defence Forces. Of course, it cannot be forgotten that we are dealing here with a military force that can be called upon to perform the ultimate duty for the state.[30] That old war movie quote ‘that we are here to defend democracy, not to practice it’ comes to mind; thus, while this transformational approach is very relevant certain limitations would need to be imposed. The most important would be that the interests of individuals, leaders, followers, or sectional interest will not be allowed to interfere with the fighting efficiency of the force.

[1] O'Halpin, E. (2011) 'The Challenges Facing the Defence Forces in the Next Five Years'. Defence Forces Review 2011: pp13-20

[2] DuPicq, A. (1868) Battle Studies, Harrisburg: Stackpole Books.

[3] Zaleznik, A. (2004) 'Managers and Leaders: Are they different?' Harvard Business Review 55 (Jan):  67-78

[4] Malone, P. (1986) Love 'em and Lead 'em, Annandale: Synergy Press

[5] Department of Army (1999) 'FM 22-100 - Army Leadership: Be, Know, Do’, Department of Army, Washington, DC, Headquarters, Department of the Army pp3-16

[6] Stewart, N. (1991) Mates and Muchachos, Washington: Brassey (US) Inc

[7] Department of Army (2006) 'FM 6-22 - Army Leadership: Competent, Confident, and Agile’, Department of Army, Washington, DC, Headquarters Department of the Army p4-22

[8] Bass, B. (1990) 'From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision'. Organisational Dynamics 18 (3): 19-32.

[9] The Transformational Leadership Report, 2007., (accessed 12 Feb 2012).

[10] Burns 1978, as cited in, 2007: 4

[11] Congar & Kanungo 1988, as cited in Chesser, D. (2006) Transformational Leadership: An Imperative for Army Reserve Readiness in the 21st Century,, (accessed 25 Feb 2012).

[12] Gardiner, J. (2006) 'Transactional, Transformational, and Transcendent Leadership: Metaphors Mapping The Evolution of the Theory and Practice of Governance'. Leadership Review 6:  62-76

[13] Bass, B. (1990) 'From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision'. Organisational Dynamics 18 (3): 19-32

[14] Bass, B. & Steidlmeier, P. (1999) 'Ethics, Character, and Authentic Transformational Leadership Behaviour'. Leadership Quarterly 10 (2)

[15] Murphy, M. (1995) 'Leadership, Management and Change'. An Cosantóir Review 1995: pp 93-100.

[16] Office, S. (1990) 'Report of the Commission on Remuneration and Conditions of Service in the Defence Forces, Dublin: Government of Ireland. p28

[17] Dixon, N. (1988) On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, London: Macdonald & Co. Ltd p244

[18] Malone (1986) Op Cit.

[19] Dixon (1988) Op cit.

[20] Bass (1990) Op cit.

[21] Guest, E. (2004) Sermons We See by Edgar Guest,, (accessed 3 Mar 2012)

[22] Machiavelli, N. (1983) The Discourses, London: Penguin Books p484

[23] Tichy and Devanna (1990) as cited in Bratton, Sawchuk, Forshaw, Callinan and Corbett, Work & Organisational Behaviour (2010).

[24] Nye, R. (2002) The Challenge of Command, New York: The Berkley Publishing Group

[25] Vandergriff, D. (2002) The Path to Victory. America's Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, Novato, CA: Presidio Press Inc

[26] Bass et al. (1999) Op Cit.

[27] Malone (1986) Op Cit.

[28]Yukl (2006) as cited in Mullins, L. (2010) Management & Organisational Behaviour, (9th), Harlow: Pearson Education Limited p392.

[29] Graetz, F. (2000) 'Strategic Change Leadership'. Management Decision 38 (8):  550-562.

[30]Homrig, M. (NY) Transformational Leadership,, (accessed 25 Feb 2012)