In a previous post, I’ve already been looking at the way General Philip Breedlove engages with interview questions. To me, he was able to make me see what he sees. While sharing what he sees it never felt as if I had to agree. It always seemed that it was my choice. To an extent that I, for example, became curious about an opinion piece mentioned where he disagreed with the premises. Reading it brought me additional learning and allowed me to see why Breedlove disagreed.
That experience made me think about his leadership style and how it appears in that interview. As described in the Light the Path manifesto leadership has changed and their tools today are “empathy, honesty, and trust.” Rereading the interview, I perceive him as aligned with that description. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Being asked about his reaction to the images of atrocities committed against civilians, Breedlove is honest when he describes that he is not surprised and that he expects that more will come out. He doesn’t say that he expected this to happen, but we can understand that he knew that they were within the possibilities he foresaw. He shows his experience without boasting.
I don’t see him blaming anyone in the interview. In the given context, I find it almost spectacular. What he does very clearly, is to look at responsibilities describing what can be done. For him this is to hold all those responsible under whose direct tactical authority atrocities happened. He leaves the judgment to those institutions who can act on it and have the authority to judge. But he doesn’t want to let events he describes as horrid go without a proper reaction.
This is even true with Vladimir Putin, he doesn’t blame him as an individual, but he wants to hold him accountable within the framework of laws, that is the rules that define the way war should be conducted. He says: “We need to go after Mr. Putin for the overall conduct of this war to this point.” In this, he is clear about what has to be questioned: the way Putin acts on a given task that is within his authority. He doesn’t allow himself to be the judge of something tribunals, that is the proper institutions, have to decide upon. He stays within the reality of the situation. It still is clear that Breedlove didn’t want the war to happen, disapproves of it, and yet acknowledges that it is there.
In his way to explain things, there is empathy. When Breedlove talks about people, he treats them as human beings acting within a set of well-defined rules, he doesn’t judge or blame them. It’s not who they are he is discussing it is what they have done. For teams to trust their leaders this is important. They want to trust that executing the task they have been assigned is what they are there for. But they also want to be responsible for how they are acting on them, which can include refusing to do something that is against the law. And they never want to be told that they are bad people, that is, not to be trusted.
He also pays attention to mentioning the people. Reacting to the interviewer’s remark “One generally doesn’t try to lose that many tanks on purpose”, he immediately puts things straight by saying “tanks and people.”
He seems to have a very clear view of the role people have, the task they act upon, as well as their authority. And he draws a clear boundary between these and the person who is acting. It leaves space for the person to feel respected and trusted. And it leaves it up to them to know that they will be accountable and will be asked to be accountable.
This is a baseline for trust between a leader and his team.