As leadership becomes an increasingly popular field of study, research continues to support the concept that there are numerous factors that play a role in effective leadership. For leadership to be effective, these factors must align in a way that is beneficial for both the leader and followers; in some instances the misalignment of these elements can cause ineffective leadership. Cary Fukunaga’s film Beasts of No Nation, takes the audience on a heart wrenching and disturbing journey as the film follows a battalion of child soldiers in West Africa (Kaufman & Fukunaga, 2015). The film shows the complexities of military leadership as well as how motivation, traits, influence tactics, charismatic leadership, and situational leadership interact to form the leadership process. The film also gives insight into how quickly leadership can change, and how the change of a few factors can cause the entire leadership process to fall apart.
Leadership researchers agree that there is no one combination of traits or situational factors that ensures effective leadership; this is especially true in regards to military leadership. In times of war and crisis, military leaders must be able to adapt to whatever situation is presented to them while still being able to effectively motivate their followers to risk their lives for the good of the organization. Military leaders must also make life or death decisions on the spot and still strive to meet organizational goals, making military leadership distinctly different from all other forms of leadership. Furthermore, effective military leadership requires a strong bond between leaders and followers, as well as between the followers themselves.(Prince & Tumlin, 2004). The Commandant, one of Beasts of No Nation’s main characters, exemplifies many of these criteria, as he has to motivate an entire battalion of children to fight against the national government while still meeting the overarching goals of the National Defense Force organization. The Commandant has close bonds with most of his soldiers, as they view him as the person who will support them in standing up to the national government for terrorizing their communities. The soldiers have a strong sense of community within the battalion, and they rely on one another both inside and outside of battle; most of their parents were either killed or by the national government, so the battalion is the only real family many of them have. The Commandant’s ability to motivate his soldiers in such a dangerous area and his quick thinking skills make him a rather effective military leader in the NDF organization.
The motivation of followers is an essential part of leadership, regardless of if it is military leadership or not. Motivation is essentially anything that “provides direction, intensity, and persistence to behavior” (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2014). Motivation is linked directly to performance and job satisfaction; the more motivated followers feel, the more effort they are willing to put forth towards the job, and this will likely make them more satisfied (Hughes et al., 2014). One of the most well known motivational theories is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which can explain why the Commandant has such a high success rate when motivating his followers.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starts with physiological needs, which include needs like food, water, and shelter (Hughes et al., 2014). Many of the children in the Commandant’s battalion had these essential needs yanked out from underneath them, and joining the NDF has allowed the Commandant to supply them with the resources they need to fulfill them. Following the hierarchy up the ladder, the Commandant also fulfills his followers’ security needs by teaching them how to defend themselves against the national government’s soldiers; since many of them watched their families die at the hands of the government, this need is especially important in regards to motivating them. The Commandant also supplies his soldiers with a sense of belonging since, for many of them, the battalion is virtually the only family they have. By helping his followers fulfill these needs, he can motivate his followers to work harder and achieve the goals he sets for them.
Although being able to motivate followers is a fundamental aspect of leadership, motivation will not singlehandedly enhance a leader’s effectiveness. Often times, a leader’s personality traits can influence how effective they are, especially in particular situations. Traits play a very important role in how people react and behave in “weak situations”, or unexpected or unfamiliar situations (Hughes et al., 2014). The Five Factor OCEAN model of personality gives a simple way to categorize behaviors into five different groups: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Hughes et al., 2014). The Commandant, being the head of a battalion of soldiers, must be able to react to various unexpected situations; when enemy soldiers ambush their camp at night, he is able to quickly set up defenses and fight them off. The Commandant is relatively open to experience, as his involvement in the war has caused him to find new battle strategies and ways of training soldiers to maximize effectiveness. His level of conscientiousness is on the lower end, as he has the ability to make spontaneous decisions and is creative enough to plan battle strategies that catch the national government forces off guard. The Commandant also has relatively positive relationships with his followers and fellow officers; they are loyal to him, respect him, and never seem to be fearful of his presence. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, his neuroticism levels are extremely low; he reacts well to stress and tends to think through stressful situations without panicking or being pessimistic. In a war zone, low neuroticism makes the difference between life and death, as panicking can cause wrong decisions in times of crisis.
Likewise, other leadership attributes, such as intelligence, play a vital role in effective leadership. Intelligence is “a person’s all-around effectiveness in activities directed by thought” (Hughes et al., 2014). Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence focuses on what a leader does when solving problems, and this theory proposes that there are three basic types of intelligence: analytic intelligence, practical intelligence, and creative intelligence (Hughes et al., 2014). The Commandant has relatively high analytic intelligence in the sense that he can see connections between issues in his battalion and on the battlefield, and he can make quick decisions with little information. When attacking a bridge, they have no idea what defenses the enemy battalion have in place, so the Commandant makes a quick decision to plant bombs that distract the enemy so that his battalion can assess the group before attacking. He also has practical intelligence in the sense that he can adapt to unfamiliar situations quickly. The battle style his troops partake, including ambushing and guerrilla warfare, requires quick thinking and he must make strategic decisions on a whim when he receives new, often challenging orders from his commanding officers.
In order for leaders to motivate their followers and prompt high performance and goal achievement, they must be able to influence their followers. Influence is the “change in a target agent’s attitudes, values, beliefs, or behaviors as the result of influence tactics” (Hughes et al., 2014). French and Raven’s five bases of power are expert power, referent power, legitimate power, reward power, and coercive power; the effectiveness of a leader’s influence tactics can be assessed by looking at follower motivation, group cohesiveness, and group performance (Hughes et al., 2014). The Commandant holds expert power over his soldiers because he has far more knowledge surrounding battle strategies and war in general than they do; this gives him the power to influence the decisions of the group because he ultimately has more knowledge and experience in war than anyone else in the group. He also has lots of referent power due to the strong bonds between him and his soldiers; his soldiers credit him for their survival and ability to fight for what they believe in. Moreover, he takes time to know his followers personally, and he even has specially close relationships with the soldiers who suffered the roughest past, such as Agu and Strika.
Additionally, he has legitimate power in the group due to his position as commander of the battalion; this position ultimately gives him the authority to make all decisions for the group. He has some reward power, as he has control over resources such as weapons and food; this base of power plays a large role in his influence over his followers considering their circumstances of being in a poor war zone. The Commandant rarely uses the coercive power, except when bringing new soldiers into the group; if someone refuses to join the NDF and his battalion, they are labeled as an enemy and ultimately executed. Luckily, most of the children the NDF encounters hate the national government and eagerly join to help avenge their families and communities. Similarly, he uses various influence tactics to achieve goals in his battalion. Inspirational appeals, or appeals designed to arouse enthusiasm or emotions in followers tend to be the most effective within his followers due to their reasons for joining the NDF (Hughes et al,. 2014). He often brings up how the national government slaughtered innocent families and destroyed entire communities to get the soldiers pumped up before battle. In a sense, the Commandant also uses ingratiation tactics by giving the soldiers a drug called “brown-brown”, known for making people more energetic and aggressive due to the cocaine in it, before giving orders or going into battle.
Equally important to influencing followers is how leaders initiate change in organizations. Charismatic and transformational leadership play an essential role in organizational change; charismatic authority systems usually occur in rebellion to another, failing authority system. Transformational leadership changes the status quo by appealing to followers’ values and meeting the groups needs; charismatic leadership also changes the status quo, and although it can meet the needs of the group, the primary motivation is meeting the leader’s own needs (Hughes et al,. 2014). The Commandant possesses the characteristics of a charismatic leader; he wishes to help his soldiers battle the national government and has a vision to do so, which meets the needs of the group, but he also wishes to do well in battle so that he will be promoted to a general. This charismatic leadership does not inherently make the Commandant a bad leader, as the needs of the group are still being met.
Lastly, the situation plays arguably the most complex role in the leadership process. The Situational Leadership Model considers two categories, task behavior and relationship behavior, to determine how leaders should act in particular situations in regards to followers. The model assesses the followers’ ability and willingness to complete tasks and a corresponding graph explains which style of leadership should be used for that type of follower. This helps the leader ensure that they are providing the best leadership for different types of followers (Hughes et al,. 2014). The Commandant must give more guidance to new members of his battalion, as they do not yet understand the ways of war and what their roles are. When Agu first joins the battalion, the Commandant gives him more attention and assistance than he does for other followers because Agu needed to learn his place in the group. As Agu became comfortable in the NDF, the Commandant backed off and began giving him less specific instructions because he was more able to complete the tasks.
The situation can also impact how effective the leadership is; if the situation and environment change drastically, but the leadership remains the same, it is likely that the leadership may no longer be effective. When the Commandant learns that he is not being promoted to general, he takes his battalion and rebels against the NDF; his soldiers, being extremely loyal to him, follow without question. However, their food, weapons, and other resources begin to run dry without NDF support; the Commandant is hopeless and does nothing to try and help his followers. After months of these conditions, the soldiers become so dissatisfied with their needs not being met that they decide to abandon their commander and surrender to the national government. This further emphasizes how essential Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is, and how quickly leadership can fall apart when needs are not met. According to Manfred Kets de Vries, this falls under the detached neurotic leadership style, part of a theory regarding dysfunctional leadership. In the detached style of leadership, the leader is cold and insensitive, and is completely withdrawn from his followers and their needs. Often times, this causes the followers to be riddled with conflict and be extremely insecure in their case, which can lead to them abandoning the leader (de Vries, 2004).
Conclusively, the various leader attributes, influence tactics, and situational factors must all align in a way that mutually beneficial to the leader and followers for effective leadership to take place. When both the leader and the followers’ needs are being met, the leadership process can carry on relatively smoothly; when the needs of the followers are neglected, however, the leadership system in place can quickly disintegrate. Beasts of No Nation encompasses both effective and ineffective leadership; it gives insight into the militaristic side of leadership, how leaders in rebel groups can motivate their followers, and how easily the leader-follower relationship can change in the face of hardship.