Leading With a Loving Heart

Ryan Erbe

Maj. Benjamin Elliott

Originally published November 1, 2022 – Association of the United States Army

Three years ago, the Army unveiled the first glimpse of its People First initiative. Central to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville’s innovative strategy was interweaving the idea of care for soldiers with the foundational building block of the Army: the squad. “This is My Squad” is more than just a slogan, and it aims to make caring for one another the “secret sauce,” in McConville’s words, that binds squads together.

To examine how to care for squads, it is important to pay attention to how to give soldiers and teams purpose while making people a priority. Army doctrine offers hints and says stewardship is about “caring for the people and resources entrusted to [leaders] by the American people,” according to Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession.

One of the roles of a trusted Army professional under the Army Ethic—being stewards of the Army profession—proves Army leaders’ commitment to the resources entrusted to the nation. Officers command units, establish policy and manage resources, “while balancing risks and caring for … people and families,” ADP 6-22 says.

Yet these points in doctrine are more than just a guideline or checklist. They show a fulfillment of the Army’s oath to care for its most valuable resource—its people.

Defining Love

Can we apply a virtue to this challenge to assist leaders in developing their own opportunities to care for their people? We often look to the ancients for our virtuous inspiration, and when we examine the idea of love, there are several words that mean love and many more ideas about what love is. In contemporary language, we do not often parse these out well.

The Greeks used the word “agape” to convey unconditional, sacrificial, selfless love that one would show to those nearest to their hearts. Eric Silverman, a professor of philosophy at Christopher Newport University, Virginia, has argued for the supremacy of agape love as the virtue that underpins all others. He contends that other moral virtues find their proper end in agape love.

In his 2019 book, The Supremacy of Love: An Agape-Centered Vision of  Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, Silverman defines love as a “disposition towards relationally appropriate acts of the will—consisting of desires for the ongoing good of persons.” Practically speaking, this suggests that effectively practicing love serves as the chief virtue, or perhaps the secret sauce, to bind others together in relationally appropriate settings.

While this may sound a bit theoretical, a simplistic way of stating this is best found in then-retired Gen. Melvin Zais’ paraphrase of an Army chief of staff: “You must give a damn.”

Empirical research from Army units in Iraq reveals benefits of an agape love orientation toward subordinates. Retired Col. Patrick Sweeney, now a professor at Wake Forest University School of Business, North Carolina, and director of its Allegacy Center for Leadership and Character, surveyed soldiers and found that for subordinates to trust their leaders, three characteristics were important: competence, character and caring.

Care is consistent with Silverman’s definition of agape love, which Sweeney describes as a heartfelt commitment to doing the right thing for subordinate soldiers under trying circumstances. Specifically, a caring leader shows empathy, shares risks with their soldiers and is present to stand with their soldiers in the face of daunting challenges.

Following are some practical strategies for cultivating and demonstrating love for soldiers, whether it’s through mental training, listening, walking around a unit or mutual respect.

Mental Training

A growing body of research indicates that mental training consisting of visualizing and focusing on achieving good in another person’s life can promote positive interpersonal behavior, specifically, greater levels of empathy and compassion. This type of mental activity also can contribute to greater levels of feeling connected to others.

Spending a few minutes before the day begins by envisioning each soldier, imagining their needs and how to bring about the good in their lives would be a practical way to engage this type of mental training as a means of developing the virtue of agape love.

Show Care by Listening

Caring often begins with listening. Leaders create open dialogue in which open communication does more than share information. It shows that leaders care about their subordinates. To know what is going on in the lives of subordinates, begin by asking questions and taking the time to truly listen to their responses. As ADP 6-22 says, when leaders “take an interest in Soldier and [Department of the Army] Civilian development [it shows] they care.”

Zais held that to be a successful leader, one has an obligation to care for soldiers. During his classic commentary on leadership, delivered in 1977 during a lecture at the Armed Forces Staff College, he implored leaders to wonder what soldiers are doing. By wondering what subordinates are doing while leaders go about their routine, such as golfing, spending time with friends or coming home from church on Sunday, it shows they care.

Walking Around

Presence is central to a leader’s ability to connect with soldiers. Being routinely engaged in places where leaders typically are not present shows that the leader cares. Officers often can be found at the dining facility on Thanksgiving, but walking through the barracks on a Tuesday evening will show an even deeper connection and commitment to subordinates. Walking around during soldier parties, showing up at routine weekly training or spending a morning shadowing a soldier who is conducting preventive maintenance checks goes a long way. Presence shows that a leader cares.

Mutual Respect

Mutual respect forms through shared hardship, confidence, and by leaders who can garner the appreciation of their subordinates. ADP 6-22 says, “Leaders who respect those with whom they work will likely garner respect in return.” This mutual respect, as a form of loving soldiers, is more than a virtue. It is a necessity.

Zais stated in his lecture: “You cannot ask for respect and obedience and willingness to assault hot landing zones, hump backbreaking ridges, destroy dug-in emplacements if your soldier has not been treated with the respect and dignity which fosters unit esprit and personal pride.”

Care promotes a unit’s esprit de corps, one of the five essential characteristics of the Army profession, as leaders show their mutual respect toward those they lead.

Care for subordinates is not new; the concept has existed in armies from antiquity. ADP 6-22 confirms that caring for subordinates is “a solemn responsibility.”

As we consider McConville’s renewal of care co-existing at the squad level, leaders must place an emphasis on care, compassion and active levels of engagement. Love and care provide a rubric to assess leadership and foster the good in subordinates, and to place people first in the decades to come.

Maj. Benjamin Elliott is the course director for the capstone core course, Officership, at the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, West Point, New York. His operational deployments include operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. He is a 2007 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, and has a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from the National Intelligence University.

Ryan Erbe is the emotional wellness adviser with the Character Integration Advisory Group and an assistant professor in behavioral sciences and leadership, West Point. He holds a doctorate in health behavior and human development from Indiana University.