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The Army Lawyer


Understanding People is The Key to Successful Leadership



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(Courtesy: Army-Navy Library Trust Fund)

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Soldiers are not in the Army, Soldiers are the Army.1
—General Creighton W. Abrams

The late General “Abe” Abrams, a distinguished combat commander and former Army Chief of Staff, could have added: “All successful leaders must not only understand this, but must make this truth the focus of their leadership.”2 But, what does it really mean to say that Soldiers are the Army? And, why should this be the focus of leadership?

General Abrams was saying that successful leadership is about understanding what motivates a Soldier to excel in peace and war—and a common denominator shared by all successful leaders in history is knowing your Soldiers and understanding the factors that motivate them.

Motivation is a term that can mean many things to many people; to some, it is a function of positive reinforcement, and is achieved through praise, rewards, or the prestige that comes with increased responsibility. To others, the fear of punishment or other forms of negative reinforcement will motivate a Soldier to do his best. History—and our own personal experience—offers countless examples of both approaches to motivating Soldiers and of the success or failure that resulted from each.

As psychologist Abraham H. Maslow argued in the 1940s, human beings have five basic needs: the need for self-actualization, ego needs, social needs, safety needs, and physiological needs.3

  • 1. Self-actualization—the desire to achieve the full potential of one’s energies and talents—includes personal development and growth, creativity, and self-realization.
  • 2. Ego needs include self-esteem and the esteem of others; the former includes a Soldier’s perception of their own competence and adequacy, while the latter relates to a Soldier’s status within the Army, and the extent to which a Soldier is respected.
  • 3. Social needs relate to acceptance and include such intangibles as love, friendship, and a sense of belonging to a team.
  • 4. Those categorized as safety needs include not only safety from violence or injury, but also financial security.
  • 5. Physiological needs address such issues as food, water, sleep, and even sexual fulfillment.4

The Army makes it fairly easy to meet at least some of a Soldier’s social, safety, and physiological needs, since Soldiers are members of a team, receive regular paychecks and recognition, and are generally well-sheltered, get enough sleep, and eat well. Leaders then must address the needs of self-actualization and esteem as the dominant motivators of men and women in uniform. But, how do we do that?

Motivating Soldiers

First of all, expect the best of your Soldiers at all times. Setting high standards provides the direction that any unit needs, and it gives Soldiers the opportunity to meet or exceed those standards. Make sure that the men and women of your unit understand that their best effort is what you want, but you must set clear goals against which that effort may be measured.

Second, almost all Soldiers thrive on responsibility; give it to them and watch the results. The knowledge that you expect their best, coupled with the responsibility to do the job their way, will encourage initiative, creativity, and personal growth. As General George S. Patton put it: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”5 Allowing Soldiers to use their own abilities and talents in this way will enable them to realize their potential and allow them to enjoy the self-esteem, respect of others, and even the positive recognition—in the form of promotion and awards—that come from a job well done.

The third principle is that a leader must take a personal interest in the welfare and safety of every Soldier, both on and off duty. A Soldier who is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve will respond with loyalty to the unit and its commander. Further, being proficient in your job will earn you the trust of the members of your unit; this is one of the most powerful motivating factors, because it means that Soldiers in your care are likely to subordinate their own needs and desires to those of the organization. Once they have become team players, the goals of the team become the priority, and that is what mission accomplishment is all about.

Trust is the fourth and final aspect of human nature that must be understood by those who would be better leaders. The mission of every commander and leader is to get the job done, but because you cannot do the job by yourself, you have to get others to do it. But, to get others to work together to achieve a goal—to get Soldiers to accomplish a mission—you must have their trust and confidence. In other words, men and women must have the trust and confidence in a leader before they will give up their individual needs and desires for the greater good of the team or mission.

How Is this Achieved?

First, a leader must be competent and capable. Assuming, however, that a leader knows their job, what else brings about this crucial trust?

More than anything, this trust and confidence must flow naturally from liking people. Why liking? Because men and woman all know instinctively if someone likes them or not. They know a leader likes them and respects them for who and what they are—and expresses it by taking an interest in their individual careers, problems, health, and welfare—then they react positively to that leader.

Or, in the words of James M. Burt, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient: “Soldiers trust a leader who likes them.”6 Trust is that factor that inspires in a Soldier’s heart a desire to do something, even if that thing is not in their best interest. This is why it is said that one must lead by example. Followers must know that you will make decisions and do things even if they are not in your best interest. You cannot ask a Soldier to suffer pain, or physical discomfort, or make a sacrifice, if you would not do the same yourself. Those being led who see a leader take actions that do not personally benefit them trust that leader. Soldiers must know who their leader is—they must be flesh and blood to them; their presence must be seen and felt.

Four Leadership Commandments

In sum, a successful leader must follow these four commandments:

  • Set and enforce high standards, but ensure that those you lead know that their best efforts are the key to success.
  • Give Soldiers responsibility; they thrive on it.
  • Treat everyone with the same dignity and respect that you expect others to exercise when dealing with you.
  • Gain your Soldiers respect and confidence by being proficient in your job and showing by your actions that you are concerned for their welfare.

Two Final Points

Some writers argue that young Soldiers in the Millennial and other later generations require generous praise of their successes, but I reject the idea that any desire for praise is unique to a particular generation.7 On the contrary, it is simply human nature for men and women to want gratitude and appreciation for a job well-done. Finally, in the end, understanding human nature means recognizing that fundamental truth about people and what they require. While Maslow insisted that every human being has five basic needs, when it comes to leading people, I’m inclined to agree with psychotherapist Michael Ascuncion’s remarks in a recent New Yorker magazine article.8 “There are three needs that all people have,” says Ascuncion.9 “They want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.”10

All those who would be leaders in our Army today—or leaders in business, industry, or government, for that matter—must understand human nature. This is the key to successful leadership. Understanding people is critical to inspiring in an individual’s heart a desire to do what must be done—from the smallest task to the most important mission. TAL


Mr. Borch is the Regimental Historian, Archivist, and Professor of Legal History and Leadership.


1. Lewis Sorley: Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times 188 (1992). Creighton W. Abrams was one of America’s great Soldiers. During World War II, General George S. Patton reportedly said: “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer—Abe Abrams. He’s the world’s champion.” Id. at 95-96. General Abrams was serving as Army Chief of Staff when he died of cancer in 1974. Id. at 375. He was 59 years old and had served as a general officer for eighteen of his thirty-eight years in the Army. Id. General Abrams’s sons continued their father’s tradition of soldiering, including General Robert B. Abrams (currently the Commanding General, UNC/CFC/USFK), General (retired) John N. Abrams (former TRADOC commander, now deceased), and Brigadier General (retired) Creighton W. Abrams III (currently the Executive Director, Army Historical Foundation).

2. Id.

3. Saul McLeod, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Simply Psychology (May 21, 2018), https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. American psychologist Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970) first developed the theory that all human beings have five basic needs. He argued that these needs must be satisfied if an individual was to achieve “self-actualization.” Id.

4. Id.

5. James Kelly Morningstar, Patton’s Way 14-15 (2017).

6. Interview with Lieutenant Colonel James M. Burt (Mar. 1994).

7. See e.g., Martha M. Newman, Decoding Millennial Lawyers, 82 Texas Bar J. 639 (2019); Susan Smith Blakely, Mind the Gap, ABA J., Sept.-Oct. 2019, at 22.

8. Michael Schulman, The Force is With Them, New Yorker 31 (Sept. 16, 2019).

9. Id.

10. Id.