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Leadership by Poncho

“Leadership by poncho,” joked my fellow soldier and I as an event from Officer Candidate School was humorously analyzed. The course is the military’s program to commission enlisted soldiers and civilians who have enough college credits to apply to become commissioned officer. It is a 12 weeks course that is meant to prepare future officers…leaders. At some point during the training there is a field training exercise where the candidates take turns leading units during their patrols to be graded for their leadership abilities.

Many years ago during one of these exercises there was a candidate who wanted to move where the poncho from where it was tied to another location on the web gear. This is the harness and belt upon which the soldier often fixes things such as ammunition, canteens, and other items to carry on operations. In this case, the poncho was tied onto the web gear as part of the designated uniform for the patrol. A new “leader” came aboard to be graded and he decided to move the poncho to a different location on the web gear. This decision was not received well as this would mean everyone in the patrol would have to remove the poncho and retie it in another location on top of other necessary activities that they often had little time to complete. It was viewed as an unnecessary nuisance that didn’t really accomplish anything. The leader stuck by his guns though and thus everyone had to retie the poncho onto the new location designated by the specified uniform.

At the end of the patrol, the instructor who was grading the leader’s performance during the patrol made a statement commending the leader’s decision and ensured that everyone else present was listening so that they may learn the lesson. What was the lesson? The leader must make decisions and carry them out, even if they are not received well by the led. By insisting on moving the poncho to a new location and carrying out that decision even though the led disagreed, was a sign of good military leadership. Now, to be fair, for those whose sensibilities were just hurt by this principle, this is a sound military principle where split second decisions and decisive action may be required by a leader and waiting for approval from everyone is counterproductive to such goals. By no means, of course, is this meant to be an excuse for poor leadership disguised as military efficiency.

Certainly the instructor meant well by the illustration. Too often young candidates have had little real experience leading others in military situations and many have almost no leadership experience whatsoever. The tendency is to tread softly in the decision making process in hopes of getting everyone’s approval before they will decide on a course of action. This is not how to lead in a military setting. I would even say this is not how to lead in many situations. Certainly you can be steam rolled in the business world just as well you may in the military if you lead with such a posture. To lead, at some point you will have to assert yourself. The instructor surely wanted to point out when other candidates demonstrated initiative and command traits as examples for others to follow.

However, I am sure that he was not aware of the monster that had just been created. Not to be outdone, every candidate, literally ever one of them, then made everyone change the location of the poncho with every change of command. The first change may have been for a good reason. The leader probably reasoned a more efficient location for the poncho. However, it is obvious the subsequent changes had nothing to do with efficiency or any other particular purpose other than to copy a quick score for their grade. Of course, the other students were complaining all the more as it was obvious why the decision was being made and everyone had to suffer with each change. Yet, the “leader” was going to assert themselves and show their leadership potential at everyone else’s expense. Of course, by copying each other without thought just for the score was not leadership at all. This is what we laughed at when we would say “Leadership by Poncho:” not knowing how to really lead but desperately trying to look like you are.

I am convinced this helps shows the benefit of our federalist system. Power is distributed with checks and balances to spread out the effects of arbitrary and overreaching rule. Let’s face it. What usually makes one candidate look more appealing than another? A better smile, a bit of charm, some irresistible cute background story or sob story can go a long away. They just look the part. Oh, and let’s not rule out having wealth or the ability to get funding! In this group some of them are leaders, but experience has shown us that quite a few look good at not leading.

So other than having someone to blame when they mess things up, how do they survive as leaders by not leading? Well, with “Leadership by poncho!” They simply do what they see others doing. If they see a positive reaction or certain legitimacy demonstrated, they are surely going to follow suit. They will not ask important questions like, “Will that work here?” or “What problems will that cause?” If someone else got credit, whether they should have or not, it is going to be copied. This is the classic strategy of communism called emulation, where public accolades are showered on those who reach designated party goals, and none-leaders love this sort of system. Think, “Well, everyone is doing it!”

This can be shown by how the covid-19 reactions happened. These are given as examples not to say an action was a good decision or not, but to demonstrate how this principle works. What was the mantra we first heard? Wash your hands, keep your distance, and don’t touch your face. This was simply picked up by everyone and repeated. What do you hear now? You almost don’t even hear to wash your hands. Even social distancing has sort of lost its verbiage lately, and touching your face simply died a quick death since (let’s face it) everyone is just going to touch their face. Instead the latest craze is the mask. Notice we didn’t start with masks! It is not because no one thought about masks. There were talked about for a while. It was only when someone said we are wearing masks (let’s move the poncho) that everyone else decided it was a great idea. The goal of course is to copy something that has no chance of failing to limit risk of embarrassment. If there is no blame whether it works or not, then you copy it right away. However, say a state wants to fully open its economy and relax restrictions. That will be copied only after the others see that doomsday did not actually take place. But still, in the end, the poncho is getting moved if cheap “leadership” points are to be gained.

Federalism takes this phenomenon, limits its negative effects, and get the best use out of it. After a while, states are going to copy what works. This is even regardless of the moral considerations. The lottery and drug sells are two prime examples. Quick money is a quick poncho move that few leaders in government have the will to resist. At the same time, when a hot headed leader wants to burn everything down around him, the damage is minimized as others think, “Ya, I am not going to copy that.” Let this play out say for example in areas that want to defund their police departments. When the rising crime and economic impact hits, others can look at it and see that it is not a wise move to copy such a ridiculous idea. Since “Leadership by poncho” is going to be a primary trait from most of our leaders, then Federalism is the best we have to curb the madness. The rest is in the hands of diligent citizens.

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