Why intrusive leadership in the US military is actually a good thing
I have worked for intrusive leaders before in my career, and those leaders had a profound impact on me.
In June of 2020, I wrote an article published by the U.S. Naval Institute entitled Racial Tension in America Requires Intrusive Military Leadership. I wrote this article because I was struggling with the gut-wrenching murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I wasn’t doing okay. I needed someone to ask how I was doing and be prepared to listen to my struggle as an African American man, and as a husband and father. I knew I wasn’t alone, so I wrote the article in the hopes that it would motivate people across the country to engage in some difficult conversations, with the goal of increasing unit cohesion and providing everyone with a sense of care and support. That experience made me passionate about intrusive leadership and the positive impacts it can have on people and organizations. I have worked for intrusive leaders before in my career, and those leaders had a profound impact on me. I remain in contact with many of them today and still seek their guidance from time to time. So, I decided to turn that passion into a purpose. I wanted to study intrusive leadership and talk to senior leaders about their experience with this leadership style. I wanted to find out if it is taught and if it is desired by the generation entering the workforce today. Through qualitative interviews, literature reviews, and a survey, this is what I discovered:
The problem with the ‘correct solution’
The term “intrusive leadership” has been used pointedly in articles, reports, and speeches by senior military leaders in the past few decades. In 2004, retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Dick Brooks, wrote the article Committed to Protecting Our People in the Naval Safety Center’s Aviation Magazine, stating, “An overall, across the board reduction of mishaps requires intrusive leadership and everyone’s dedicated efforts.” Adm. Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered remarks about shifting some focus to the psychological fitness of soldiers at the Association of the U.S. Army luncheon in 2010. He stated, “This profound operational shift will also require the renewal in engaged, focused, and in some cases, very intrusive leadership.” The previous Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden, and current Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Charles ‘CQ’ Brown Jr., both point to supervisors exercising intrusive leadership as the linchpin to their career success. Yet, intrusive leadership is missing from the syllabi and training objectives of leadership courses and schools across the military services and academia. The reasons for this could be a result of two possible scenarios: the obvious negative connotations associated with the word intrusive and the lack of a uniformly accepted definition of intrusive leadership. Both truths need to be addressed and changed because intrusive leadership is a style of leadership that can have a tremendously positive impact on people and will only grow in importance in the future. It is the correct solution for leading a workforce that is facing a demanding work environment involving global strategic competition, fast-paced innovation, talent retention, and an equally demanding home environment.
Is intrusive leadership desired by people?
Any assessment of the desirability of intrusive leadership must begin with an understanding of what the leadership style is and the impact it can have. During a recent seminar class at the National War College, each student discussed a leader that had had a profound impact on them and their career. Student after student told stories of leaders that cared for them by going the extra mile, above and beyond the demands of their job. Their favorite leaders did things like talk to them about having a child or being a newlywed. Being led by someone who valued them as a whole person is what they remembered years later. They remembered these intrusive leaders possibly because they were the exception instead of the rule.
Gen. ‘CQ’ Brown Jr. explained that when he travels the country, he routinely has a “Breakfast with Airmen” where he talks to 10–12 junior enlisted members. At these meals he always asks the group “What is the main thing that you want from your leadership?” The answer Brown says that he gets often is, “I want my leadership to know me as a person and I want them to care.” Intrusive leadership might not be mentioned by name, but it’s clear that subordinates value the attention they’re shown by their leaders. People want to feel valued for who they are as a whole person, and not just what they do for the organization. They understand there are limits, but they don’t want to be forced to be a completely different person at the job than who they are at home. They want to be their authentic self, and intrusive leadership allows for that to happen.
A lousy term
Retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman, the 15th Chief of Staff of the Air Force, stated that intrusive leadership was a “lousy” term for a leadership style that every leader should incorporate when I asked for his perspective. World-renowned author and leadership guru Simon Sinek advised that a different term needed to be used when he reflected on the word. Synonyms for “intrusive” include words like “invasive,” “meddlesome,” “prying, and interfering,” which also tend to have negative connotations. Terms like engaged or involved leadership appear more appropriate; however, no other term specifically speaks to the action that leaders need to take to realize the benefits of intrusive leadership. A leader can be both engaged and involved without being intrusive. Intrusive leaders do meddle, they do pry, and they do ask invasive questions, but what makes the difference is their inherent motivation, which is founded on care and support. Good friends or family members pry, meddle, or interfere if they feel like something is wrong, because they care enough to do so. We should care for our subordinates or employees in the same way. The term might cause some discomfort, but from that discomfort there will be growth.
The lack of a widely accepted definition
Retired Marine Maj. Carl Forsling stated in his 2015 article Intrusive Leadership; Bad by Definition that intrusive leadership is “…a bad word that accurately conveys a bad leadership technique that is, unfortunately, becoming prevalent in the Marine Corps.” Yet, in his article entitled Intrusive Leadership, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Daniel Tester, stated that he would have never made it beyond his first enlistment, much less achieved the rank of E-9 if it wasn’t for intrusive leadership. However, the actions described by Chief Tester were not the same actions described in a Military Medicine journal article published later in 2021. In this article, intrusive leadership was described as something senior leaders could use as an early prevention technique for at-risk personnel.
The lack of a widely accepted definition of intrusive leadership could possibly explain some of the confusion around the term. Those who have a negative opinion on intrusive leadership define it one way while those who have a positive opinion define it in another way. So, what is intrusive leadership?
Intrusive leadership defined
Intrusive leadership is a leadership style that specifically looks to inspire, motivate, and support people by caring for the whole person through a trusting relationship that addresses professional as well as personal interests and concerns. Intrusive leaders understand that they aren’t just leading aviation mechanics, combat medics, or culinary specialists. They recognize that they are also leading spouses, parents, and children. They realize that there are situations that people face outside of the workplace that impact their performance at work. They are mindful that their people are human and can’t always compartmentalize issues that they are facing on the home front. Intrusive leaders intentionally build trusting relationships that let their people know that they are cared for and supported as a whole person. The type of relationship that can unlock untapped potential through difficult conversations at times when facing a personal issue or crisis.
Characteristics of an intrusive leader
From the interviews conducted on intrusive leadership, three critical and paramount characteristics emerged: trust, emotional intelligence, and committed effort.
An intrusive leader must be a person that is trustworthy. Typically, a person is going to have a negative reaction to someone prying or meddling in their personal affairs if they don’t trust that individual. Asking a person “How is everything at home?” will produce a different response when asked by someone who has, over time, cultivated a trusting relationship versus someone who hasn’t. Even if a person is dealing with an issue at home, they won’t automatically open up about it simply because they are asked. They are going to wonder what is the intent behind the question. Will it be used against them? Will their situation be discussed with other people they don’t know?
An intrusive leader must be someone that people trust has their best interests at heart; someone they know will help and not gossip; someone that genuinely cares about their well-being and will protect their career. The current director of the Air Force Review Board Agency, retired Air Force Col. Dr. Gerald D. Curry states, “If you really want to be able to reach people when they are down and out, they have to trust you in order to make themselves vulnerable to share whatever it is that is ailing them.”
An intrusive leader must have a high level of emotional intelligence. They need to be cognizant of their emotions as well as the emotions of their people. They must know when something just doesn’t seem right, even when a person might say, “I am okay.” They must know when there is a need to follow up or dig a little deeper. Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Manson Brown spoke about something that happened when he was serving as a commanding officer of a unit and asked a group of female members,“How are things going at the unit for women?”
Recognizing that something just didn’t sound right when they offered up a mildly positive response, he decided to act. He directed the executive officer to investigate the situation deeper, understanding full well that as the commanding officer it might be difficult to “break in.” That decision to have the XO be intrusive yielded the discovery of a senior member at the unit that was sexually harassing the women. That member was subsequently held accountable, and separated from the service. As a result, unit morale drastically increased. Vice Adm. Brown’s emotional intelligence enabled him to take action as an intrusive leader and make the unit a more positive place to be every day.
Intrusive leaders must be committed to expending extra energy to be intrusive. Building a trusting relationship with someone takes time and effort. An intrusive leader must be willing to stay late to complete required tasks because they have taken time out of the normal workday to engage with their people. There are times that the easy choice is not to ask invasive questions, to take the initial “Everything is fine” response at face value, and not be meddlesome. Intrusive leaders don’t take the easy way out. They commit themselves to making the extra effort it takes to connect with people on a personal level, to care for them as a whole person, and find out how they can be the best leader for their people. A friend would take the time. A family member would take the time. Leaders need to take the time as well.
Intrusive leadership in practice
Intrusive leadership takes place in many ways. Adm. Michelle Howard, USN (ret), would ask her people directly during mid-period counseling, “Is there anything that is going on at work or home that is potentially stopping you from being at your best?” Master Chief Vanderhaden explained how a previous commanding officer on a river buoy tender would have him assist in getting the boat underway and then engage in conversations on the bridge aimed at getting to know him as a person, husband, and soon-to-be father. Chief Tester spoke about a supervisor he had when he was a junior enlisted member that would occasionally have a coffee break with him in the supervisor’s vehicle and simply talk about life. Whatever method used will trend in the right direction if it is sincere and genuine. The idea is to have already built a trusting relationship with someone before they encounter a crisis. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Greg Hersh was correct in his U.S. Naval Institute article, The Pretense of Intrusive Leadership, when he stated, “In that moment of crisis was not the time to begin to learn one another.” Asking someone about their personal life for the first time after they have failed a qualification check ride or oral board, and they have been working for you for two years, might come across as out of touch. Engage early, build up trust-equity, and then that intrusive leadership at the critical moment will be welcomed.
Maj. Forsling provided an example of what intrusive leadership is not when speaking about his experience being stationed at a unit where members were asked to fill out a form describing in detail what their weekend plans entailed. Were they planning on driving long distances or planning on attending a social event where alcoholic drinks would be served? There was no conversation or discussion. They were just asked to fill out the form and turn it in. As you would expect, this was not well received by the members of the unit. They felt that the form was a way to provide cover for supervisors if something bad happened, something that could get them placed on report — not an attempt to build a rapport. This is not intrusive leadership.
Intrusive leadership retains talent and saves lives
“If it wasn’t for that intrusive leader, I would have gotten out a long time ago!” was said numerous times during discussions and interviews about intrusive leadership. When people feel supported, cared for, and valued as a whole person by an organization, that’s when they decide to stay in. Military and government organizations will always struggle to retain quality talent through compensation packages. Retention bonuses only eases some of the pain caused by extended deployments and personal sacrifices.
The new retirement system in the armed forces will impact reenlistment decisions. Highly trained individuals can walk away with attractive resumes viewable on LinkedIn and take the beginning of their retirement portfolio with them. Master Chief Vanderhaden mentioned that making the decision to leave the organization is just easier now than it had been in the past. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem of retaining quality individuals by organizations requiring personal sacrifices as well.
“Before I experienced Cmdr. Greg McGee’s intrusive leadership style, I was already looking at opportunities outside the Coast Guard. After I experienced it, I decided that the Coast Guard was going to have to kick me out because I was all in, and I wanted everyone to experience what I felt from Cdr. McGee.” Recalled Vice Adm. Brown.
Currently, the military typically discusses intrusive leadership as a means to address sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and suicide. In addition to the aforementioned story when intrusive leadership led to the discovery of a senior member sexually harassing women at the unit, there were also stories where intrusive leadership played a pivotal role in stopping someone from taking their own life. Chief Tester spoke about a situation where he was notified about a young airman with some performance issues. Having talked to this specific airman before, he decided that he would check up on him personally in his barracks room. He did check up on the young airman and engaged in a critical conversation that stopped the airman from harming himself. The two remain friends to this day, even though Chief Tester is now retired, and the young airman has separated from the service. Intrusive leadership isn’t just a buzzword for the moment that is thrown around by senior leaders. It is critical actions that can literally save someone’s life.
Diversity and inclusion
As organizations continue to make progress in the area of diversity and inclusion, intrusive leadership has to be part of the strategic plan. Vice Adm. Brown would not have become the highest ranking African American in Coast Guard history if he didn’t encounter an intrusive leader early in his career. Adm. Michelle Howard would not have become the first African American female 4-star admiral in the U.S. Navy if she hadn’t encountered intrusive leadership in the beginning of her career. Gen. ‘CQ’ Brown Jr. would not have become the first African American military service chief in U.S. history if he didn’t encounter an intrusive leader at a critical point in his career. Every person wants to feel valued and cared for by the people they work with and in a larger sense, the organizations they belong to. For some of our minority members, the question, “Do my shipmates truly care about me?” creeps into our minds from time to time. Intrusive leadership answers that question each and every time. People enter the service with varying levels of organizational trust and varying levels of trust in people that don’t look like them. Past experiences growing up can shape a person’s attitudes and opinions in a profound way. Intrusive leadership lets everyone know, whether they need it or not, that they matter — their careers matter and their lives matter. They matter to the team, to the department, and to the organization.
What do we do now?
Military organizations already understand the necessity of making sure their members are okay and that their personal concerns are addressed. They literally employ personnel to do just that. They don’t call them Intrusive Leadership Officers. They call them Military Chaplains. But it is not just their responsibility. Chaplains can’t be everywhere at once. The need for this leadership style is far too great to be outsourced to just the Chaplain Corps. Every supervisor in every unit needs to make the effort to be intrusive and provide the type of caring leadership that will increase loyalty, improve workplace cohesion, and be pivotal in a moment of crisis. This leadership skill can’t just be recommended like it was by the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee in their investigation report following a series of tragic incidents. The answer cannot be to simply direct commanders to use intrusive leadership to address suicide as it was in a 2021 memorandum in the U.S. Navy.
Senior military leaders need to make the decision that intrusive leadership is a desired tool for any person in a leadership position. This decision must be voiced through a coordinated strategic communications plan. Then the organizational leaders need to be armed with this desired tool through training. Finally, this tool must be measured through performance evaluations, promotions, and hiring practices. If it isn’t measured, then the message is that it doesn’t matter. Intrusive leadership matters.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Marcus A. Canady graduated from the US Coast Guard Academy in 2000 with a degree in Operations Research and was assigned to the CGC LEGARE in Portsmouth, VA as a Deck Watch Officer. In 2021, he attended the National War College and earned a master’s degree in national strategic studies. He is currently assigned to Coast Guard Headquarters as the Executive Assistant to the Office of Budget Resources.