in: Career & Wealth, Leadership

• Last updated: June 2, 2021

Manvotional: The Essential Qualities of Leadership

Vintage army military squad doing push ups.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from FM 21-20, an Army field manual from 1946 that outlines the physical training program used by GIs during WWII. While the section is obviously directed at the leadership qualities that should be developed by the program’s fitness instructors, all of it can be applied to leaders in any situation. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better distillation and summation of the essential qualities of leadership anywhere. 



The success or failure of the physical training program depends upon the quality of its leadership. The best results in a conditioning program can be obtained only if men are motivated to extend themselves completely in strenuous physical activities and to make every effort to perform all exercises in the prescribed form. Only the best leadership can inspire men to cooperate to this extent. For these reasons only the best qualified men in the unit should be selected to conduct instruction in physical training.


a. The most essential quality of the physical training leader is the possession of abounding energy and enthusiasm. Physical training activities, if they are to be successful, must be carried on in a continuously snappy, vigorous manner. Whether or not they are depends upon the leader. The men invariably reflect his attitude whether it be enthusiastic or apathetic.

b. The enthusiasm of the leader springs from the realization of the importance of his mission. He must be inspired by the thought that what he does every minute of every day may mean the difference between victory and defeat on the battlefield, and between life and death of some of the men with whom he is working.

c. The instructor must have complete mastery of his subject matter. Not only must he be able to explain and demonstrate all activities but he must know the best methods of presenting and conducting them. Mastery of subject matter is the first step in developing confidence, assurance and poise. The well-prepared, confident leader gains the respect and cooperation of the men at the outset. The unprepared, hesitant instructor loses the confidence and respect of his men almost immediately.

d. Successful leadership in physical training requires that the instructor understand human nature. He must appreciate the individual physical and mental differences of the men with whom he is working. He must learn to know his group as individuals and he must be quick to recognize the signs which indicate their reactions to his instruction. The better he understands his men, and the more he can see the physical training program from their point of view, the more his instruction will succeed.

e. No instructor can be successful unless he has the confidence of his men. He gains their confidence by commanding their respect. He wins their respect by his sincerity, his integrity, determination, his sense of justice, his energy, self-confidence, and force of character.

f. The personal appearance and physical qualifications of the instructor are related to his effectiveness as a leader. He should exemplify the things he is seeking to teach. It is a great advantage if the leader himself can do all and more than he asks of his men. He must be physically fit because physical training leadership is so strenuous that considerable strength, endurance, coordination and agility are essential prerequisites for successful work.


A successful physical training program requires the full cooperation of all the men. Physical training activities must be done accurately and intensively if they are to be of value. It is a simple matter to malinger if an individual chooses to do so. Since it is impossible to force troops to exercise properly every effort must be made to motivate them to do so. The most successful methods of motivation are indicated below:

a. All soldiers must be “sold” upon the necessity of being in excellent physical condition. The leader must convince the men that a high level of physical fitness will give them a much better chance to survive in combat situations. When troops realize that their efforts are an investment in their own personal welfare it is not difficult to secure their wholehearted cooperation.

b. One of the best methods of motivating participation in the more formal physical training activities is to combine them with athletics. Conditioning exercises, guerrilla exercises, grass drills, log exercises, and running are activities about which soldiers are not particularly enthusiastic, but they will engage in them conscientiously and vigorously if they are followed by stimulating, competitive sports and games. Even though men realize the value of the purely conditioning activities they need the additional incentive to continue to put forth their full efforts over a long period of time.

c. To introduce competition into the more formal conditioning activities is desirable. Groups may compete against each other to determine which performs the exercises with the best form, or which executes the most repetitions of the exercises in a definite period of time.

d. Commanding officers themselves may provide one of the best incentives by participating in the physical training program. When troops feel that their commanders believe in physical conditioning to the extent that they themselves regularly engage in the activities, they are motivated to greater effort. In addition, troops invariably develop a greater esprit de corps and respect for their officers.

e. The use of the cumulative count motivates participation in conditioning exercises. When men know how many repetitions of each exercise they have done they are challenged to equal or exceed it on succeeding days. The cumulative count thus serves as a self-testing device by which men compete against their own previous performances.

f. The frequent use of the men as assistant leaders serves as an incentive to many of them. They work hard for this honor and they usually respond well to the responsibilities. The use of mass cadence is also very helpful in making the men feel a part of the program.

g. Another method of motivation is physical efficiency testing. Many men are powerfully motivated to improve their condition when physical liabilities are revealed to them by the testing program. Others feel challenged by the tests and strive to improve their score on the next one. Men compete against each other to show the greatest improvement. Some commanding officers offer incentives to those men with the best records. Others deny certain privileges to those men who have test scores considerably below the average. All of these devices serve to stimulate interest and participation in the physical training program.

h. There is no more effective method of obtaining the energetic, wholehearted participation of the men in the physical training program than by providing skilled leadership. A leader who is admired and respected by his men has no difficulty in securing their cooperation. The good leader informs his men of the value of the different activities and the reasons for their inclusion in the program. He treats his men with consideration and does not impose unreasonable physical demands upon them. If men are exercised too violently, they become so stiff and sore that they look upon the next physical training period with apprehension. The men develop an antagonistic attitude toward the instructor and the program, and instead of cooperating they will malinger at every opportunity.


a. Unless the instructor experiences all the exercises himself, he cannot appreciate how arduous they are, what movements are most strenuous and difficult, where the errors of performance are likely to occur, and what the proper cadence should be.

b. The instructor must commend good performance as quickly as he censures bad. Most men respond well to deserved praise. Whenever an individual performs an activity with exceptionally good form or results, it is a good idea to ask him to demonstrate it before the group. It is particularly important that the leader praise the less skillful performers when the occasion merits. The instructor must be able to distinguish between poor performance caused by lack of ability or aptitude on the part of the soldier and poor performance caused by indifference or lack of effort. He should treat the first with patience and understanding, the latter with firmness; he must never apply sarcasm and ridicule. The judicious exercise of a sense of humor is often helpful.

c. To carry on an effective daily program, leaders will find it necessary to prepare a detailed outline of the daily activities. Even the most experienced leaders find it helpful to review the materials to be covered. No instructor should refer to notes or to a card during the course of the physical training period. He should memorize them. Every instructor must be thoroughly prepared before he is given the responsibility of a group.

d. The heavy demand upon the physical training instructor’s voice can be lightened by using assistant instructors to count cadence. Mass cadence will achieve the same result.

e. The men should never be kept too long in one position, especially a constrained one. No exercise should ever be performed a greater number of times than can be accomplished without loss of proper form. The instructor must be uncompromising in regard to the form in which all conditioning exercises are executed. Even slight deviations from the proper form will greatly reduce the value of the exercise.

f. Long explanations should be avoided. As a rule, it should be necessary to give a full explanation of new exercises only. The most essential features of an exercise should be explained first. Details may be added later. Too many details at one time are more likely to confuse the men than to assist them. All minor corrections should be made to the entire class while the exercise is in progress (for example, “heads up,” “knees straight”). If necessary, this direction may be followed by the name of the man who is particularly at fault. If a man requires special attention, he should be given separate instruction by one of the assistant leaders to avoid wasting the time of the remainder of the group.

g. Instructors should employ a positive rather than a negative approach in making corrections and giving demonstrations. It is much more effective to say “keep your knees straight” than “don’t bend your knees.” It is always better to demonstrate correct rather than incorrect form of an exercise or activity.

h. Instructors must create among their men the desire to be fit. A very effective method of accomplishing this is to explain to them the reason and military value of the physical training activities. When troops understand the necessity for being fit and the reasons for what they are doing, they will want to be fit. Such an attitude is essential to a successful program.

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