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Military Leaders Do What Makes Them Look Good

An English professor at the Naval Academy says we’re producing leaders who act to look good, not in the best interests of the country.

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Flag in calm, symbol of Americans

This is an excerpt from Bruce Fleming’s new book, Saving Our Service Academies (Post Hill Press).

“Leaders to Serve the Nation,” say banners placed all over the Yard of the US Naval Academy, where I have been an English professor since 1987, and that pop up on the Web. This implies perhaps that all graduates are leaders? That leaders cannot be got elsewhere? That only Naval Academy graduates serve the nation? That all of them do? We present ourselves as a leadership institution—though, of course, West Point claims the same. Its website says, “The Preeminent Leadership Development Institution.” I guess “leadership” is what you learn at a military institution.

And everywhere else, it seems. It’s all colleges, as well as most high schools, elementary schools, after-school programs, and even summer camps. Every state university has, and most private ones have a “leadership” program, and some give degrees in it. Google “university leadership”—your eyes will blur if you look at them all. With all these leaders, who will follow?

I have seen many superintendent admirals come and go at Annapolis over more than 30 years. Almost every one was more clueless about where he was than the last, at an educational institution that was strange to them and not on board a ship under deployment (always a “he,” by the way, until 2023). So what would they do if inserted into a world as strange as, say, Afghanistan? I think we saw. But almost to a man they have puffed out their chest, spoken loudly, and exhibited what they call “leadership,” which largely seems to consist of doing what makes them look good.

According to the reports of former students, it’s also the way of the broader military, where your commanding officer can decide that s/he doesn’t like you for whatever reason, or that his or her job is in jeopardy if s/he doesn’t show him/herself pitiless on anything that is in the public gaze. The saying goes that military justice is to justice as military music is to music. That’s not a flattering comparison. I’ve talked to countless young officers, my former students, who were accused of something (today’s hot-button topic is actions with alleged sexual connotations) and even if found not guilty, were hounded and harassed until they left, their superiors unwilling to be seen as soft. No wonder people quickly realize that what makes life in the military tolerable is a happy superior officer, something to be bought at all costs. If s/he isn’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, and you’re the one who suffers. By contrast, if the entire mission fails, say because you didn’t tell them what they didn’t want to hear, the blame is diluted, and you personally are spared.


The push was on until 2023 by a number of US senators to take the adjudication of any cases with an element of alleged sexual misconduct out of the hands of officers. The military understandably resisted this, as it destroys the almost completely personal nature of military “justice,” which is its most fundamental principle. The fear on the part of politicians is apparently that the “good old boy” network is letting scofflaws off that a civilian tribunal would find guilty. In fact, the opposite is more often the rule. Commanding officers (and keep in mind that people change places continually in the military, so many of these “rotate in” after the fact and have no knowledge of the specific cases they are asked to deal with) are unwilling, especially as new arrivals, to seem at all approving of those who have even been accused (even if found innocent) of any of the marquee offenses of our day. These newly arrived commanding officers, rather like the eternally new superintendents at the US Naval Academy, will almost always protect their own careers by throwing these young—and frequently innocent—officers to the sharks. The mere accusation was enough for someone in charge to refuse to forward the junior officers’ promotion papers. The young officer is not merely guilty until proven innocent, he (as it most likely is) is guilty although found innocent.

In 2023 this became a done deal. I think it highly likely that because politicians have succeeded in prying adjudication of alleged sexual-related misconduct from the military, it will be to the benefit of officers, not the contrary. Yet the personalized “I don’t like this person because s/he makes me look bad” way of dispensing “justice” in the military is deeply engrained in the system.

The military is intrinsically prone to say, “Yes, sir/Yes, ma’am” and acquiesce to what the superior officer wants. But officers and enlisted alike can be taught and encouraged to question, to reason, to keep their eyes open, and not to ignore evidence they’d rather not see. And from the other direction, down the chain of command, they can be taught not to punish subordinates who say things they don’t want to hear, or that suggest that their own efforts are not producing the results they want them to. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, the military wanted to hear and to believe that things were getting better, and that we were winning. News that suggested otherwise from below—say from seasoned enlisted who had lived the battle—wouldn’t have had much chance at making it past the multiple layers of buffer officers, all of whom wanted to tell their immediate superiors what these wanted to hear, leading back to the top.

This is part of a discussion I have with the midshipmen about “leadership,” a word the students hear incessantly. USNA claims to teach “leadership.’ Can it do so? Does it? The consensus and summary of these discussions over decades is this: leadership, when abstracted from a particular subject matter, is a set of facts about real people who enter a room, not a body of knowledge. It’s what you’d expect would be required of a person who needs to earn the respect of the people he or she is trying to encourage what he or she needs to happen. Namely: competence, confidence, interpersonal skills, positive demeanor, boundless energy, and the ability to focus, prioritize, and keep going no matter what. It’s a combination of many factors: body posture, facial gestures, use of language, ease with self and subject matter, and that most intangible of intangibles, does the person seem to like those who will be led? If the leader doesn’t like the led, why should the led like the leader? Is “led” even the right word, rather than, say, inspired?

Thus, many things follow that are nowadays frowned upon as subjects for judgment, starting with body (in shape? standing up straight) appearance (attention to uniform), and also whether or not they make you nervous and irritable, or happy, to be around. A jittery or apologetic or nervous person cannot lead a fly. These are joined to what the person says and how it is said. The result is like going to a play: everything contributes to whether the experience is a success for the viewer or not. A good leader, midshipmen tell me, has to be comfortable in his or her skin, not looking for insults, and ready to praise others while showing s/he can do those things too. Leaders have skills that turn out to be identical to the skills of good social interaction, except that they’re the one in front—which means you know they are looking at you and waiting for you to inspire them. Can these ways of interacting with others be taught if they’re not evident to you already? In a classroom? At any institution over any other? I don’t think so, and the insistence of the service academies that they produce “leaders” shows how functionless they have become and how hungry for justification.


In fact, there are a number of factors that work against successful leadership in the military. One such factor is that many people go into the military in order to have their rank elicit the show of respect they would not otherwise get in real life. They aren’t leaders; they are people handed power that they abuse. Abuse of power is an endemic problem in the military, because of the way the power is structured as a series of pyramids, each of which ends in the choke point of one individual, who is part of a pyramid above, and so on.

The military is a series of bottlenecks. A lot of individuals try to please one individual, who is one of many individuals trying to please another individual further up the chain of command, and so on. And the very top has to deal with politicians. It has everything to do with individual personalities and prejudices and very little to do with rationality. It isn’t about thinking; it’s about following orders. If you are the top of your pyramid, you are an individual within that pyramid. But not for the next pyramid up. You have to please the man or woman in charge of you, who has to please the one in charge of him/her, and so on. Subordinates give options to a superior, who decides. There is little discussion, no attempt to forge a consensus, no putting things up for a vote, and no decision by committee.

This structure of individual whim at increasing levels is largely what passes for “leadership” in the military. I’ve got the stripes, and I say what’s what. The military is the happy hunting ground of personal desire passing for rational decision making, or supplanting it entirely. It’s a fundamental weakness of the military that personal whim is massaged into a smug sense of personal “leadership” on the part of so many officers, and almost to a (wo)man, the brass. Most feel offended when their desires are thwarted, or their dictates even questioned. That’s why things go wrong so often in the military. And they don’t seem prepared to justify what they do with rationality; at least, I’ve never gotten them to justify what they do or why they do it at Annapolis. And talking with graduates convinces me that things are the same in the fleet.

The military needs more rationality and less “leadership.” It would be stronger with more thinking, more collective brainstorming, more encouragement of divergent views, and more justification by rationality—outside, of course, of battle situations, where you just have to act.

But there is plenty of time for discussion in the military, and it shouldn’t be seen as threatening to the officer in charge, but rather welcomed. We need to get people to be able to say: “I have looked at the available evidence, and this is the best course of action because X, Y, and Z.” Not just: “Because I have the rank and I say so.” We civilians need the military to be less about working individual will and more about justifying courses of action.


The benefits of teaching officers-to-be to think independently can be huge. And the price of not doing it can be even higher. You want thinking officers who can question what they are told—especially since those doing the telling are typically not on the field and hence unable to see what the situation is. The joke about admirals is that when people attain that rank, they will never eat a bad meal again, or hear the truth: they are pampered and told what they want to hear. And then they give the orders that subordinates must carry out and follow, and which may lead to death.

I can’t change this system of successive bottlenecks based around personalities that defines the military. What I can do is help the future officers I teach see that they can’t just come in and stomp around to express “leadership”: they have to gather information, find out what the real situation is and what their people are really thinking, and be able to explain their decision, which they need to be able to justify, not merely say it’s them exhibiting “leadership.” Synthesize data, reach a position, be able to justify it, and respond to dissent as a way to show why you got to where you got. And be willing to change your mind if the data suggests you should.

See this earlier excerpt – Ed.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

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Bruce Fleming has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987.


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