The Art of Diplomatic Leadership

As leaders encounter entirely new kinds of challenges and responsibilities, they find that they have the strength and resources to meet these challenges. For example, some first-time leaders ultimately learn that they have a gift for leading and inspiring others. Others find that they’re especially talented at gauging others’ motivations and values. Each time you make something happen as a leader—whether it’s shaping your group’s culture in positive ways, helping someone master a new task, or assembling a top-notch team—leaders expand their abilities. They become more seasoned, experienced, and confident leaders, and have a sharper awareness of their own strengths and areas for improvement. Not only do they learn more about themselves as they progress in a leadership role; they also learn more about organizational life in general.

The command and control techniques of previous generations are increasingly ineffective. Today’s leaders must be forward thinking, possess moral courage, and skilled in the art of diplomacy. As a Trustee, I can recall several joint board meetings when the Pastor wasn’t present and it was difficult to keep everyone on task. I experienced similar instances onboard ship when the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer were ashore. The changing structure of organizations, the growth of alliances between organizations, and the changing nature of work itself calls for new approaches to leadership. Paul suggested a new approach in Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith…” By faith, Paul refers to something more than the knowledge of the earthly life of Jesus. He means a commitment of an individual to the way of life Jesus exemplified. This approach has less to do with formal authority and the power to control, and more to do with using situational, strategic, and ethical leadership skills to keep groups of people who may not report to you aligned with an overarching purpose.

The most Important Ingredient: Ethics

Ethical Leadership includes a variety of elements. Beliefs regarding ethics involves taking into account the purpose of the action taken, the consequences to self and others, and the moral standard by which the action is measured. This doesn’t mean ignoring profit and loss, productions costs, and so forth but rather concern for the rational measures of performance coupled with the recognition of the importance of treating people right every day. “Moral leadership is about distinguishing right from wrong and doing right, seeking the just, the honest, the good, and the right conduct in its practice” (Daft, 1999, p. 369).

Whether it involves judgment based on character or legal infractions, ethics has always been a popular topic. When leaders wonder whether their conduct is ethical, they need to ask ‘What would I think if someone else did it?’ Paul believed that the law identifies the flaws in a person’s character but it does not remove them. Paul writes, “…whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Compassion is grounded in a larger understanding of our relationship to God and one another. When we define Christianity as a list of do’s and don’ts, we restrict ourselves from enjoying an intimate relationship with God. We get caught up in rules as if God were waiting to catch us out of line when He’s really waiting to pick us up when we fall. Christ does not make demands on us that limit our self-direction therefore we should not be inclined to judge others in that manner. In his Virtue-Centered Theory of Judging, Lawrence Solum argued “theories of fairness are prior to theories of justice (2003, p. 178). True Christianity sees the role of leadership as based on love and grace.

We have all known people whose character was not consistent with their personality. However, character is of higher importance than personality. Malphurs (2003) maintained “A Christian Leader emphasizes godly character” (p. 19). The organization will hold people accountable for their behavior (character) but not for their personality traits. If the ‘fruit’ of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc) and ‘fruit’ of the flesh (adultery, hatred, envy, etc) are the outcomes, then our character is the means towards that outcome. We must seek to do the right thing.

Character is our commitment to doing the right thing, which is why we should focus on character development. In 1 Timothy 4:7 Paul urges Timothy “…exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” Character and self-discipline are a leader’s moral strength to behave according to proper values. The difficulty arises not in knowing what is right but rather doing what is right. Look for organizations where the leaders have clearly defined, articulate, and exemplify the organizational values. “Leadership is doing the right thing even when we do not feel like it, perhaps especially when we do not feel like it” (Hunter, 2004, p. 145).

There are numerous ways to assist emerging leaders in ethical development. I would start with leading by example. It’s difficult to appreciate the pressures on a leader unless you have had that position. The best way to assist up-and-coming leaders whether they’re your peers or subordinates is to let them see Christ working through you. “The movement away from command and control leadership has brought new leadership styles that are more democratic and coach-like” (Lassiter, 2001). Terms such as shared or servant leadership are increasingly used to describe some of these ways of interacting.

Another way to develop ethical behavior is to develop a personal creed – that which defines who you are, what your goals in life are, and how you intend to live your life. Kouzes and Posner (2002) observed “When you clarify the principles that will govern your life and the ends that you will seek, you give purpose to your daily decisions” (p. 394). An ethical leader has one personality. Whether at home or at work, there is only one set of principles that guides his behavior.

As an Engineering Training Team leader onboard a Guided Missile Frigate, I worked hard to build trust within the team. Everything was smooth until Petty Officer Johnson joined. Several members suggested that he lacked experience and he did not collaborate very well. The group went out for a “team” lunch, and left Johnson behind. I was shocked and disappointed. Johnson was extremely competent and showed passion for his work. I met individually with all team members, including Johnson, to allow them to communicate their concerns. I actively listened to what’s being said. By better understanding the concerns of the group I was able get to the root causes of the problem. One method that helps make teams innovative is to “Make sure that the members of the group are communicating with one another.” (Biolos, 1996, p. 1).

The Most Important Lessons: Situations

“A Christian leader is a servant with the credibility and capabilities to influence people in a particular context to pursue their God-given direction” (Malphurs, 2003, 131). The same person can be a successful leader in one situation but fail in another. It is unlikely that there is a single set of abilities and characteristics that can be found in all leaders. It’s not that the characteristics are not important, but rather, the essential characteristics of the leader vary depending on the circumstances. The requirements to be a successful Naval Officer, for example, would differ from those of a Elementary School Principal or Sales Manager. McGregor (2006) suggested “…that it is more fruitful to consider leadership as a relationship between the leader and the situation than as a universal pattern of characteristics possessed by certain people” (p. 253).

The Situational Leadership Theory developed by Hersey and Blanchard focuses on the characteristics of followers as the important element of the situation, and consequently of determining effective leader behavior. Yukl (2002) observed “Major situational variables include the characteristics of followers, the nature of the work performed by the leader’s unit, the type of organizations, and the nature of the external environment” (p. 13). In other words, subordinates vary in readiness levels therefore leader behavior should be influenced by the factors that influence the entire situation.

Daft (1999) summarized the relationship between leader style and follower readiness into four categories: telling, selling, participatory, and delegating. Telling is very directive, selling involves explaining decisions, participatory is sharing ideas to facilitate decision making, and delegating is a style that affords very little direction and support. (p. 99 – 102). As leaders, our professional identity will transform in relation to the skills and abilities of the group as well as outside influences. This means that we look at the world from a different perspective.

As the Material and Logistics Officer for a Destroyer Squadron my areas of responsibility included two major departments on each of our six ships: Engineering and Supply. At the end of every month I experienced difficulty in getting summary reports from the Engineers but the Supply reports were always right on-time. However, when the ships were underway the Engineering departments functioned admirably while the Supply departments were somewhat shoddy. I had to adjust my style of leadership when dealing with the Department Heads as the situations changed. For the monthly summary reports I used delegation with the Supply Officers but a more directive approach with the Engineers but the reverse during the operational phases. From a naval perspective, the Engineers were very operationally and technically proficient while the Supply Officers were very business oriented.

When we become a manager, we enter the role with our own expectations of what our new job will involve. Often, those expectations differ from the job’s real requirements. In addition, the various people with whom we’ll work—our direct reports, supervisors, and peers—have their own expectations regarding our role—and some of their expectations may conflict with ours. Every situation we encounter will involve different skill sets. Each situation underscores the extent to which problem solving is central to the work of leadership. In the age of teams, leaders don’t solve problems alone. They must operate from a business discipline that will enable a group of workers to frame a problem and agree on the most efficient way to solve it. Yet as basic as this task is, many organizations don’t solve problems using processes that result in optimal solutions.

An effective team is diverse with differing skills that trust each other enough to challenge one another’s work. Members don’t always agree but they should communicate and have a general openness to new ideas. There should be enough differences in viewpoints that they have something interesting to say to each other. Biolos (1996) maintained “…a homogeneous group whose members are prone only to agree with one another will typically not promote high levels of creativity” (p. 14).

Broken barriers can also have a positive influence on the organization. Entrepreneur Herman Cain discussed this very topic during the Executive Leadership Banquet during the 2005 residency at Regent University. He stated that the purpose of leadership was to “remove barriers” that prevent followers from succeeding. London (2001) listed numerous barriers that not only prevent followership development but leadership development as well. Among others, he listed discrimination, sexual harassment, lack of confidence, Role conflict (e. g., being a boss and colleague), inadequate experience/training for a key assignment, disapproval by others (especially public criticism), uncertainty about the future (e.g., because of a sudden change), and lack of information. (p. 218). Some of these barriers can sneak up slowly giving leaders time to adjust to the situation, as well as time to avoid the barrier thereby increasing the problem. Other barriers may occur suddenly and have detrimental affects on the organization. The important task is that leaders learn how to recognize and deal with these barriers!

The Indispensable Quality: Strategy

People often hunger for something greater than themselves. “Work without purpose (even if it takes great skill) can become mindless, heartless drudgery” (Woolfe, 2002, p. 24). People must have a common goal to work towards. Some call it vision, some call it foresight. Which ever the case, it involves leading with a purpose. Leaders who offer that will never have a shortage of followers. Purpose forced the fisherman to drop their nets and follow Jesus. Purpose compelled the woman at the well to drop her water pot and spread the good news. “Your passion for something is an indication of what you find worthy in and of itself” (Kouzes and Posner, 2002, p. 112).

The purpose of each prophet was that each in his own way would keep an entire nation on task. Moses’ purpose was to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land. Joshua’s purpose was to lead them in and Solomon’s was to build a temple, not for his own glory, but for the glory of a higher purpose. Woolfe (2002) maintained “When a leader is dedicated to a purpose, and when all the ‘troops’ see that dedication is unwavering and ‘for real,’ great things happen (p. 27). Strategic leadership involves not only creating a vision but articulating and executing that vision as well.

Strategic Leadership involves the relationship of the external environment to choices about vision, mission, strategy, and their implementation. The organizational vision reflects the environment and works in concert with the organization’s mission (values, purpose, etc.). Strategy provides directions for translating the vision into action and is the basis for developing methods for implementation. Strategic leadership theory explains how changes in the organization’s environment affects the relative power of leaders. Yukl (2002) identified three factors that affect the ability of leaders to influence the performance of the organization: 1) The evolutionary stage of the organization; 2) Political power within the organization; and 3) The leader’s time in office (p. 348 – 352). Simply stated, the opportunity of a leader’s vision to impact the performance of an organization is greatly affected by historical factors such as the evolution of the organization, the leader’s level of influence, and his executive tenure.

Strategic Leadership involves the relationship of the external environment to choices about vision, mission, strategy, and their implementation. The organizational vision reflects the environment and works in concert with the organization’s mission (values, purpose, etc.). Strategy provides directions for translating the vision into action and is the basis for developing methods for implementation. Strategic leadership theory explains how changes in the organization’s environment affects the relative power of leaders. Yukl (2002) identified three factors that affect the ability of leaders to influence the performance of the organization: 1) The evolutionary stage of the organization; 2) Political power within the organization; and 3) The leader’s time in office (p. 348 – 352). Simply stated, the opportunity of a leader’s vision to impact the performance of an organization is greatly affected by historical factors such as the evolution of the organization, the leader’s level of influence, and his executive tenure.

When I reported as the Chief Engineer aboard USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (FFG 58), I asked the Commanding Officer, my mentor and boss, where he saw the department going. He made a vague comment and turned the question around, and ask—”Where do you see the department going?” I became somewhat puzzled with his response. He was purposefully being vague and not answering my question because it was my job, as the Chief Engineer, to create the vision and direction for my department.

I should have been thinking about where I saw the department going, what it will take to get there, and how it fits into the Command’s overall strategy. The conclusion I arrived at became my most important motivational tool, and helped to align resources and to keep people focused on the tasks at hand. “The most important role of visions in organizational life is to give focus to human energy.” (Kouzes and Posner, 2002, p. 130). An effective vision is a leader’s most important motivational tool; you’ll refer to it time and again, explaining its benefits and relevance to various audiences as you work to keep them on board. Maxwell (1993) asserts “People do not follow a dream in itself. They follow the leader who has that dream and the ability to communicate it effectively. Therefore, vision in the beginning will make a leader, but for that vision to grow and demand a following, the leader must take responsibility for it” (p. 141).

More Than Logic

Leadership is not just about logic and reason. They have their place but there is much more to it than that. Acknowledging that it is not all rational is a major step toward accepting that there is something more important – people’s feelings and emotions. Kippenberger (2002) maintained that “Leaders need to understand that at the heart of what they are trying to do is getting the best out of people.” (p. 113).

To gain and keep the commitment of followers, the leader/follower relationship has to be nurtured. “Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.” (Kouzes & Posner, 2002, p. 20). Diplomacy requires that we not only know and control our own emotions but also learn how to recognize and handle other people’s emotions as well. What a leader achieves today depends on the people they are leading, and the best way to succeed is to get them to give their best. “The job of a leader is to achieve a goal – that is the end, leading people is the means” (Kippenberger, 2002, p. 114).

Communicating Authenticity

Authenticity is hard to develop and harder to coach. “Since authenticity is a way of being as a leader rather than things you do as a leader, few instructions are outwardly helpful.” (Pearce, 2003, p. 11). Responsibility for authenticity, then, belongs to the leader. Through a combination of introspection and discipline, they have to find their authentic voice and amplify it so that it resonates with their followers.

One of the most difficult tasks for those who would measure and evaluate leadership is the task of trying to look at the elements that make up leadership. One way to look at these elements is to suggest that a leader has various skills, also has or exercises a distinctive style and, still more elusive, has various qualities that may be pronounced. By skill, I mean the capacity to do something well. Something that is learnable and can be improved, such as speaking or negotiating or planning. Most leaders need to have technical skills (such as writing well); human relations skills, the capacity to supervise, inspire, build coalition and so on; and also what might be called conceptual skills – the capacity to play with ideas, shrewdly seek advice and forge grand strategy. Skills can be examined. Skills can be taught. And skills plainly make up an important part of leadership capability. Skills alone, however, cannot guarantee success.


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Lieutenant Ken Rice is an Active Duty Naval Officer stationed in Norfolk VA. He is currently assigned to Commander, Naval Surface Force’s Warfare Requirments Directorate as the FORCEnet Requirements Officer. Lieutenant Rice is responsible for the program analasys and budget oversight for Information Technology Transformation for the Surface Fleet. He is currently enrolled at Regent University working towards a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership.

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