LMX Dynamics within Military Units

The strict hierarchical structure of the Military should in theory eliminate the need for strong Leader-Member relationships. A commander can rely exclusively on his rank and authority to enforce his will on subordinates. Despite this, the officers I interviewed put significant emphasis on the importance of building and maintaining good relationships with their subordinates. Thus, while it would seem like military leaders do not need to focus on LMX dynamics, they can benefit significantly by doing so. While a military leader has the power to order their subordinates to do a task, there’s no way to force them to give it their best effort. The only sustainable way to achieve this is by building a strong LMX.

Perhaps the most important component of the LMX dynamic in a military setting is that of the follower characteristics. As several of my interviewees mentioned, most of the “followers” an officer will be leading are young men, fresh out of high school. They tend to be somewhat emotionally immature and unprepared for life away from home. These young followers may also be lacking in competence and proactivity, traits that are often associated with better LMX dynamics. This may seem like a difficult group of followers with which to create a strong LMX dynamic, but I believe they actually present a great opportunity.

What these young men and women need most are support and guidance. If their leader can give them these things, make them feel safe and at home in their new environment, they are likely to respond by giving the leader loyalty and hard work. They may not be competent, but a leader can teach them to be, in the process improving their relationship. They may not initially be proactive, but a good relationship with their leader is likely to encourage them to work harder and be more proactive in helping out their leader. 

Cdr. Cook described to me his experience of building such relationships with young sailors. He served as a father figure of sorts, making sure his young sailors had the support they needed to do their jobs to the best of their ability. He worked with his sailors to help them resolve personal and financial issues. This had the dual benefit of not only solving these personal problems that were impairing the sailors’ work but also creating strong positive relationships with his subordinates. Cdr. Cook’s sailors knew he had their back and would go to work for them if they needed it, so they made sure they had his back and they put in whatever work was necessary to help him. He built an LMX with his sailors based on mutual support, turning a military unit into a sort of family.