On the surface, Military Leadership and Virtual Leadership seem like polar opposites. Military leadership is old, entrenched, and traditional with little flexibility in terms of normative behavior. On the other hand, virtual leadership is new, highly flexible, and sometimes signals a flat organizational hierarchy. Military leadership cannot exhibit a flat organizational hierarchy, because effective military leadership depends on the ascription to established structure and chain of command. In spite of these core differences, military leadership and virtual leadership share much in common. Both require trust, morale, and loyalty among team members. The difference is that usually the virtual leader has to work harder to gain trust and keep member morale high. Both military leadership and virtual leadership address immediate and real life situations as well as remote situations distant in both space and time. Various leadership styles can work with a military leader and a virtual leader, including transactional and transformational leadership. Therefore, military leadership and virtual leadership are more similar than different, and are of equal value in most situations.
Military leadership is not confined to one situation, and there are many situational variables that can impact military leadership. The American military defines leadership in broad terms because of this fact. "There is no one single way to view leadership. If you want to be an effective leader, therefore, you will ?nd it useful to study more than one leadership model or theory," ("Leadership Traits and Behaviors," p. 13). There are no clear definitions of exactly how a military leader should act, because each leader will have a different approach or style. However, leadership within the military context presumes certain features about the organization, its organizational culture, its mission, values, and goals.
Ultimately, the goals of leadership in the military remain the same regardless of individual leader differences. The United States Army "defines leadership as influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation, while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization," ("Leadership Traits and Behaviors," p. 15). This broad definition illustrates that military leadership is not so different from virtual leadership.
By definition, virtual leadership occurs in virtual teams -- which are comprised of individuals at distant geographic locations. Other than this contextual variable, virtual leadership can take on many forms. Some kinds of virtual leadership are military in orientation, which is why military leadership and virtual leadership sometimes go hand in hand.
Virtual leaders can be participative-democratic, transformational, transactional, authoritarian, or charismatic. There is no right or wrong leadership style in a virtual setting. The key to virtual leadership is to organize communications, and create shared values and goals that all members can commit to. A virtual team is often a temporary team. Therefore, virtual leadership is highly contextual and prone to situational variables and constraints.
Virtual leadership and military leadership theories share many elements in common. In fact, they can go hand in the same situation. Many military situations require remote leadership. A commander could be located at the base or in the Pentagon. His or her leadership is expressed not in person but through the technology channels available to the military. Therefore, one of the features that virtual leadership and military leadership share in common is reliance on technology for achieving team goals. Technology is crucial to both virtual leadership and military leadership. Virtual leadership would not exist without technology, whereas military leadership has been around since the first human civilizations waged wars.
Both virtual leadership and military leadership theories rely on motivation and morale. Military leadership will fail if troop morale is low. Therefore, one of the most important roles of the military leader is to boost morale by serving in a coaching position when necessary. In a virtual team, coaching and motivation are also important. Team members can experience low morale when their roles are poorly defined, or the mission and goals of the project fail to be expressed clearly. Motivation and morale are cornerstones of both military and virtual leadership.
Trust is also a critical component of both military and virtual leadership. Team members need to trust their leaders. In the military, lack of trust can be deadly to an entire mission. The troops need to trust their commanding officers as well as their commander in chief. In any corporate setting using virtual leadership, trust is also essential. Team members who feel at all insecure, or who do not trust the integrity of the leader, will not perform as well as they can.
Both military leadership and virtual leadership are constrained by situational variables. In a military context, leadership roles, styles, and behaviors will vary depending on the situation. A combat situation will reveal different leadership styles and traits than military classroom leadership or training. Within the various settings of military life, there are also different situations that can arise which call upon the leader to be adaptable. Sometimes a more authoritarian approach is needed to convey the core rules; in other situations such as during training or educational session, the leader can use a more democratic style to engage the team. The same types of situational variables impact the quality of virtual leadership. Virtual leaders can work on any type of project, within any type of time frame. In some situations, a virtual leader needs to assume a strong command in order to meet deadlines and avoid indecision. Other situations might require a transformational approach in which the leader empowers the individuals to make their own decisions.
Military leadership and virtual leadership must remain constant regardless of time and space variables. Even in a combat situation, there might be some geographic and time constraints on communications. These constraints cannot interfere with the quality of leadership or its goals. Therefore, military leadership is often virtual leadership. When virtual leadership expresses a strong organizational hierarchy, it can also start to resemble military leadership.
In spite of the many major similarities between military leadership and virtual leadership theories, there are some differences that impact the ways teams perform. The most important difference between military leadership and virtual leadership is that military leadership always takes place within a highly structured, well-established organizational hierarchy. The organizational culture of the military is immutable. There are no negotiations related to the chains of command. Any individual who does not appreciate the military chain of command will be dismissed. In a virtual leadership situation, there might be no chain of command at all.
As Kostner (1994) points out, one of the features of virtual leadership is that it is "harder for the remote leader to engage and create trust and cohesion; shared values and commitment -- so the leaders have to "create symbols and structures that solidify the unity of the dispersed work group," (p. 3). This is not so for the military leader. The military leader relies on generations of strong and well-developed symbols and structures. Communicating these symbols and structures to team members ensures commitment to the organization, its values, and its goals. The military leader does not have to work as hard at creating shared symbols because those symbols permeate the entire organization. With a virtual leader, the team is often ad hoc. There might be fundamental differences in the ways the individuals work in other organizational contexts, as the team might be ancillary to their daily work. In these situations the virtual team leaders need to work hard to encourage group cohesion.
Military leadership can be virtual leadership, and virtual leadership can be military leadership. Therefore, military leadership and virtual leadership theories share more in common than they differ. Military leadership does not necessarily happen within the context of the military setting, but there are few bureaucracies or hierarchical social institutions that permit military leadership theories to manifest as well as they do outside a military…