What Is Leadership?

Thomas Palmatier • August 2023Commentary • August 20, 2023

As I solicited articles from music education leaders for this issue focusing on leadership in our profession, it occurred to me that the U.S. taxpayers had invested a lot of money in teaching me about leadership. In my over 37 years of Army service, I spent nearly 22 years in command of soldiers around the world. The Army also sent me to many schools, culminating in the U.S. Army War College where I received a Master of Strategic Studies degree. Guess what? All this training and experience didn’t make me a perfect leader – far from it! But enough of it did sink into my tuba player brain to have a few things to share with you.

The Army believes there are three requirements of leadership. These categories of attributes and competencies are what it takes to be an effective leader. The three requirements provide a good yardstick for each of us to measure ourselves against.


– Character: Values, empathy, dedication to service, personal discipline, humility.

– Presence: Professional bearing, fitness, confidence, resilience.


Intellect: Mental agility, judgment, innovation, interpersonal tact, expertise.


Leads: Leads others, builds trust, extends influence, leads by example, communicates.

Develops: Prepares self, creates a positive environment, develops others, stewards the profession.

Achieves: Gets results, anticipates, integrates tasks resources and priorities, improves performance, gives feedback, adapts.

Once these personal requirements are met, then comes the fun part, making the art and science of leadership a reality. I use the terms art and science because part of successful leadership is having the intuition to sense what people need at any given time. That’s the art. It’s like crafting a great musical performance. While there are certain “rules,” (that’s the science part), the art comes from the emotional intelligence and adaptability of the leader and the willingness of others to participate (that comes from building trust over time).

An effective leader can blend the following three techniques as needed (the Army loves groups of three, by the way). These are: Provide Purpose, Provide Direction, and Provide Motivation.

Provide Purpose. Too often, we want to dive right into doing and fixing things without letting students, colleagues, and parents know the “why.” “You want me to spend two hours in the hot sun marching backwards? Why?” Studies show that people of all ages, but especially the current generation of students, will exhibit a greater level of buy-in when they know why they are doing something. If you’ve ever participated in developing Mission Statements and Visions, and think it’s a bunch of hooey, ask yourself why all successful leaders can instantly tell you their “why.”

Provide Direction. Sometimes it’s necessary to just plain tell people what to do. It’s still a lot better if they know the “why.” If you require them to neatly put away all stands and chairs and pick up any trash before leaving the room, you are probably telling them to do something they would rather not. However, if they understand it’s important to have a neat and orderly setting for learning and they should take pride in “their” room, it will be done more willingly.

I recall an incident in Iraq where we were driving across a main operating base in a van and a rocket impacted VERY closely, rocking the vehicle from side-to-side and spraying shrapnel. The driver looked at me and said, “Sir, that’s the closest one I’ve ever felt, do we keep going or stop and dismount?” All eyes in the vehicle turned to me, looking for direction. Now, keep in mind that most incoming fires were unaimed and completely random. If we had stayed put, we could have been hit by another round. If we had kept going, we might be driving right into an impact. Without hesitation, I said, “keep driving.” Everyone calmed down and we reached our destination safely. However, I knew my “decision” was completely random. People were looking for direction and it was my job to give it. Think about the marching band rehearsal where there’s lightning in the area or risk of heat injury. Sometimes we must just tell people what to do. The art is knowing when to do so and not making it your default leadership style.

Provide Motivation. People are not robots. They want to be inspired to do things willingly. By knowing them and what makes them tick, you’ll know how to motivate them.

So, the art is in the blending of these three techniques. Someone who does nothing but provide purpose without meaningful instruction is not much of a teacher or leader. An authoritarian who does nothing but give orders will not build a true team. A master motivator without “the beef” is nothing but a cheerleader to make everyone feel good. Review DO and see that a true leader causes his team to achieve results.

Since 1775, America’s Army has been developing leaders. Let’s learn something from that experience, and you don’t even have to go to basic combat training and jump out of airplanes like I did!


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