June 2014

11 Timeless Principles of Leadership (US Army 1948)

by Tom Deierlein

Back in the summer of 1985 when I first entered West Point, there were many pieces of "knowledge" that the New Cadets (incoming freshman or plebes) were required to learn and be able to repeat verbatim on demand to any upper classmen that inquired. It required hours of studying and memorization. It took self-discipline to remember them word-for-word and then confidence to repeat them under pressure when asked. The first week these bits of knowledge included some fundamentals like "The Mission of The United States Military Academy", "The Code of Conduct", "The Honor Code", "The Corps" and "11 Principles of Leadership".

The 11 principles of leadership were first developed in 1948 and first published in an Army Field Manual on Leadership in 1951 more than 60 years ago. What is fascinating is that they are still taught, basically unmodified, ever since. Today they are still used by all the Armed Forces in basic training including Marines, Air Force, and Navy - from entry level privates to officers at all levels.

Why are they still unchanged after being reviewed every few years for 60+ years by different people over the course of time? Whenever I conduct leadership courses and seminars I challenge my attendees to find a 12th. Is there one missing? Perhaps — but what principle is not covered? What area or behavior should be added?

At Academy Leadership we promote frequent quiet time for reflection and journaling. No matter where you are on your personal leadership journey these timeless principles can provide you a useful tool for that periodic review.

Needless to say, I enjoy going back to these principles frequently when I reflect upon my own performance and look for areas of improvement. Read them — do you have a favorite or one that resonates with recent events?

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  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement — understand who you are, your values, priorities, strengths and weaknesses. Knowing yourself allows you to discover your strengths and weaknesses. Self-improvement is a process of sustaining strengths and overcoming weaknesses, thus increasing competence and the confidence people have in your leadership ability.

  2. Be technically and tactically proficient — before leaders can lead effectively, they must have mastered the tasks required by the people they lead. In addition, leaders train their people to do their own jobs while understudying the leader so that they are prepared to replace the leader if necessary. Likewise, leaders must understudy their leader in the event they must assume those duties.

  3. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions — leading always involves responsibility. Leaders want people who can handle responsibility and help achieve goals. They expect others to take the initiative within their stated intent. When you see a problem or something that needs to be fixed, do not wait to be told to act. Organizational effectiveness depends upon having leaders at all levels that exercise initiative, are resourceful and take opportunities that will lead to goal accomplishment and business success. When leaders make mistakes, they accept just criticism and take corrective action. They do not avoid responsibility by placing the blame on someone else.

  4. Set the example — people want and need their leaders to be role models. This is a heavy responsibility, but leaders have no choice. No aspect of leadership is more powerful. If leaders expect courage, responsibility, initiative, competence, commitment and integrity from their direct reports, they must demonstrate them. People will imitate a leader’s behavior. Leaders set high but attainable standards for performance and are willing to do what they require of their people. Leaders share hardships with their people and know that their personal example affects behavior more than any amount of instruction or form of discipline.

  5. Know your people and look out for their welfare — it is not enough to know the names and birth dates of your people. You need to understand what motivates them and what is important to them. Commit time and effort to listen to and learn about them. Showing genuine concern for your people builds trust and respect for you as a leader. Telling your people you care about them has no meaning unless they see you demonstrating it. They assume that if you fail to care for them daily, you will fail them when the going gets tough.

  6. Keep your people informed — people do best when they know why they are doing something. Individuals affect the bottom line results of companies by using initiative in the absence of instructions. Keeping people informed helps them make decisions and execute plans within your intent, encourages initiative, improves teamwork and enhances morale.

  7. Ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished — your people must understand what you want done, to what standard and by when. They need to know if you want a task accomplished in a specific way or how much leeway is allowed. Supervising lets you know if people understand your instructions; it shows your interest in them and in goal accomplishment. Over-supervision causes resentment while under-supervision causes frustration. When people are learning new tasks tell them what you want done and show them how. Let them try. Observe their performance. Reward performance that exceeds expectations; correct performance that does not. Determine the cause of the poor performance and take appropriate action. When you hold people accountable for their performance, they realize they are responsible for accomplishing goals as individuals and as teams.

  8. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people — people feel a sense of pride and responsibility when they successfully accomplish a new task. Delegation indicates trust in people and encourages them to seek responsibility. Develop people by giving them challenges and opportunities that stretch them and more responsibility when they demonstrate they are ready. Their initiative will amaze you.

  9. Train your people as a team — teamwork is becoming more and more crucial to achieving goals. Teamwork is possible only when people have trust and respect for their leader and for each other as competent professionals and see the importance of their contributions to the organization. Develop a team spirit among people to motivate them to perform willingly and confidently. Ensure that individuals know their roles and responsibilities within the team framework. Train and cross train people until they are confident in the team’s abilities.

  10. Make sound and timely decisions — leaders must assess situations rapidly and make sound decisions. They need to know when to make decisions themselves, when to consult with people before deciding and when to delegate the decision. Leaders must know the factors to consider when deciding how, when and if to make decisions. Good decisions made at the right time are better than the best decisions made too late. Do not delay or try to avoid a decision when one is necessary. Indecisive leaders create hesitancy, loss of confidence and confusion. Leaders must anticipate and reason under the most trying conditions and quickly decide what actions to take. Gather essential information before making decisions. Announce decisions in time for people to react.

  11. Employ your work unit in accordance with its capabilities — leaders must know their work unit’s capabilities and limitations. People gain satisfaction from performing tasks that are reasonable and challenging but are frustrated if tasks are too easy, unrealistic or unattainable. If the task assigned is one that people have not been trained to do, failure is very likely to result.