The Art of Leadership
By General Jacques A. Dextraze, CC, CBE, CMM, DSO, CD, LLD - November 29, 2021
Reading Time: 24 min
The following article is reprinted from a paper written by General Jacques Dextraze in 1973 during the second year of his tenure as Chief of the Defence Staff. Considered by many as the ultimate paper on the art of leadership, it is reproduced here in its entirety. A brief biography of General Dextraze can be found at the end of the article.
I am addressing this, my second personal message to the Canadian Forces, specifically to those of you who are faced with the great challenge of leadership, namely the group from master corporals to general officers, inclusive.
I have not chosen the subject lightly. To me, leadership is the key to success in military operations, in peace and in war, as it has always been through the centuries. Yet it is a subject that doesn’t get the attention it deserves today. My purpose with this letter is to stimulate some thoughts, and to put leadership in the forefront of your minds, where it belongs. I want you to read carefully and seriously what I have to say.
Back in 1959, when I was a colonel and the Commandant of the Royal Canadian School of Infantry at Camp Borden, I talked to a graduating class of young officer cadets on “Leadership and Man Management”.
I find it interesting, some fourteen years later, to look back over the words that I presented to those budding young leaders that day. What strikes me most, upon reading my text, is how little my ideas about leadership have changed over the years. I myself have certainly changed in the interim – in rank, in outlook, even in my basic approach to military life. Likewise, the world around me has changed dramatically in those fourteen years: 1959, after all, was before Vietnam, the hippies, colour TV, the permissive society, widespread drug abuse, “wars of liberation”, man in space, unification, and all those things and events that have characterized the recent era as the period of “future shock”.1 And yet, when it comes to basic principles of leadership, which I talked about in 1959, it is remarkably clear to me that, “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”-“the more things change, the more they stay the same”.
General J.A. Dextraze, Chief of the Defence Staff (1972-1977)
Another thing that surprises me in retrospect is the fact that my remarks on leadership, which were directed to a group of brand-new infantry officers and which were very much in the context of the imminent employment of these officers as platoon commanders, are pretty well appropriate in a much wider sense. For example, an air element master corporal who is responsible for the repair of an aircraft could very well apply the principles evoked on that occasion, as could, say an admiral in command of a flotilla of our ships.
The point that I want to make is that the basic principles of leadership and man management are both timeless and universal.
What I would like to do, then, is to talk about a few very straightforward rules that have helped me immensely during my career and which I commend to you in the hope that they will, at the very least, stimulate some thoughts in your minds about such matters.
In doing so I don’t lay claim to their originality because that, after all, would be a contradiction of the point I just made about their timelessness. These basic rules have been around since man first learned that working together was the key to success in battle and in his more peaceful pursuits. My only presumption is that my personal experience, covering as it does a lengthy span of years and the whole spectrum of military ranks, in conditions of war and peace, has given me a rare opportunity to see for myself how true these basic principles of leadership are, and how helpful they can be in solving the difficult problems that face all who must lead other men.
Before getting down to specific principles, I would like to dwell for a moment on leadership in general.
First of all, let me give you my definition of leadership. There are as many definitions as there are writers on the subject, but I have always favoured one that seems to capture the essence of it in very simple terms:
“LEADERSHIP is the art of influencing others to do willingly what is required in order to achieve an aim or goal.”
Leadership, then, is an art, rather than a science. I am convinced, however, that many of the problems faced by managers today, at all levels, stem from the fact that the art of leadership seems to be dying, and it is being replaced by mechanical processes of control that seem to make little distinction between the men and the machines that make up the system. Modern managerial techniques, introduced in the name of efficiency and economy, often tend to dehumanize the organization and its individuals. Because machines obey instructions consistently and without complaint, modern managers are inclined to assume that people should respond in the same way. They don’t, of course. They have capacities, strengths and breaking points that vary from individual to individual and from situation to situation. Unlike machines, many people work best under stress. Unlike computers, their performance is influenced for better or worse by a wide range of human emotions that reflect, in large measure, the quality of leadership that is being exercised. Because a leader is working with that infinitely complex entity called a human being, he must be an artist, not a mechanic.
As in all art forms, simplicity is to be preferred to complexity. You will see that the leadership principles I discuss below are very simple, reflecting as they do some basic characteristics of human nature. It is not surprising to me that one of the symptoms of the process that degrades leadership from an art to a mechanical process is the increasing use of complicated language, with a lot of technical terms whose purpose often seems to be to impress rather than to describe. We talk of “rationale” rather than “reason”, “utilize” rather than “use’, “personnel inventory” rather than “people”, the list is endless. The language for a good leader is simple and direct, leaving little room for error. Big words don’t impress me, and they won’t likely impress your subordinates.
So much for the introductory remarks. What I want to do now is discuss briefly the various qualities and principles that bring about good leadership in a military person.
I believe that there are four qualities that are essential ingredients of successful leadership. These are:
To be a great leader, you must display two forms of loyalty. You must first of all be loyal in an upward direction, to your superiors and through them to your government and country. At the same time, however, you must be loyal to your subordinates. It is not always easy to reconcile these two forms of loyalty. You sometimes have great difficulty in keeping a proper balance between the two in the face of conflicting demands. This seems especially true today, in this era of changing moral standards when, for example, some individuals feel compelled to steal and publish classified documents in the name of loyalty. But it isn’t a new problem. Any commander who has ever ordered troops into battle must certainly have paused to reflect, or should have, on the need to risk lives for a higher cause. And which of you, at some time or another, hasn’t yielded to temptation to commiserate with your subordinates over those “clots from Headquarters”?
I can offer you one fundamental rule to guide in this dilemma of conflicting loyalties.
Where loyalty to superiors and subordinates cannot both be simultaneously satisfied, then loyalty upward must prevail, because in the final analysis it is loyalty to our country that really counts.
One more word regarding loyalty. Loyalty demands that you forsake personal pleasures if they conflict in any way with the performance of your duties. You have no right to take time off for amusement tonight if you should use this time to prepare for tomorrow’s task.
You must possess knowledge if you are to be efficient. If you have knowledge you will command respect not only from you subordinates but from your superiors as well. You must never stop learning and you must never pretend to anyone that you know something when in fact you do not. On the contrary, it is best to admit your ignorance of a certain point under discussion and encourage whoever is speaking to you to clarify the particular subject further. In so doing you will be learning something new, while at the same time revealing that you are honest. In the long run, there is no substitute for knowledge.
As you progress in rank, there will be a tendency to neglect your own self-education. This tendency will come naturally, since with higher rank you will have more privileges and more assistants to do things for you. Do not let these circumstances lull you into a state of laziness that is characterized by such attitudes as: “I am far too busy to deal with these details”, or “Why should I bark when I have dogs that can bark for me”, or “I cannot let myself get emotionally involved in this matter”, and so on. Instead, remember that to lead you must know what you are talking about, and to gain the necessary knowledge you must study a given problem with every means at hand.
Too many people believe that it is old-fashioned to set aside time to study like a student at school. This is wrong, because military leadership without knowledge never has been and never will be truly successful. History is full of examples of how battles and wars can be lost through lack of knowledge. Look how often large, well-equipped armies have been trashed by smaller forces. Sound, knowledgeable leadership makes the difference, and the necessary knowledge can only come through hard work. Do not be under the impression that, as your career progresses, the piece of grey matter in your head will grow in size proportionate to the loftiness of your rank. This just doesn’t happen. You may be given more authority by promotion, but you are not by the same act given additional knowledge or ability. These you must acquire yourself through study, application and experience.
You should also be acutely aware of the rapid pace at which man’s total fund of knowledge is increasing these days. This is just as true of military art as it is of the sciences in general. Things are happening so fast on the military scene in the nineteen-seventies that no one who claims to be a leader can sit back and hope to operate effectively with what is probably obsolescent knowledge. Formal education alone is not good enough. Self-education is the answer.
Integrity means the refusal to deceive others in any way, no matter what the circumstances. As a leader, you must take decisions and accept their results. You are the one responsible for the success or failure of your actions. You must admit your mistakes at least to yourself, and profit from them. You must not try to bluff your way through or shake your responsibility off onto others. One sure way to undermine your effectiveness as a leader is to play games with people. Take it from me, it doesn’t work. It may give you some advantage in the short term, but it is bound to hurt you in the long run.
I would define true courage in battle as the desire, or at least the willingness, to face danger in the knowledge that it exists. I have heard people refer to a courageous man without fear. This, to me, is a contradiction. I believe, rather, that courage is a quality of the mind which makes one refuse to be swayed from his aim by danger or difficulty. To me it is a quality that enables a man to marshal all his abilities and powers to overcome the hardships standing in his path. I am positive that perseverance is the heart of courage. To sum up what I have said, I believe that the courageous man is one who has succeeded in mastering his emotions and weaknesses.
We are more conscious of courage in wartime than in peacetime, because in war there are naturally more opportunities to display courage, and because bravery in action is often spectacular. It is sometimes forgotten, however, that courage of a different sort may be called for in peacetime, and that this “quiet” courage is no less important than the battlefield kind. We have not been actively engaged in combat now for a long time, yet all of us in positions of responsibility are faced with making decisions that may call for a large measure of moral courage. Too often in peacetime it takes courage to “rock the boat’, and I must admit that our peacetime system sometimes seems to have a built-in bias against those who have the courage to speak out against what they honestly believe to be wrong. Perhaps this is the root cause of a malaise that is common today throughout our society, but whose impact we feel especially keenly in the armed forces. I am talking about indecision. It is my belief that indecision in the face of a difficult problem reflects a lack of courage. It is the easy way out, but is usually wrong.
I could mention many other qualities that are essential to good leadership, but in my opinion those I have discussed above are the vital ones. All of the other useful qualities, I think, can be distilled down to these four. If you are loyal and knowledgeable, and have integrity and courage you have what it takes to be a good leader in the Canadian Forces at any rank level.
And now some general remarks on my philosophy of leadership.
The job of leading demands that you acknowledge good work and be critical of bad work on the part of your subordinates. How you do this can have an important bearing on your effectiveness as a leader. The key here is moderation. Excessive praise and excessive rebuke are each detrimental in their own way. I am not saying that rewards or punishment are to be avoided: I simply mean that they must be metered out fairly and intelligently. One thing that annoys me particularly is the current trend in the Forces to heap praise upon people who are simply doing the good job that is expected of them. The danger is obvious (as it is in the opposite case of over punishment). It’s like fighting a battle, if you commit all your resources to a routine action there’s nothing left for the unforeseen. You must keep something in reserve, and this is no less true when it comes to awarding praise or punishment.
Leadership is self-perpetuating – at least it should be. This means that you, as a leader, have a solemn responsibility to develop leadership ability in your subordinates. Remember that all of them sooner or later will have to lead others. The best way for you to teach them, of course, is by example, hopefully good example.
In the Canadian Forces today there are two areas of weakness in respect to leadership development, namely in the junior non-commissioned ranks and in the junior officer ranks. One of my goals as CDS is to correct this situation through formal leadership training and professional education programs, but these alone will not be enough. There must also be “on-the-job” leadership training and this is the responsibility of individual supervisors, especially at the sergeant and major levels. These people must do all they can to pass on their expertise to aspiring subordinates, through delegation of authority, personal counselling, etc. The future excellence of our Service, after all, depends very much on the leadership potential of today’s corporals and captains.
I have listed below some of the basic rules of leadership that I have found useful in my career, and which I commend to you. The list is not all-inclusive, and it is random, but when considered together with the four principles mentioned earlier it summarizes my approach to good leadership.
Finally, I want to make one thing clear. Although I have pointed out a number of qualities and rules that are, as I said earlier, timeless and universal, I don’t want to imply that there is a single stereotype for the Perfect Leader, or that there is only one approach to leadership. If this were so, life would be pretty unbearable. (Imagine, for example an armed force made up of 83,000 JADEX’S!)
On the contrary, within the bounds imposed by the few general rules I have touched on, there is an infinite range of possible personalities that are compatible with good leadership, varying form hard-nosed sons-of-guns to soft spoke methodical persons who exude quiet confidence. It is no contradiction that generals like Patton and Bradley, Guderian and Rommel, or Montgomery and Alexander, work well together. In fact it may be true that differing leadership styles are complementary, and therefore equally essential within a military organization.
The important thing is that you adopt a leadership style that matches your own innate personality. Don’t become artificial in an attempt to copy a style that doesn’t suit you. Be yourself, and conduct yourself according to the guidelines given here, and you will find that leadership comes naturally. But you must work at it.
Chief of Defence Staff
1 Editor’s note: Dextraze was referring to the book Future Shock published in 1970 by futurist Alvin Toffler.
RULES OF LEADERSHIP
- Don’t coax your subordinates into obeying your orders. On the other hand, do not club them into it.
- Don’t flatter your subordinates. It is unnecessary and tends to degrade you in their eyes.
- Don’t be sarcastic toward subordinates.
- Display confidence and pride in those under your command.
- Always support your superiors, and make it clear to your subordinates that you do.
- Accept full responsibility in the eyes of your superiors for the mistakes and failures of your subordinates. If they fail, it is your fault, and your job to make whatever corrections are necessary. Don’t try and shift the blame downward.
- Never end an order with a threat. Your rank carries with it all power, explicit or implicit, that you need.
- If a reprimand becomes necessary, administer it privately unless there is some compelling reason to do it publicly.
- Always be concerned for the well-being of your subordinates, and let them know that you are.
- Never take things for granted. Check and double-check.
- Don’t abuse the privileges of your rank. Be austere in granting and accepting privileges.
- Work hard and don’t waste time.
- Be meticulous and correct about conduct, bearing, dress and personal relationships.
- Recognize that leadership and popularity are not synonymous.
Biography of General J.A. Dextraze
General Jacques Alfred Dextraze was born on 15 August 1919 in Montreal. He enrolled as a soldier in Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal in 1939 and enlisted in the Canadian Active Service Force in 1940. He was commissioned in 1942 prior to going overseas. By 1944, he was a company commander, and led his company in Normandy where he won the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). In December 1944, General Dextraze was appointed Commanding Officer of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, a position he held until 1945. He received a bar to the DSO for his services as commanding officer. He then volunteered for the Canadian Army Pacific Force, slated for the invasion of Japan, and was appointed the Commanding Officer of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Following demobilization, General Dextraze returned to civilian life until 1950, when he was asked by the Minister of National Defence to take command of the Second Battalion Royal 22e Régiment for service in Korea. General Dextraze decided to remain in the army following the Korean Conflict. From 1957-1960, he was Commandant of the Royal Canadian School of Infantry and then became commander of Camp Valcartier. Promoted to brigadier in 1962, he was appointed Commander Eastern Quebec Area (one of two areas in Quebec Command) and in 1963 became the Chief of Staff of the United Nations headquarters in the Congo (the mission was called Opération des Nations Unies au Congo – ONUC). During this mission, General Dextraze demonstrated great bravery during an operation that successfully rescued a number of missionaries, teachers and students from rebel forces. For these actions, General Dextraze became the only Canadian to receive the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Military Division) with oak leaves for gallantry. From 1964 to 1966 he was the Commander 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, followed by two tours at FMC Headquarters first as Chief of Staff Operations and then as Deputy Commander. From 1970 to 1972, he was Chief of Personnel at national Defence Headquarters. In 1972 he was promoted to general and appointed Chief of the Defence Staff until 1977, when he retired from the Canadian Forces. General Dextraze remained active in civilian life and was Chairman of the Canadian National Railway from 1977-1982 and was involved in several military, sport and other organizations. He died on 9 May 1993 and is buried at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montréal.
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