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Leadership perspectives: West Point’s Todd Woodruff

UNC Kenan-FlaglerTodd Woodruff thinks all leaders have something to learn from the sometimes high-risk environment of the military.

Woodruff (PhD 12), a professor and the director of Leadership and Management Studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, spoke to MBA students at UNC Kenan-Flagler Jan. 17 as part of the annual Leadership Day, when students attend interactive workshops, talks and simulations led by business professionals from a variety of backgrounds.

Woodruff defines in-extremis leadership as “providing purpose, motivation and direction to people when there is imminent physical danger and where followers believe that leader behavior will influence their physical well-being or survival.”

And though most business professionals do not face the same physical danger in their daily work that soldiers do, trust and communication are key to success in all leadership situations, he said.

The qualities that MBA students said they expected out of a leader — a good track record, competence, selflessness — mirror what soldiers say they want from their leaders.

The high stakes of military situations require that both leaders and subordinates be confident in their abilities, Woodruff said.

“In the military, we operate on mission orders. We visualize what the end state is,” he said. “We can’t micromanage, the environment is too complex. We have to trust them.”

A large part of developing military leaders is hard, realistic practice in decision making, Woodruff said. Leaders in the military are tested, and failure is often forced upon them to gauge how they react.

“‘I suggest you do something”’ is our most common advice in those situations,” he said.

And the most important tools in growing new leaders?

Experience, reflection and new knowledge, advised Woodruff.