Brendan Bourdage: Leadership in Combat and on the Pitch

Discussing leadership is always a very personal thing for me. Having lived through situations in the military where good leadership had serious implications for my survival makes the issue resonate in a very significant way. These experiences have instilled in me a desire to be the best leader possible, and more importantly, to be good at developing and mentoring leaders with the right qualities.

As a company-level Executive Officer, battalion-level staff officer, and two-star headquarters operations officer in combat zones, my primary goal was always to bring everyone home alive. While I recognize that the stakes are different in the civilian and sport world, the fundamentals of leadership do not change.

Below I have listed a few thoughts that help illustrate the qualities that I think are most important for effective and inspirational leaders. Again, while I recognize that most leadership scenarios are not life and death, the principles do not change. Good leaders are good leaders, regardless of the stakes. A man or woman who inspires loyalty and commitment on the soccer field would be the same kind of leader in combat.

First of all, good leaders are supportive, and realize that guiding subordinates through challenges means empathy, and the fostering of an environment that is NOT “zero-defect”. This is an area in which the military really struggles (though not as much as when I was commissioned in 2000), by not accepting any kind of failure, major or minor. Many leaders create a culture where fear of reprisal is the strongest motivation, and any criticism of leadership is anathema. You will get more from those you lead by showing them that mistakes are OK, as long as you are honest about the reasons for those mistakes, and learn from them.

Secondly, we often we see leaders as the “lone-wolf genius”, apart from the rank and file of their company or organization. The aloofness and detachment that this implies is detrimental to those that would be great leaders.  As John Maeda says, “True creative leaders recognize that they live and die by their team”.

Feeling like part of the team was crucial for me. Nothing motivated me more as a junior Captain in the Army than being in a meeting with a room full of high-ranking officers, and having my boss give me credit for good work. It takes nothing away from you as a leader, and may gain you a tremendous amount.

Along those lines, one of the most interesting and relevant discussions of leadership I’ve ever read is linked here, written by the late David Foster Wallace. The part that makes the most sense to me is when he says that “a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy [or girl]…a real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own”.

Abraham Lincoln is a great example, and his Team of Rivals. Lincoln understood that as a leader, you never want to be the smartest person in the room, or the one with all the ideas. If you are the smartest person in the room, you need to find a new room. 

This was especially evident to me in the Army when I worked in combined task forces, and spent time in meetings with general officers and other high-ranking officials from all branches. In those meetings, you could quickly assess which officers were more concerned with propping up their own ego than accomplishing the mission. The one who inspired me were constantly asking their subordinates for their opinion, and not afraid to admit that they didn’t know something. Those were the men and women I felt I could trust with my life.

This concept of trusting your team, and not being threatened by those around you, is very interesting when we bring the discussion back to athletics, and professional athletes in particular. Here we find another concept from John Maeda - when you are a young player (or in any profession), you force things into being. You “make” them – I like to think about young LeBron James, Robert Griffin III, and young Wayne Rooney.

When you are young, you make an impact with your physicality, your will, your hunger, and your desire. When you become a leader, it is your role to inspire others into the “making” role, while you are often the coordinator, the inspirer, the motivator, and the mentor.  James and Rooney have evolved into leaders who don’t necessarily have the best stats, but are still winning championships. It remains to be seen if RG III will develop the same way.

What it boils down to is that as a leader, instead of making things/plays, you are making relationships, and a team culture. This is especially true as a coach, where I’ve discovered that because I can’t kick every ball, I have to find other ways to influence my players to be the best versions of themselves possible.

My second thought is about how great leaders inspire. A great team around you is a good start, but your actions are a vital part of the equation. In my experience, one of the most powerful things you can do is show that nothing is beneath you as the leader. Never ask your followers to do something you would not do, or have not done in the past. Understand that you will have to demonstrate this, maybe many times. Be willing to work side-by-side with those you lead, when it will not compromise the mission. Demonstrating your personal “buy-in” will speak volumes to those you lead, and requires nothing but your willingness to put aside your ego.

Throughout my military career, I made a point of sharing the hardships of those I led, and begin sure that I was visibly “leading from the front”. I continuously reminded myself that if I lost the respect of my soldiers, if I did not value their work and sacrifice, and did not care for them as people, I would not be able to galvanize them when our lives were on the line. As a leader, you are not going to get it right every time, but you MUST keep trying to be perfect in this respect.

My mindset during our combat tours was to do everything in my power to bring everyone in my charge home alive. If that meant sacrificing my own safety, then that was my job.

I will finish with a mention of a leadership quality that is more about what you don’t do as a leader. It is often difficult to be a leader who understands where the line is drawn between friendship and authority. This becomes especially important when a young player assumes the captaincy, a player becomes an assistant coach, or an assistant coach with close ties to the players becomes a head coach. If you are to lead effectively in these scenarios, you must recognize that the good of the group comes first, and that leadership often requires making decisions that will strain personal relationships as you endeavor to make everyone better.

In the military, I found the divide even more challenging, as the responsibilities of leadership often mean making decisions that will put others in danger. When I first entered active duty in the Army, I was a 20-year-old platoon leader, and younger than MOST of my platoon. I had less experience than ALL of my platoon, which included non-commissioned officers who had been in the Army for 15-20 years. Learning to give orders to men with significantly more experience than I had was one of the most important lessons I ever learned. The art of being in charge, while still respecting and valuing the experience and wisdom of your subordinates is invaluable.

I hope some of these thoughts, if not perfectly applicable to you situation, will at least provide you with some jumping-off points to think about your leadership qualities, and the qualities of those by whom you have been (or continue to be) inspired.