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Views and Opinions

Transformational leadership: Part of the warrior’s arsenal

by Lieutenant-Colonel Rory G. Kilburn

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In the Winter 2004-2005 issue of the Canadian Military Journal (CMJ), Captain Thomas St. Denis wrote about the perceived incompatibility of transformational leadership with the warrior ethic. While his arguments may be persuasive to many readers, in my view, his thesis fails in two major areas: his interpretation of the warrior ethic and the abilities of modern followers. It does not reflect the realities of being a modern Canadian warrior.

It was an earlier article on transformational leadership in the Spring 2004 issue of CMJ, written by Peter Bradley and Danielle Charbonneau, that caused Captain St. Denis to write his opinion piece, and it is quite interesting. However, and, again, in my view, even more interesting and germane to this discussion are the precursory thoughts of Lieutenant-General (ret’d) William K. Carr, the first commander of Air Command, located at the start of the Bradley/Charbonneau article. What’s a Squadron Commander? I believe, does an excellent job of describing the Canadian warrior ethic. Although the individual mentioned by General Carr was British, his mastery of his craft, his care for the men under his command and his innovative methods all marked him as a leader who transformed the men in his unit and their way of conducting the business of war – no matter that they were small attributes in the larger scheme of the overall conflict.

Yet, if we go back further in time to the action that may have arguably cemented the reputation of the Canadian warrior, we arrive at an austere humpback-shaped piece of land situated in First World War France. The Canadian warrior ethic may be best epitomized by the actions of Canadian leadership in the days before 9 April 1917, when they trained their men to do their jobs, as well as those of their immediate superiors, behind a new tactic known as the creeping barrage. The use of current equipment in an innovative way ensured that the Canadian Corps, as a group, would do what the British and French armies could not do – namely, to capture and hold Vimy Ridge. It has now become traditional for Canadian troops deployed the world over to use their superior training and initiative, and whatever equipment they are given, to successfully carry out their assigned missions.

The “heroic leader,” as typified by Alexander the Great, is personality-centred. From Captain St. Denis’ article: “Especially in the West,” he [Peter Senge] writes: “Leaders are heroes – great men (and occasionally women) who rise to the fore in times of crisis.”1 The examples used to bolster this view of the heroic leader are almost entirely American, a very individualistic society where the personality cult is much stronger than in the northern portion of the continent. Indeed, while the Americans revere heroic leaders, such as George Washington, George Armstrong Custer and Ulysses S. Grant, Canadians voted for Tommy Douglas – the man who transformed the medical establishment in Canada – as the greatest Canadian. While St. Denis does mention Alexander as a heroic leader, he misses John Keegan’s remarks on the results of this warrior’s ethic: “His [Alexander’s] dreadful legacy was to ennoble savagery in the name of glory and to leave a model of command that far too many men of ambition sought to act out in the centuries to come.”2 I would argue that this is precisely the ethic that Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen are combating all over the globe, rather than an ethic to be embraced by Canadian warriors.

Canadian military leaders, at all rank levels, are taught the credo of Mission, Men, Self. While the accomplishment of the mission is paramount, military leadership is first and foremost about people. Leadership in the Canadian Forces (CF) is defined as “directing, motivating, and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success.”3 Transformational leadership is about more than the individual. It is about the ability of the group to transcend their individual limitations and achieve their potential as members of a team. It is the essence of Canadian military teamwork, as espoused in Duty with Honour – The Profession of Arms in Canada. “Teamwork builds cohesion, while individual talent and the skills of team members enhance the versatility and flexibility in the execution of tasks. In the conflict environment of the 21st century, the Canadian Forces’ ability to operate in a joint, combined and inter-agency context will depend on the efficient integration and synthesis of the skill sets of all its members.”4

At the beginning of the 21st century, the skill sets of our newest recruits in the CF are impressive. Overall, they are the perhaps the highest educated we have ever seen. It is no longer uncommon to run across Junior NCOs who have completed a post-secondary degree – who are as well educated and as well read as their officers. Our technicians who have undergone training at community colleges have learned the best practices of industry, and they bring us to question the “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome. It would be absolute folly not to harness the enormous talent resident in our people, and channel this energy toward the transformation of CF capabilities in this world of ever-increasing complexity.

It is said that the only constant of the modern world is change. In an era of constant change is transformation of the military not desirable? Too often, a respect for the status quo has led militaries to prepare for the last war – a situation that led to the US Army’s difficulties in Vietnam, and, indeed, to the challenges experienced by the US military after the end of formal hostilities in Iraq in May 2003.

The question is not whether transformational leadership should be part of the toolbox of the military leader. Rather, the question is: “When is it most appropriate?” There are undoubtedly times when Alexander’s heroic leadership will be what is needed to turn the tide, such as in a high intensity battle of the Three-Block War. However, when conducting humanitarian operations in one of the blocks in the same city, this heroic leadership would be out of place – indeed, it would quite probably prove counter-productive in many situations. True warriors operate effectively throughout the spectrum of conflict, and use all the tools at their command. Transformational leadership is one of the tools needed for operations in the 21st century, and therefore must form part of the warrior’s arsenal.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Kilburn, a navigator, is Senior Staff Officer Non-Commissioned Member Professional Development at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.


  1. Captain Thomas St. Denis, “Transformational Leadership: Not for the Warrior” in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter 2004-2005, p. 83
  2. John Keegan, The Mask of Command
    (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 91.
  3. Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Doctrine (Kingston, Ontario: Canadian Defence Academy, 2005 ), p. 5.
  4. Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, Duty with Honour – The Profession of Arms in Canada (Kingston, Ontario: Canadian Defence Academy, 2003), p. 27.

Leonard Birchall

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In a Japanese POW camp, Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall transformed his men from individual prisoners into a cohesive team, demonstrating through his personal courage, determination and sacrifice how best to survive the brutal conditions.