Leadership Styles in the Military Context: Personal Reflections

During my career as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), I have seen many different leaders and leadership styles. I have learned much through watching, what I would describe as, positive and negative examples of leadership. Effective leadership skills are important for enabling mission success, whether that be on a battlefield, in an office, or in an educational setting. Due to the contextual realities and challenges that DND/CAF has been facing of late (i.e. numerous allegations of misconduct at the highest rank levels), DND/CAF has become increasingly focused on the topic of leadership in terms of how we can develop good leaders. The recent 2022 Government of Canada federal budget, in fact, allocated funds to “strengthen leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces,” along with other culture change efforts, such as to “modernize the military justice system; bring into force the Declaration of Victims Rights as set out in the National Defence Act; undertake engagement and consultation on culture change; and enhance restorative services, including dispute resolution and coaching services” (Government of Canada, 2022).

In this personal reflection, and in relation to the CAF organization which has a particularly hierarchical leadership structure, I will consider three different pertinent areas in relation to leadership, including: 1) leadership approaches in the military context; 2) gender considerations for leadership evaluation; and, a somewhat uncomfortable, yet necessary, topic to discuss, 3) toxic leadership.

Leadership Approaches in the Military Context

In considering this topic, I realize that after 17 years as a CAF member, my views of leadership, and what constitutes good leadership, have been strongly influenced by the leadership that I have seen. It has seemed to me that those around me have tended to define good leadership in a rather narrow way, and that this is how we have evaluated leadership skills. Great leaders, I would surmise, in many of my colleagues’ minds, are loud, charismatic, and forceful.  They look like what a majority of Canadians would expect a military leader to look like. They have the ability to effectively “rally the troops.” Being a hierarchical organization, leadership tends to be very transactional and/or transformational. In reviewing literature on this subject, I pulled an older book off my shelf that has been there for many years, titled The Military Leadership Handbook (2008), published by the Canadian Defence Academy Press. Transactional leadership, it states, “occurs when the leader influence is controlled through rewards or disciplines for the follower, depending on the adequacy of the follower’s performance” (p. 345). Some may call this ‘old-school’ military leadership, but depending on the context, it may still have its place, especially in situations related to security and, perhaps, dealing with a consistently low-performer. Horn and Walker (2008) state that “generally … the most effective approach is the transformational one” (p.348) within the military context. A transformational leadership approach can be defined as, “the process whereby an individual engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower. Transformational leaders motivate others to do more than they thought possible. They set more challenging expectations and typically achieve higher performance” (p. 346). I’m sure that many would agree that this sounds like the kind of leader we enjoy and thrive working under.

Horn and Walker (2008) go on to discuss emergent leaders. These are, “leaders because of the way other group members respond to them…. When an individual is perceived by others as the most influential member of a group or organization, and regardless of the individual’s title, the person is exhibiting emergent leadership” (p. 347). Horn and Walker (2008) state that although “emergent leadership should always be recognized and utilized… position-based or assigned leaders must demonstrate constantly the effective and professional leadership that is not sidelined by emergent leadership” (p. 348). In other words, rank must still “pull rank” at the end of the day.

Clearly, their comments do ring true in the military context. In terms of “emergent leadership,” there are context-specific leadership considerations and requirements, such as the need to avoid potential insubordination within the chain of command and the need for due respect to position and rank-based leaders, perhaps especially in a war-time or security situation.  Emergent leadership, however, can be very instrumental in leading change at all levels regarding such things as the culture change efforts currently underway in DND/CAF.  When we speak of leadership, I now more fully realize that the specific situation must be considered, in order to determine which leadership approach would be most appropriate and effective within a specific context. Good leaders must have the ability to shift their approaches based on their current context, situation, and audience.

Gender Considerations for Leadership Evaluation

How we evaluate leadership skills is an important consideration as DND/CAF moves forward with efforts to develop a more inclusive environment with diverse representation in leadership positions. To explain one reason why building this diverse cadre of leaders is important, I share an excerpt from the Marie Deschamps report (2015), which was an external review into sexual misconduct and harassment in the CAF. In her report, she states that “there is an undeniable link between the existence of a hostile organizational culture that is disrespectful and demeaning to women, and the poor integration of women into the organization. Increasing the representation of women in the CAF, including in the highest positions of senior leadership, is therefore key to changing the culture of the organization.” As the female makeup of the CAF is only slightly higher that 15%, and the female representation in the General Officer/ Flag Officer cadre is only ~10% (by my own count), we do, indeed, have an under-representation in females. I believe that growth in the numbers of females in the highest of leadership levels could be increased by broadening our definition and appreciation of what a good leader looks like.  

If the organizational and historical culture tends to see a leader as a loud, tall, strong, and charismatic male, females may not, subjectively, be evaluated fairly on their leadership skills in their yearly evaluations.  Of course, female leaders can exhibit a wide range of leadership styles, taking advantage of their unique skills and abilities. It is worth considering, however, if a female happens to be soft-spoken but leads well through a high level of emotional intelligence, which has been shown to be a good predictor of effective leadership (Gill, 2011), would she be rated as highly as one who has the traits and behaviors traditionally held by male models of great leadership in the military. These biases run deep, and are often subconscious.

As we are currently having these types of discussions in the CAF/DND; as we have made a decision to remove gendered pronouns from our yearly evaluations; and as we are starting to look at promotion requirements through a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) lens, I am confident that there is much to feel positive about in terms of our move towards greater organizational understanding in these areas. As is always the case, time will tell.

Toxic Leadership

An article was once shared with me on the topic of Toxic Leadership in the context of the United States Army.  I recommend reading this short article, linked here. It led me to consider how leadership can have such a significant effect, both positively or negatively, on troop morale, and on conduct and culture in the CAF.  Toxic Leadership, in the US Army Doctrine Publication (2012), has been defined as:

“a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance … Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops” (as cited in Zwerdling, 2014, para. 31). 

Unfortunately, as positive and effective as authentic transformational leadership can be in the military context, toxic leadership is on the opposite and negative side of the spectrum.  Many of us can likely pinpoint a time in our career, whether in or out of uniform, where we’ve experienced this type of leadership and witnessed its often-devastating effects on personnel. Based on the sharing of this definition and reflections of our own experiences, I hope we are better equipped to recognize this negative style of leadership and see it as a style to strongly avoid in ourselves and discourage in our colleagues. Even if toxic leadership can sometimes seem to attain quick wins towards organizational goals, one must question themselves. -At what cost? -At what cost to members’ mental and physical health? -At what cost to team cohesion? -At what cost to retention of personnel? And, ultimately, -At what cost to operational effectiveness in the long-term?

Future Considerations

Different approaches to leadership and how we will define effective leadership into the future are very important discussions that should be encouraged at all levels. Although leadership in the military will likely always be within a hierarchical structure, it must be understood that, as we further diversify, we must recognize that the most effective leaders may have different traits, abilities, and behaviors than were historically seen and evaluated against in the past. We must also understand that there can be no place for toxic leadership in a modern and successful military.


Deschamps, M. (2015). External Review into Sexual Misconduct & Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/sexual-misbehaviour/external-review-2015.html

Gill, R. (2011). Redefining leadership: A new model. In R. Gill’s Theory and practice of leadership (pp.91-123). London: SAGE Publications.

Government of Canada. (2022). 2022 Budget: Chapter 5: Canada`s Leadership in the World: Supporting Culture Change in the Canadian Armed Forces. https://budget.gc.ca/2022/report-rapport/chap5-en.html#m97

Walker, R. W., & Horn, B. (2008). The military leadership handbook. Kingston, ON: Canadian Defence Academy Press.

Zwerdling, D. (2014, January 6). Army takes on its own toxic leaders. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2014/01/06/259422776/army-takes-on-its-own-toxic-leaders

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