Army Engineer leaders provide thoughts on characteristics of effective leadership

By Col. Clete Goetz, Command Sgt. Maj. Zachary R. Plummer, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Willie Gadsden Jr., Col. Aaron Williams, Dr. Lisa Brown and Lt. Col. Stew BaileyFebruary 14, 2024

Drawing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Corps Castle, an enduring symbol of Army engineers.
Drawing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Corps Castle, an enduring symbol of Army engineers. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Col. Clete Goetz, United States Army Engineer School Commandant

Over the course of my career, I have been incredibly fortunate to lead engineering organizations of all sizes and specialties. Whether it was a platoon of 30 parachute-borne combat engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers organizations at home and abroad, or our largest tactical units of thousands of soldiers, it has always been an honor to be among the fantastically dedicated military and civilian engineers in the U.S. Army.

Now, as the Commandant of the United States Army Engineer School, I get to ensure that we continue to produce the world's finest military engineers. Military engineering is a discipline unto itself. It is, at times, a combination of several disciplines: civil, environmental, electrical, mechanical and warfighting know-how and leadership.

Hard problems come to us, and we pride ourselves in being, above everything else, problem solvers for the Army and the joint force.

While I get to lead the Army’s Engineer School, I do not have a monopoly on leadership within the school. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on leading technical organizations alongside some of the other great leaders.

I want to begin with what I think is something that only the leader of an organization can do – provide vision.

Col. Clete Goetz
Col. Clete Goetz (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

Providing Vision

Providing vision is essential. This sense of what the organization will do and become is the common point of reference for its members. Beyond providing an aspirational objective, the vision of the organization is the starting point for determining what you will and will not do. It provides clarity. It is not uncommon for the vision to change with leadership changes.

A leader can be accused of being unimaginative for adopting a previous leader's direction. I personally disagree with this notion. If the organization is healthy and on the right strategic path, summarily changing its end state is unnecessarily disruptive. At the Engineer School, our vision has remained remarkably consistent while our natural core competencies; combat, general and geospatial engineering, have been unchanged since 1775. Our ability to see who we are gives us remarkable clarity.

To unify the efforts of the Army Engineer Regiment's 88,000 uniformed members and capitalize on the skill of the 37,000 largely civilian teammates in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commanded by the Chief of Engineers, we have codified our vision in our doctrine. We refer to this vision as our "boxtop."

If someone dumped the puzzle pieces on a table and told you to solve it, you would have difficulty until you could see the boxtop. Without a clear vision of your objective, you would flail. Eventually, you would get all the pieces together, but the lack of vision would seriously hamper your progress. One of my distinguished predecessors, Maj. Gen. (Retired) Bryan Watson, will tell you that the most essential part of a puzzle is not a corner or an edge piece, but the boxtop. He is right.

Our boxtop allows us to see ourselves and describe our destination over time consistently. This sense of self, combined with a knowledge of our destination, allows the Engineer School to predictably and iteratively adjust how we train, educate and equip our engineers today and in the future to be the technical experts and problem solvers expected by the Army. A leader's vision becomes the most important way to unify the organization, and it is too often overlooked.

As mentioned earlier, as the commandant, I do not have a monopoly on leadership. Each member of the U.S. Army Engineer Regiment’s leadership team has unique qualities and strengths built through over 20 years of experience in various roles across the regiment, the Army and the globe. I asked the regiment’s "Top 6" their thoughts on characteristics of effective leadership.

Through the article, I hope that the characteristics resonate with each reader and cause each of us to evaluate our leadership qualities and spark conversation and discourse as a bridge to discuss the diverse professional leadership attributes needed for organizations to succeed.

Command Sgt. Maj. Plummer
Command Sgt. Maj. Plummer (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Command Sgt. Maj. Zachary R. Plummer, United States Army Engineer School Regimental Command Sergeant Major


“Discipline is based on pride in the profession of arms, meticulous attention to detail, mutual respect, and confidence. Discipline must be a habit so ingrained that it is stronger than the excitement of battle or the fear of death.” - Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Discipline and accountability go hand in hand. When the discipline of an individual or an organization begins to falter, so will the effectiveness of the individual or organization. I was once told that the Army has two types of standards – the standards we keep and the standards we accept.

Maintaining the standards is a way to demonstrate the level of pride one has in oneself or the organization. When we lack accountability, we now accept the new standard. When the accepted standards, lack of discipline and a lack of accountability exist, the culture of the organization changes.

A simple example is if you walk by a piece of trash and do not pick it up, you now accept that having trash in your area is the new standard. When I use this example, Soldiers often get fixated on me talking about picking up trash. Now, replace trash for conducting maintenance, or a platoon live fire or gunnery to standard. You have now accepted that a substandard critical task is a new standard in your organization.

One of the best leaders I had the opportunity to serve with was relentless in garrison, ruthless in the field and an absolute warrior in combat. His relentlessness to standards in the garrison continued to build on the foundation of the discipline. His actions did not mean that he walked around looking for substandard; rather, he held those accountable when needed. His ruthlessness to standards in the field led to the organization's success in its wartime tasks.

If a team, squad, platoon, company or battalion did not perform a task to standard, then that unit retrained the task until they were proficient. That unit was ready to perform its wartime mission when it was time to deploy. He led his well-trained and disciplined unit through some of the most intense fighting in Iraq.

According to George Washington’s “Instructions to Company Captains,” dated July 29, 1757, "Discipline is the soul of an Army." Discipline starts with the individual during initial entry training, continues through the leaders in an organization and is tested in combat.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Willie Gadsden Jr.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Willie Gadsden Jr. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Willie Gadsden Jr., United States Army Engineer School Regimental Chief Warrant Officer

Inspirational Leadership

In the intricate tapestry of military service, inspirational leadership emerges as an indispensable thread, weaving together camaraderie, shared purpose, and unwavering commitment. Within the military, inspirational leaders take on the roles of both commander and mentor, serving as beacons that ignite a profound sense of duty. Unlike conventional leadership, inspirational leaders in this context transcend strategic planning; they become architects of devotion to the mission.

Beyond the tactical maneuvers and strategic considerations, these leaders excel in compelling communication, crafting narratives that resonate with the very core of their Soldiers. Their ability to articulate a compelling vision instills a sense of purpose beyond duty's rigors. In the face of adversity, inspirational leaders serve as catalysts, turning challenges into opportunities for growth. The motivation they instill becomes a potent force multiplier, transforming a group of individuals into a united and resilient force capable of surmounting any obstacle on the path to triumph.

As the landscape of warfare evolves and the nature of challenges becomes more complex, the importance of inspirational leadership stands unyielding in the face of adversity. In the future, when technology and tactics may shift, the enduring impact of leaders who inspire commitment and foster resilience will remain a cornerstone of military success. Inspirational leadership is not just a strategy for the present; it is an investment in the enduring strength and unity of military forces, ensuring their ability to adapt and overcome challenges in the dynamic theaters of tomorrow.

Strategic Leadership

In the military theater, strategic leadership takes on a critical role, akin to orchestrating a complex symphony of operations. A strategic leader in the military is not only a tactician but a planner who navigates the intricacies of missions with foresight and precision.

This leadership style involves not just setting objectives but meticulously planning each maneuver to ensure the success of the larger mission. Picture a military commander as a chess grandmaster, anticipating the enemy's moves and positioning forces strategically for victory. Understanding the strengths and vulnerabilities of the unit becomes paramount, coupled with the ability to seize opportunities, and mitigate risks in the fluid and unpredictable landscape of the battlefield.

Strategic leaders become architects of triumph, charting a course that transforms mission objectives into tangible and decisive victories.

Col. Aaron Williams
Col. Aaron Williams (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Col. Aaron Williams, United States Army Engineer School Assistant Commandant


Army Doctrine Publication 6-0 Mission Command defines mutual trust as "shared confidence between commanders, subordinates, and partners that they can be relied on and are competent in performing their assigned tasks."

Mutual trust is one of the seven principles of mission command and arguably the most important. Mission command and the art of practicing it are foundationally built on trust and willingness to accept prudent risk. The concepts of trust and risk are deeply intertwined.

Army leaders often discuss "trust" as the bedrock for everything. In high-performing organizations, mutual trust between the leader and led is impenetrable. This relationship creates a climate of mutual trust between the staff, commands, and other team members. Trust is built through all interactions and not only based on specific events or missions. Trust is built over time and requires constant nurturing.

The loss of trust in an individual or organization can occur instantly and potentially because of one incident. Once trust is lost, it is a quality that is very difficult to regain. It is important to clarify trust must also be mutual; trust is a quality shared up, down, left, and right. Individual trust forms the foundation for organizational trust. It is nearly impossible to have trust in an organization, at any level, without first having trust in the individuals within that organization.

ADP 6-0 further states "trust is based on personal qualities, such as professional competence, character, and commitment...[and] is also a product of a common background, education, understanding of doctrine, and a common language for operations."

Leaders at all levels should continually strive to establish and build mutual trust with other leaders and organizations through actions and word. Trust is foundational to leadership across the Army.

Dr. Lisa Brown
Dr. Lisa Brown (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Dr. Lisa Brown, United States Army Engineer School Deputy Commandant


One of the most challenging leaders I have worked for was not toxic. They were not especially demanding. What made them difficult is attributed to the fact that I have no idea, to this day, who they were as a leader. I would be hard-pressed to describe a single goal they had for the organization. They lacked an attribute key to success, and often a root cause of failure – openness.

Often cited as an essential characteristic of authentic leadership, openness creates a sense of connection and relatability with subordinates. Leaders who share their personal stories and experiences allow others to "know" them, which fosters trust.

To illustrate this impact, let's examine a real-life story of both innovation and tragedy. In "Young Men and Fire," Norman Maclean tells the story of the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. As a study in fighting wildfires, the Mann Gulch Fire resulted in the “discovery” of the escape fire – a tool still used today to survive a rapidly advancing fire. But the Mann Gulch fire is less remembered for this groundbreaking discovery and mostly remembered as a day when 13 of 16 smokejumpers who arrived to fight the fire were dead within two hours of the jump.

As a study in leadership, the Mann Gulch Fire tells the story of the crew foreman, Wagner "Wag" Dodge, a veteran smokejumper who survived the fire by lighting an escape fire and lying down in the center of the burned-out area, surviving this horrific event. Tragically, at the critical moment of survival, Dodge could not convince a single member of his crew to trust his direction to drop their tools and lie down with him – a leadership failure that led to catastrophic loss.

When historians study the lessons of the Mann Gulch Fire, the question that is central to the failure is, "Why didn't the crew trust Dodge's leadership?" The young and relatively inexperienced crew had never worked under Dodge before that day. While some had experience working together in previous fires, only a few knew Dodge besides by position and reputation; none served with Dodge.

By all reports, Dodge was the "strong, silent type" who was well respected in the smokejumper community. If we ask what characteristics in a leader engender trust, he fits many of the standard requirements – he had the competence and the character to lead. However, the key to establishing and developing trust is a trait academics refer to as "benevolence," which asks, "Does this person have my best interests at heart?" In other words, to trust, we must, at least to a certain extent, know the person.

From meeting the crew until he gave the order to drop their tools and lay down where he had lit the escape fire, there is evidence that Dodge had no meaningful interaction with the crew. He ate separately from them, having gone to meet another park ranger who had information on the fire, and only rejoined them for a few minutes before the fire shifted in their direction. There's no guarantee that these men would have followed his direction and survived if he had taken time to interact with them. However, based on what we know about the foundations of trust, the chances are greater that they would have followed him if they knew him better. In the moment of crisis, the split-second decision of whether to trust might have been influenced by a better connection between leader and subordinate.

The challenging leader I described had a lot in common with Wag Dodge. Placed in a position of authority and leadership, they were competent, capable, knowledgeable, experienced, and most certainly a person of character and integrity. But they held communication "close to the vest" and were all business.

They gave nothing of themselves to subordinates to help us understand who they were, what they valued, and how to meet their needs on things, such asbriefings. Did they truly care about us or our organization? I don't know. Would I bring a problem to them without being asked to do so? No, because I would have had no idea whether they were open to the discussion.

It takes a willingness to be open to lead. Trust requires getting to know someone, which is true in the leader-subordinate relationship. The stronger the connections we build with subordinates, the better the team will function and the more committed they will be to a leader's goals and objectives. Openness isn't a "nice to have" characteristic of leadership – it is essential to leader success.

Lt. Col. Stew Bailey
Lt. Col. Stew Bailey (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Lt. Col. Stew Bailey, United States Army Engineer School Chief of Staff


Teamwork is essential to effective leadership. An effective leader positively interacts with their team to achieve a shared goal. Four attributes of teamwork are effective communication, active listening, goal setting and self-accountability.

For a team to work, it must communicate effectively and have shared goals, tasks and division of labor to achieve these goals. When written and verbal communication and the resulting actions of the team are consistent, teams are efficient and effective.

When team members, including the leaders, display active listening skills, the team becomes more cohesive. According to the 2024 Harvard Business Review article "What is Active Listening?" by Amy Gallo, "active listening requires mastering many skills, including reading body language and tone of voice, maintaining your attention, and being aware of and controlling your emotional response."

Often, active listening is oversimplified as hearing what others are saying, repeating it back and ensuring the listener accurately understands what was said. This oversimplification can cause the communication to come across as demeaning and insincere. Effective active listeners display appropriate emotional connection with the topic, tone and body language; this amalgamation of responses is complex to replicate if not sincere.

Influential team members and leaders establish specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, or SMART, goals for themselves and the organization. Well-defined and communicated goals allow the team to remain focused, prioritize efforts, hold each other accountable and achieve success in a structured and timely manner. For a team to function, each member must be self-accountable once the organization's goals are developed and communicated.

Each team member must display initiative to hold themselves accountable for mastering their team contribution. When necessary for the team's greater good, go above and beyond their stated role for the team's betterment. In this effort, the team is also responsible for encouraging, rewarding and holding other team members accountable, assisting them in achieving their personal and team-related goals.

As a result of this shared accountability, the team’s success or failure is not contingent on all members fulfilling their role perfectly 100 percent of the time but based on 100 percent of the team working to make the team successful despite individual, sicknesses, injuries, distractions, stress and other shortcomings.

Col. Clete Goetz, United States Army Engineer School Commandant

We continually shape what we value in leaders, the leaders we become, and our impact on those we lead through what we consume in literature, our dialogue, discourse, education and experience. We limit ourselves to the confines of geographical opportunity when we rely on only those situations that present themselves to us.

Break the confines of geography by drawing on the experiences of others, become open as leaders sharing your experience, inspire trust through shared discourse, be disciplined in your approach to self-improvement, and hold others on the team accountable to do the same. In this pursuit, you will instinctually think strategically and be better prepared to develop and communicate organizational vision.