Leadership is influence.” – John Maxwell

When news broke recently that a senior Army leader had allegedly leveraged his significant influence to “prop up a subordinate officer who was deemed unfit for command,” the outcry was both immediate and unforgiving.

The Army’s Command Assessment Program (CAP) is intended to gauge an officer’s fitness for command and their overall potential for strategic leadership. Candidates are subjected to a number of assessments, ranging from physical fitness and communication skills to cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. Speaking with officers who have endured the assessments, the process is thorough, sometimes exhausting, and always revealing. It might not be perfect, but it’s a substantial improvement on previous methods of selection.

Run by the Army’s Talent Management Task Force, CAP is designed to be as fair and objective as possible, to ensure that very best, most capable leaders are selected for key command billets. As former Chief of Staff General James McConville noted when the program was launched, “We’ve got to get the right people in the right jobs, and… the most consequential job in the United States Army is battalion command.”

The senior leader in question hadn’t just influenced the selection process, he’d waged “a pressure campaign,” in the words of the program director, ultimately violating the integrity of the process. After the subordinate officer was found unsuitable for command – citing “counterproductive leadership,” a doctrinal euphemism that captures any number of negative traits – by a unanimous vote of the panel members, the senior leader immediately requested a reassessment. While other officers who are deemed unfit typically wait another year to be reassessed, a second assessment was ordered, and the officer was again found unfit for command.

When the Army released the command slate in January, the officer’s name was somehow included, despite twice being deemed unfit. The resulting uproar was a little slow to build, but when the story went public, it gained a fever pitch. The Secretary of the Army stepped in and suspended the senior leader pending the outcome of a formal investigation, “a rare move against a seasoned four-star general.”


Influence is an essential leadership skill, allowing you to have an impact on the attitudes, opinions, and behaviors of others. To provide some idea of how important influence is as a concept, the term itself is used 123 times in the Army’s keystone leadership doctrine. It’s even used to define an Army leader: “anyone who… inspires and influences people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” Influence is seen as a central component of effective leadership, applied with sound judgment and a strong sense of integrity.

Even with the best intentions, exerting undue influence is wrong. It violates the trust others place in us as leaders, calls our judgment into question, and threatens our objectivity. Why people choose to misuse their influence generally comes down to three reasons: a need for absolute control, a lack of empathy, or a sense of entitlement. Of those three, the last reason is cited most often when a senior leader chooses to abuse their influence.


Ideally, a leader will exercise their influence with integrity, proactively leveraging their influence for good. As a leader gains power and influence, it’s essential that they be good stewards of that influence, to make a positive difference for people and organizations and leave an enduring legacy that matters.

Putting your influence to work for good isn’t all that difficult. In the years – okay, decades – I’ve spent in and out of leadership roles (because you don’t have to be in an official position of authority to exert positive influence), there are three basic tenets I’ve followed. Each one allows me to put my influence to work in ways that benefit others and appropriately serve any legacy I might be leaving.

1. Teach, coach, and mentor.

I can honestly say that I’ve learned a lot in my life, knowledge that has served me well and allowed me to become who I am today. Now it’s time to share that wisdom and experience. Along the way, I do everything I can to help the next generation grow into the best versions of themselves possible, and I carve out enough time to mentor a handful of future leaders and influencers.

2. Elevate and empower others.

A big part of helping people grow and develop is using your influence to identify opportunities, break down barriers, and provide a boost to people as they stretch toward their goals. Maybe it’s a letter of recommendation or an introduction, maybe it’s inviting a young writer to work on a collaborative project. Ultimately, it’s about opening doors for people and giving them an opportunity to shine.

3. Lead by example.

Being a positive example for others is probably the easiest of the three, because all I have to do is be myself. That’s not to say that I don’t have my vices – I tend to swear a lot more than I should – but I have a clear sense of right and wrong and do my best to live by my values each and every day. Be someone that others can look up to. Make a difference.

We influence others through our actions, for good or bad. Sometimes we forget that, as leaders, we live our careers under a spotlight where people are watching and learning. What we do – and how we do it – matters. By choosing to use your influence positively, you will inspire others to follow in your footsteps, to lead as you do, and to make a positive difference.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.