Leader/Follower Dynamics Throughout the Military

Like organizational culture, leader/follower relations seem to differ significantly depending on what branch/unit of the military you look at. It is somewhat difficult to separate the discussion of leader/follower relations with that of organizational culture when discussing the military, as the two are largely inseparable in such a highly-structured hierarchical environment. Since so much of military life revolves around leader/follower relationships and interactions, a large part of a unit’s culture, how it defines and differentiates itself, comes down to how these relationships are treated.

Unsurprisingly, in “Big Navy” and “Big Army”, leader/follower relationships are much more formalized. There are standard rules governing interactions between individuals of differing ranks, and these rules are generally adhered to strictly. In a vast, complex, and somewhat bureaucratic environment like Big Navy, it is important to have standardization of authority in order to maintain operational efficiency. Every step of the hierarchy is clear, so that one always knows who they report to, who reports to them, and what they should be doing. One important aspect of the hierarchy is that it is broken down into clear units, rather than being entirely rank-based. This is helpful for organization, as it limits the number of people a given soldier or sailor has to report to. Each unit has a chain of command and only reports to those within that chain. Thus, for example, a lieutenant can’t just order a private from a different unit to do something. The private still has to treat that lieutenant with the appropriate respect given his rank, but he only follows orders from within his chain of command. 

As is the case with other aspects of organizational culture, leader/follower relations can be significantly different in units that are isolated from Big Navy, such as submariners and special operations forces. As I briefly mentioned in my discussion of culture, on submarines, rank holds less importance and experience more. The captain of the submarine is the absolute unquestioned leader, being both the highest-ranking and usually most experienced individual on board. In such an isolated high-stakes environment, whatever the Captain says is essentially law. Below the captain, experience is most important. An enlisted man with years of submarine experience sits higher in the social/leadership hierarchy than an officer on their first submarine deployment. 

Highly specialized and professional communities like EOD tend to be more egalitarian. Of course, there are still officers and differences of rank. But everyone involved is so highly motivated and professional that there is strong mutual respect, and rarely the need for any overt assertions of authority. There is still a leadership hierarchy, but it is held together largely by professionalism and mutual respect, and thus does not require all the formalities necessary for leadership in Big Navy.

There is one aspect of leader/follower dynamics that is fairly unique to the military. As several of my interviewees touched on, many of the lower-level leaders in the military are “kids”, people around my own age who go from college almost directly to an important leadership position. This might be a recipe for disaster, but these young leaders are paired up with a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) who has been in the military for many years. This is a fairly unique dynamic to the military, whereby the leader is young and inexperienced but is coached by an older and more experienced subordinate. In most workplaces, a young employee would likely seek mentorship from someone in a higher position. Yet in the military, a young officer is assigned mentorship from someone in a lower position. This can still be problematic if the young officer is cocky and over-confident and doesn’t respect or listen to their NCO (such officers are unlikely to make it far in the US military). However, when this arrangement works, it works very well. A young officer is forced into making their own decisions right away, rather than just following those above them. But they also get advice from someone with experience to help them make better decisions, and they learn from the very beginning of their career the crucial importance of working with NCOs.

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