April 28, 2015 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Armed Forces

Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership

After centuries of attempting to decipher leadership like decoding a strand of DNA, it’s time to admit all that time might just have been wasted. Reading retired Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch’s Adapt or Die makes a case for getting back to learning to lead the old-fashioned way: by studying people who lead.

In the Western world, from the time of Thucydides until the age of Voltaire, the essence of learning leadership was studying leaders, individuals of both virtue and substance. Today, that seems hopelessly antiquated. After three centuries of trying to deconstruct the secret sauce of successful leading, regarding the leaders themselves as subjects of study (rather than as archetypes or case studies) seems much less important than delivering a winning formula for coming out on top.

It all started with the Enlightenment. What we did and who did it counted less than how it got done. Process and structure mattered most. As time went on, however, teaching leadership moved further and further away from its pre-Enlightenment roots—the study of great leaders. The more modern neuroscience uncovers about unlocking the cognitive secrets of the brain, the more humble it suggests we should be in believing we understand how the brain works. The same science that inspired the Enlightenment suggests maybe all we’ve learned about leadership over the last couple centuries isn’t of much use.

Some complex systems are so complex that perhaps it’s best to deal with the totality of the system rather than try to manipulate or tame it. Perhaps, after three centuries of trial and error, that is the approach we ought to take on teaching how to get things done. We ought to go back to studying leaders, not leadership. That’s the insight I take away from this book. It is more a study of what made Lynch a great leader than it is a textbook for how to lead. As a result, it is probably a lot more valuable as a genuine guide to the art of leadership.

After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Lynch commanded at every level from captain to three-star general. He spent 30 months fighting in Iraq, half of that during the height of the surge. He ran Fort Hood, Texas, the biggest active duty post in the country. Lynch capped his career overseeing all the installations in the U.S. Army. His book is an explanation of how all that happened.

The first half of the book is the most intensely autobiographical, with Lynch extracting the life lessons he absorbed at different phases of his career. A tour in Kosovo, for example, served as his Ph.D. in learning to lead in a complex environment with contrasting cultures, disparate languages and conflicting agendas. This training served him well in the cauldron of combat in Iraq, where he fought an enemy and fought for hearts and minds at the same time. Other chapters focus on valuable experiences like learning from a mentor and adapting to the realities of a digital battlefield.

In the second half of the book, Lynch tries to organize his approach to leadership into categories that are accessible to emergent leaders whether they are in uniform, corporate America or the nonprofit world. Solid, engaging and laced with a strong dose of common sense, it is a worthy leadership primer for any audience.

Lynch’s acknowledgment of the central role faith played in shaping his leadership style is particularly intriguing and gratifying and, frankly, not surprising. Science during the Enlightenment relegated religion to a secondary role in what makes great leaders great. Modern science has also been rethinking that. While the academic debate over whether prayer and belief can actually make things better during tough times is ultimately inconclusive, some researchers acknowledge that religion provides a framework for understanding and coping with physical difficulties as well as difficult moral decisions.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, founding co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center, succinctly summed it up: “The benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they’re more optimistic.” These are all good attributes for great leaders.

The lesson of Adapt or Die is not to copy Lynch’s leadership style. It is to take the practice of leadership seriously. Assess your skills, knowledge and attributes when you are young. Build on your strengths. Compensate for your weaknesses. Become the leader you can be and, more importantly, the leader your soldiers need.

  - Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, USA Ret., Ph.D., served in Europe, Korea and the U.S. Before retiring, he was the executive editor of Joint Forces Quarterly, DoD’s professional military journal. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Carafano holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University as well as a master’s in strategy from the U.S. Army War College.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

From ARMY Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 5, May 2015. Copyright 2015 by the Association of the U.S. Army and reprinted by permission of ARMY Magazine.