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Direct vs. Organizational Leadership - Is there really a difference?

April 04, 2011 | Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Grimes

Our ongoing discussion of leadership continued on Friday with a look at sources of power and mechanisms of influence.  These are interesting (if academic) topics, but the real of our work is on the application of leadership theory.  The bottom line is, if we're not doing right by our subordinates and working toward mission success, we're just not doing our jobs.  And as we transition away from "direct" leadership roles into those requiring "organizational" leadership, we need to understand what we're talking about and what will be expected of us.  

At the JAG Graduate Course last year we talked about organizational leadership.  It seemed, then, to make some amount of sense to me, but Friday's discussion has changed my view of what it really means.  Here's my bottom line: I don't think there's any real difference in leadership skills necessary to be used at the organizational level vs. direct leadership level; the only difference is in the mix of influencing techniques to be employed and the perspective necessary to translate the mission.  

Our ILE leadership instructor suggested that a higher-level commander (a brigade or division commander for instance) only has routine, direct contact with 6-8 subordinates -- the same number that a battalion commander, company commander, or platoon leader might.  His argument was that because the higher-level commander has such limited interaction with the vast majority of his unit, organizational leadership skills are required.  But I think that's all wrong.  If the platoon leader, or company commander, is exercising direct leadership over his small unit by interacting with just a handful of people, then so is the brigade/division commander.  The only difference is that the higher-level commander must understand that his/her role is more typically to set the conditions for subordinate success than it will be to direct subordinate success.  His/her 'toolkit' of leadership techniques remains the same - i.e. those traditionally associated with 'direct' leadership.  As long as s/he realizes that the same mix of techniques that were successful at the company level are doomed to lead to failure at the brigade/division level, success can be found.  But this success relies on understanding a different mission scope and not on a new set of tools.

While leading an organization might require a greater facility in establishing and using systems to propagate information and assess outcomes, we can't forget the difference between systems and people: we manage systems, but we lead people.

All of this is to say that I'm a bit frustrated and confused by the 'party line' on leadership development.  But I'll keep driving forward.  And I'll keep you in the loop on my progress.  

But feel free to help me out!  What's the difference (if any) between direct and organizational leadership?


  • S. Hertig
    4/6/2011 10:34 AM
    It’s all about sphere’s of influence – those direct leadership skills never change whether you are leading a team of 3-4 or an entire division. I think it’s more about understanding the spheres of influence of your subordinates and their subordinates and understanding how the influence of your influence will affect the end user. What may make sense for the immediate sphere, or even one or two subsequent spheres, may not make sense or even work at the lowest level (or worse, it may not be meant for the lowest level, but gets there anyway).
    • Benjamin Grimes
      4/7/2011 3:48 PM

      I agree that direct leadership skills never "go out of style," but that leads to this question: why do we spend so much time talking about organizational leadership? If the skills put to use are the same ones we grow up with as leaders, and the only thing changing is our mission focus (my point) and our greater sphere of influence (your point), why do we talk about organizational leadership like it's some sort of separate science?

      It's not just the Army that does this. We take a lot of material from organization leadership material in business settings. Corporate America and military America, alike, seem to think there's a big enough difference between the two levels of leadership to devote tons of time to the topic.
  • A. Stewart
    8/15/2011 7:13 PM
    I think organizational leadership relies on the same competencies necessary for direct leadership, with some differences in applying those competencies due to the broader mission focus and sphere of influence.
    The basic leadership competencies and characteristics discussed in FM 6-22 are required at all levels. Still, the broader mission focus and sphere of influence (with greater reliance upon subordinates for direct leadership) often call for a different mix of competencies than is normally applied at the direct level. For example, vision may be relatively more important because of the greater breadth and consequence of decisions at this level.
    In addition, because of the breadth and consequence of decisions at the organizational level, a more inclusive style of decision-making may be more appropriate. While this style is not appropriate for all decisions, it should ensure greater reflection on decisions with potential for wide-ranging consequences, as well as increase the likelihood of commitment from subordinates. For these reasons, this style seems more appropriate at the organizational level.
    In short, an organizational-level leader must possess and employ all the attributes and competencies required at lower levels. Still, certain competencies seem relatively more important at the organizational level. In addition, a more inclusive style of decision-making may be more appropriate at this level, for increased analysis as well as potentially increased commitment.
  • Larry Leupold
    8/28/2012 12:36 PM
    ADRP 6-22 clearly delineates the difference between direct and organizational leadership.

    Direct leadership is associated with company grade level and below. It is based on sphere of influences and span of control. For direct leadership, leadership can exert direct influence on operations and achieve immediate results through action. Direct leaders are more concerned with execution and delivering results.

    On the other hand, the organizational leader has a larger sphere of influence and must utilize subordinates to achieve results. They aim to influence large groups of individuals in the hundreds to thousands. Inherently, organizational leaders have increased responsibilities and more authority to shape the organization. They need to utilize critical and creative thinking to support decisions. It is necessary to understand the “so what” of decisions being made as they will have an impact on a larger scale.

    To explore this further, what is required of a leader to make the transition from direct leadership to organizational leadership and what does a good organizational leader look like?
    • Benjamin Grimes
      8/30/2012 10:27 AM

      Thanks for taking a look at some old thoughts on leadership -- though I've got to tell you, my opinion hasn't really changed since then. While we've got plenty of documents -- regulations, policies, pamphlets -- that talk about the difference, I think that distinction is largely arbitrary. Leaders at all levels utilize subordinates to generate mission success; the only difference with our 'organizational' leaders is their distance to the guy on the ground that turns the wrench, fires, the weapon, or flies the airplane. To do this, they rely on a cadre of subordinate leaders upon whom they exercise direct leadership. 'Direct' leaders (as we formally define them) still need to understand the 'so what,' it's just that their 'so what' is far smaller than the Brigade Commander's.

      I like your ultimate questions -- what is required to make the switch and how do you know when you've got a good organizational leader? I suggest the switch requires a re-balancing of the leadership tool-kit. Perhaps that means less patting people on the back while their at work and more modelling -- setting the example of professionalism -- and efforts to set the right tone (or command climate). I'm going to update this series of posts to bring the discussion closer to the front end of ArmyStrongStories; I hope you'll continue to comment!

  • Derek
    3/1/2016 9:35 PM
    While there needs be some difference between high level "command" and lower levels of authority...the basics of leadership never go out of style. Try John Maxwells' leadership leader will go for without certain traits (Courage, Karisma, Confidence, Vision, etc.), this is true for a small store owner/operator, a military E-5, an insurance salesman, etc. Another trait I missed, which is hugely important in any leadership setting is trustworthiness (or some other big word, if you're inclined to try to impress others by word usage). People will not follow those they do not trust, former President Clinton suffered some loss of trust by some of his actions while in office, and even some actions previous to his Presidential service. I'm sure there are many, many other examples of leaders who lost credibility, even if just momentarily, or slightly by failing in the trustworthy category , the word most often used in politics and business settings these days is transparency (let me open you up like a book, then peer deep inside you with high power magnification to see if you really are who and what you say you are).

    Derek, lowly E-6 USN (Ret.)

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