Leadership Positions: Boots, Books, or Brains?

Which is best? Boots, Books, or Brains? @DanielTStephens Leadership

Leadership failures happen for a myriad of reasons. One of them is pride. Leaders must be confident, but they must also be humble.

Which is best? Boots, Books, or Brains? @DanielTStephens Leadership

In the military, there is an eternal tension between senior enlisted and junior officers. The closest thing in the civilian world is union laborers and management. The tension is not in lack of leadership from either side, it is in lack of understanding or appreciation for different types of leadership positions.

Senior enlisted members of the military and union laborers are leading from a boots-on-ground position of experience. Junior officers and management are leading from a position of books-and-training.

This is usually set up as an either-or dilemma. You either have boots or you have books. But there is a third option: brains. Which leadership position is best depends on the challenge at hand. Is it short term or long term?

Boots beat books. Brains beat boots. Books make brains. Kind of like rock-paper-scissors, but more like a spiral staircase.

Leadership From Boots

Boots beat books. Lead by example. @DanielTStephens Leadership

Lead by example. No form of leadership is more respected than leadership by example. Muddy-boot leaders have been there and done that. If you lead from this position, you have learned from both failure and success, defeat and victory. You are decisive and get things done.

You will easily answer the what and how questions of a project. What needs done? How should it be done?

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This is great, and incredibly productive. That is, until context changes. You might be great at getting things done today, but have difficulty adapting to how things need to be done tomorrow. The problem is not stubbornness, or lack of desire to change, it is a lack of a compass or map for how to change.

The pride trap for this leadership position is in over confident action. Because your way has worked so many times before, you might leap before you look.

Leadership From Books

Books make brains. Read to lead. @DanielTStephens Leadership

Leaders are readers. – Harry S. Truman

Truman was right, because leaders need to be able to communicate. Books, especially non fiction books, help us learn how to communicate about a topic. This can also apply to blogs or news editorials from good sources.

If you lead from this position, you know who the experts are in your field. You know who to listen to about how things will need to be done tomorrow.

You will easily answer the who, and where questions of a project. Who knows how to do this? Where do we go for more info?

This is great, but knowledge is meaningless without action. You need either a boots-leader or some of your own boots-on-ground experience in order to get others to take action. Either way, you need to be able to communicate.

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The pride trap for this leadership position is over confident understanding. You might fool yourself into thinking you understand everyone else’s position better than they do. You don’t. You are the compass, not the traveler, and not the map.

Leadership From Brains

When intuition trumps experience, brains beat boots. @DanielTStephens Leadership

Leaders are learners. – Brian Tracy

I don’t know if Brian Tracy actually said that first, but it’s the best attribution I could find.

Leaders of this type smell change in the wind. They have a change intuition. That intuition comes from their combination of boots and books as much as it does natural brains. They are visionaries that may have difficulty communicating.

If you lead from this position you might be confused why you can understand things that others don’t. The reason is that you intuitively understand how things need to be done tomorrow. You are the map.

This is great, until in your excitement (or panic) you can’t communicate how you envision tomorrow. You will feel very lonely because it’s so hard to get anyone to listen. A map with no landmarks to orient the traveler is fairly useless. Only a few travelers can use a map without a compass.

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The pride trap of this leadership position is over certainty. You might fool yourself into thinking that the changes you predict are certainties, instead of possibilities. No map is perfect. Even the best maps are still just  guesses.

Leadership Positions are not Singular

The good news is that no one actually leads from only one of these positions. We all have things we’re good at. We all have things we love to learn about. We all have our experiences.

The bad news is that as you go through life, your dominant leadership position will change as you grow. Remember, it’s more like a spiral staircase than rock-paper-scissors. This means that you’ll be vulnerable to each new pride trap just as you learn how to avoid the previous one.

Even though you’re in a particular position right now, you’ve been in the other positions in the past. You have some combination of all three leadership positions. The challenge is to avoid all three pride traps, no matter how confident you are.


  1. Which leadership position are you currently in?
  2. In which position have you experienced your greatest success or failure?

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By Dan

Founder, Executive Director, Mental Health Counselor at Restored Life Counseling