In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It
By Thomas A. Kolditz, PhD
Colonel Thomas A. Kolditz is a professor and head of the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at the United States Military Academy. While his research focuses on military, police, and fire critical-response organizations, he argues that the lessons from life-or-death situations offers “profound lessons for leadership in all settings.” The New York City Fire Department’s Deputy Assistant Chief, Joseph W. Pfeifer, sums up Kolditz’s position in the book’s foreword: “In Extremis Leadership examines those high-risk environments and provides a new understanding of how to lead not only in life-and-death situations but also in everyday situations.”
Certainly, if salaries, job security, and work environments are in order, leadership demands are not as intense. However, should conditions change for the worse, one can lead only if the preexisting foundation has been laid. Kolditz points out that some leaders rise to the occasion, but that ability is based on a fundamental understanding of what leadership requires—what he calls “authentic leadership.”
“Optimism, hopefulness, and resiliency provide the key to understanding why leaders who are authentic are also effective at commanding loyalty, obedience, admiration, and respect,” he writes. When these traits are valued, authentic leaders exert a powerful influence.
Kolditz also explores another important trait of authentic leaders—their recognition of the value of human life. “In extremis leadership always comes with a tangible moral obligation… [It is] less about power over subordinates and more about an obligation toward their well-being and survival.” If corporate management prized employees’ well-being, the author posits, employees would likely reciprocate for that caring and enhance the positive aspects of their workplaces.
Being a leader is about developing a character that is “inextricably linked to giving purpose, motivation, and direction to others,” according to the book. While it remains to be seen how much the principles of authentic leadership cross over from life-and-death situations to the business world, there is no question that many of the concepts Kolditz delineates seem sensible and applicable.