Military Leadership as a Shared Enterprise

Military Leadership as a Shared Enterprise

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

From a vantage point of almost two decades as an army dependent, almost three decades on the Army’s rolls as a serving soldier, then additional decades observing through colleagues and family the effects of leadership effectiveness as a shared enterprise, observation on this aspect of leadership is appropriate. Specifically observations are appropriate on the dynamics of effective or not so effective leadership by those in military leadership roles being deeply affected by the leader’s domestic standing relationships.  If with a spouse, for example, the relationship may take the form, if the relationship proves successful in its outcomes, of an important shared leadership enterprise over very long periods of time.

This observation may appear to have the quality of a “blinding flash of the obvious” but on deeper reflection there are yes, obvious aspects but also many nuances that deserve some examination.  As well, while the more obvious aspects of such enterprise sharing, say by spouses who not only engage in the military leadership enterprise and noting that any long service soldier will rise to non-commissioned officer (NCO) or commissioned officer status and will be assigned to positions as the leader of small to very large military teams, there is another aspect.  Those for example in a husband and wife mode who also choose to have children and raise them in the military community and engage that community on many levels may be expected to be affected by and have an impact on the community.  Some of these interfaces are not necessarily seen as directly connected to the leadership role of the uniformed spouse.  But they will effect more likely than not and have impact on aspects of the soldier’s and the soldier’s spouse’s leadership contribution to the unit of assignment and the military community.

Some of the latter contribution will be in form of volunteer initiatives with the military community.  Serving as youth and scout coaches and volunteers, chapel religious instructors, thrift shop volunteers, mentoring and support network volunteers are just a few of the examples.  Increasingly in current times spouses seek employment in the community as teachers, clerical staff, retail cashiers and medical professionals.  Current and emerging technologies have allowed an expansion of professional employment by spouses and partners.   All may or may not represent practical contributory leadership to the communities a service leader may reside in from assignment to assignment.

While I observed many successful combinations that reinforced the military leadership effectiveness of the military member of the military husband and wife teams, I did note dysfunctions that made the military member less effective.  Marriages experiencing issues tended to have a negative bleed over effect on the military spouse’s leadership effectiveness in a unit.

It must be noted that all couples from time to time experienced stresses on their domestic relationship and the military member of the spouse team learned how to function as a leader militarily in spite of the situations that would occur in the domestic environment.  But some became so compromised in their situation that it did negatively affect the leadership they provided in the unit.  This was especially the case when a divorce situation occurred.

During my earlier experiences with the “shared enterprise” aspect of such pairings in the 1950s-60s, most spouses were women (there were some exceptions in the Women’s Army Corps and the Army Nurse Corps where there were senior non-commissioned and commissioned officer leaders who were on the establishment and had spouses that were civilians).  As well, though there were spouses of then male line officers and NCOs who had professions or been professionally employed, typically teachers, nurses, academics and some from the financial industry, most were not in a professional situation at the time I observed them.  As such they tended to operate as distaff to the organizations the husbands were assigned to leading and managing a range of support functions for the unit’s families, the community and even in some cases the units.  Examples were the military chapel communities and officer’s and NCO’s wives clubs,

These distaff organizations and institutions had in some cases extended precedents back to the earliest formation of the Army.  Typically, there was some form of unit support group that when the unit deployed provided a network of support and activity for the families left at the garrisons.  Additionally, there were other above unit support organizations referred to earlier that functioned at community level such as thrift shops, chapel programs, library programs, even educational programs that engaged the distaff member of the military leadership enterprise team of uniformed spouse and non-uniformed spouse.

For the most part my observation of these distaff members of the teams was that they were typically fairly effective and contributed positively to the leadership climate in the units.  When in good form and functional, the military member of the team was more effective in their leadership role and other leaders on the military side had a fair amount of confidence that the distaff support establishment would support their families while deployed.  The distaff leadership when well led provided critical leadership to the unit’s distaff team.

However, as in all things human, there were examples of this arrangement not working well.  If a distaff member of a team became overly aggressive in applying leadership and influence beyond the scope of what was acceptable culturally or otherwise, dysfunction and other ills could develop that affected for example the morale and attitudes of spouses of the unit uniformed leader team with resulting negative bleed over effects.

The “Mrs. Colonel” syndrome where the commander’s wife assumed prerogatives well beyond what was appropriate being an example to the point of intruding on junior officers or NCOs and “ordering” them to perform tasks that bordered on personal servitude.  Fortunately, such behavior in my experience was rare and most spouses in such roles operated as effective reinforcing leaders within their appropriate sphere.

By the mid-1970s through the 1980s as women entered the professional and larger civilian workforce, the military academies and Reserve Officer Training Corps at the universities, and line and staff positions in the Army branches and formations, new forms of the “shared enterprise” began to emerge.  More and more couples emerged where the female or male spouse was a professional and retained professional employment.  More and more married couples formed where both were uniformed officers or NCOs.

Initially the forms of non-service member spousal engagement that had existed struggled with the change in what was becoming a culture shift.  Aspects of the older form persisted but the new forms became an increasing reality as well.   In some cases the military or professional spouse adapted effectively, engaging the joint leadership challenges of the changing environment that could be supported around their own professional situations.  Some did not or could make the adjustment.  The latter result could be a reflection of their own unit’s need for not only direct mission leadership but the forms of supporting leader activity necessary in any effective military unit.

The dynamic of this process of change in how a “shared enterprise” between for example two spouses in a military environment plays out is still developing and evolving.  Most recently in the U.S. services experience the emergence of same sex couples in this traditional area underscores the evolving dynamic.

Regardless of the changes in progress, my general observation is that those couples who find themselves in the “shared enterprise” environment have a rare opportunity to make a difference by being a reinforcing leadership team.  This is especially true in the military organizational context.  Different than most civil  organizations outside police and fire fighting type establishments, a military unit when in garrison or deployed benefits from effective forms of spousal/distaff leadership.

Where the opportunity presents for both members of a “shared enterprise” leader team to operate and reinforce each other when one has a significant role as a leader in a military unit, this will usually produce worthwhile or better effects in the organization.  In some cases this is not possible directly within the organization due to the other spouse’s engagements organizationally or professionally.  In such cases,   to reinforce each other, military professional leaders may achieve effectiveness through other methods but their enterprise partner will still play a vital role by providing the leadership engaged partner with as much support as possible.  Emotional support cannot be underrated in the high stress environment of command.

Note: the “shared enterprise leader team” in the photo experienced the range of changes indicated.   When the uniformed member was a battalion executive officer and acting battalion commander, his spouse was assigned as the only civilian executive officer of a medical detachment in Germany at the time. She was the executive officer of the medical detachment that operated a troop clinic in a garrison that supported two brigades and the families of both brigades.  It was the largest U. S. Army troop clinic of its type then operating in Germany. 

Despite demanding duties she balanced the distaff role in the battalion with the troop clinic duties.  At the time, the medical detachment commander was not married which made the situation even more challenging. But the “shared enterprise team” worked well despite the challenges.

 In later years, aspects of the preceding discussion were experienced in other organizational environments the leadership enterprise team engaged with. The spouse who had been the executive officer of the medical detachment assumed subsequent roles as the chief operating officer of two private sector companies and as the chief executive officer of two other companies in the medical industry while the spouse remained in civilian public sector leadership roles.  The team continued to operate effectively in these developing environments demonstrating that the experience of the military service translated to the civil sector.