Junior Leadership in the 21st Century

Junior Leadership in the 21st Century

An opinion article by Marshall Officer

Introduction

I have been in leadership positions for a significant part of my life. I held team captain positions in a variety of sports during high school, and when I joined the Army - I held an acting section second-in-command position after less than a year in my infantry unit. I was subsequently promoted twice within a short space of time, and have spent time leading infantry soldiers in both acting and permanent capacities, in both Australia and on operations in Afghanistan. I spent a year as an instructor at the Australian School of Infantry - a position that helped solidify my passion for junior leadership before leaving the Army. I worked as an assistant manager in a bar shortly after discharge, and once I moved to Brisbane - I was responsible for the integration and training of an entirely new role at a well established recruiting company. I am now a director of my own company, and although I work on an equal level with the other two Anvil directors and we have no employees at all - I have leadership responsibilities in the areas directly under my control. None of these positions are that impressive, in the grand scheme of things. I’ve never been the captain of a world-class sports team. I’ve never been the commanding officer of a Special Forces Unit. I’m not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. So, what the hell would I know?

I’ve been extremely passionate about leadership for as long as I can remember. I’ve been exposed to so many examples of poor leadership that they could fill a book long before my advice on positive leadership ever will. The reason I wanted to write about leadership is that I think many people would be able to say the same. Chances are, you’ve had a shit boss. If you haven’t - you either haven’t worked at one place long enough to realise, or you’re the luckiest person I’ve ever heard of. In the military, I was lucky enough to be exposed to an almost infinite display of terrible leadership qualities. On a daily basis, I was given multiple “what not to do” demonstrations. One of the best leaders I ever had once said something along the lines of, “you have the ability to choose between what you think works, and what you think doesn’t, so when you end up in a leadership position - you do a better job than the people who came before you.” Without awareness of what constitutes positive and negative leadership traits, you will never have the ability to choose. If you have a shit boss, you will only learn how to be a shit boss. Hopefully, articles like this can help you identify effective leadership qualities, become a better follower - and eventually lead more effectively.

Sweating the Small Stuff

One of the main reasons I wanted to write about leadership is because it’s rare to hear from junior leaders. All of our so-called experts in leadership are leaders on a grand scale. The people who write books and hold seminars are national leaders, military commanders, or CEOs. And, whilst I don’t dispute their expertise - how long has it been since these people were in a junior-level leadership position? They’ve had years to make mistakes, hone their skills, or fail. They probably weren’t always good leaders - in fact when they were junior leaders at the beginning of their careers, they probably provided more bad examples than good ones. Now, they’re writing books for other CEOs, Commanding Officers, or National Leaders because that’s what they know best. But, how does this help someone in their very first leadership position, or someone who is towards the bottom of the ladder, dealing with a boss who spends more time with their foot in their mouth, or has an ego complex that affects their ability to make decisions properly?

Leadership starts small, and good future leaders need good examples right from the start. Where are the books for the bar manager at your local pub, or the training program for the newest team leader at a budding small business that has been successful enough to start taking on some new and exciting talent? I doubt what I have to say is the solution, but hopefully - it’s a start.

Who is a Leader?

Good leaders aren’t born that way. I’m sure an argument could be made for upbringing and parenting techniques playing a significant role in the early development of positive or negative leadership traits - but smarter people than myself have probably written doctoral theses on those topics, so I won’t pretend to know what I’m talking about. The bottom line is - you are exposed to examples of leadership from a very young age. These can be good or bad - and will come from your parents, teachers, friends, team-mates, and eventually, bosses at your first job. You may even had examples from your own life in which you’ve had to lead in some capacity. All of these examples will blend together to help you build your own unique approach to leading, and being led. It is extremely important to recognise these examples, and begin sorting them into different piles. 

If you haven’t already, you could replay all the significant memories you have of being told what to do, of being encouraged, being successful, failing, being guided, directed, or ignored - and classify them into two groups. These groups are ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’ - and for the most part, it should be easy to recognise which is which. If you have ever felt successful, heard, proud, accomplished, motivated, passionate, or driven - chances are you were exposed to an effective leadership technique as part of this process. If you ever felt the opposite of any of these things, then I’d be willing to bet my life savings that someone in a leadership position played a part. Effective leadership is not about claiming the outcome success - it is about facilitating (and celebrating) the success and growth of others.

Where are we falling short?

In my opinion, there are three reasons why so many junior leadership examples I’ve come across in my life are more negative than positive. These are:

  • A lack of effective training programs,
  • Poor role models, and
  • Limited interaction with varied leadership types.

When I was in the military, I had to complete an eight-week course called Subject One for Corporal in order to get promoted. For a while, this course was literally known as JLC - Junior Leadership Course. Time on this course was spent learning everything a soldier might need to know to be successful as a Lance-Corporal in the Australian Army. It was one of the worst experiences I’d had up until that point in my career. Why? Well, despite the course itself having many merits, Subject One for Corporal is run by a group of people known as WONCO Wing. By all appearances, it was impressive. It wasn’t designed to be an attendance course, and by design - if you weren’t ready for military leadership, you shouldn’t pass the many gates the course had along the way. The problem, however, was two-fold. 

Firstly - like any training establishment in the military, it had yearly quota expectations - it was required by higher command to produce a certain amount of “march-outs”. Therefore, people who should not be in leadership positions, who clearly weren’t ready due to failing multiple aspects of the course, were pushed through in any way possible. This wasn’t just a problem at WONCO Wing - as an instructor at the School of Infantry, I was told by a commanding officer that I was required to sign off students regardless of whether I believed they were ready to go to the unit and potentially go off to war holding the lives of their mates in their hands - purely because the School had quotas to meet by the end of the year. I refused, and the commanding officer decided to sign off on them himself instead (but that’s a story for another time).
Secondly - an instructor posting to WONCO Wing was seen as a ‘dead-end posting’, somewhere people were sent when they were too much of a problem to deal with in the actual unit. This meant that all the senior leaders at the Wing, all the teachers, and basically anyone in any kind of leadership position at this school, was sent there because they couldn’t do their job within the unit. These people were riddled with established bad leadership patterns. Furthermore, these were not the kind of people you want teaching the newest generation of leaders in the Army.

The most positive thing I can say about this experience, as well as leadership in the military as a whole - is that I was exposed to so many different kinds of bad leadership, it was much easier to identify positive leadership. If your list of “what not to do” is pages and pages long, it can be easier to figure out what to do. However, this can be a huge problem in other workplaces. In small businesses or workplaces where teams are fairly compartmentalised, you may only be exposed to a small group of leaders. If you only have a few examples to work with, it can be much harder to narrow down what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, exposure to a wide variety of leadership types is essential in developing effective junior leaders. Building your exposure doesn’t work on waiting for effective leaders to fall into your life - it means actively seeking experiences and individuals from which to learn, and engaging in self-reflective practice to understand the learnings you take of each of them.

Why does it matter?

Whether you like it or not, leadership quality affects everyone. A bad boss can ruin a workplace,  and a bad captain can ruin a team. Over time, poor leadership can turn a very successful company into a dead-end job that has a core group of defensive, bitter employees, high turnover, and unpredictable levels of success and failure. Even if you have no aspirations to ever lead anyone in any context, by default this will place you in the category of being led at some stage. If you don’t build your skills in recognising poor leadership traits, or encourage positive ones - it will affect you negatively. If you spend a third of your weekdays at your job, the impact this time has on your psychological wellbeing is potentially huge. If you hate your boss, or you spend all that time miserable due to poor leadership choices - it will bleed into your personal life. Take it from someone who spent six years in the military trying to change leadership at every level, and spending more time miserable than happy. With education and awareness, it can be different.

Conclusion

In my experience, there are a disproportionate amount of bad leaders. This will never change unless the quality of junior leadership is acknowledged, as leadership habits are learned very early on and are developed, for better or worse, over the course of an entire career or working life. By the time someone reaches a management or executive level position, many of their habits are too ingrained to change, if they ever make it there in the first place. You will spend a significant portion of your life working, and unless you work for yourself - you will be exposed to other leaders. If you work for yourself and you are successful, you will end up in a leadership position at some stage. Next time you go to work - pay attention to how leaders in your environment act, or react, in every situation. Recognise whether their strategies encourage you to feel heard, motivated, or successful - or whether they don’t. Knowing the difference between effective and ineffective leadership has the potential to change your work life from something you dread to something to which you look forward if you can find a way to create an environment that fosters positive leadership around you. Remember, you probably can’t change your boss, but you can change yourself.


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