The Science of “Mission First, People Always”

Is there a more nebulous, often clichéd phrase in our military than “Mission First, People Always?” I’ve long-struggled with how to first logically explain the idea, but then turn the concept into a tangible leadership strategy.

And for military leaders whose job it is to expertly place people at grave risk to achieve the mission, at what point is it acceptable for the “People Always” part to fade away? Clearly a complicated topic.

Maybe the real proving ground of “Mission First, People Always” is the road to combat, not combat itself. It’s all the training and leadership interactions that go into making a unit lethal while maintaining the cohesion of its people (and families) along the way.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jonathan Baird, left, provides security during a vertical assault at Combat Town, Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 10, 2014. Baird is a rifleman assigned to Echo Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. U.S. Marine Corps. Photo by Lance Cpl. Richard Currier. Link to photo.

Multiple Lines of Effort

This Harvard Business Review article helps explain the tension that leaders face in balancing mission and people. Written by Dr. Matt Lieberman, a neuroscientist at UCLA, Should Leaders Focus on Results, or on People? relates data that compares “results focused” leaders with those who are able to socially connect with their people:

Two of the characteristics that Zenger [researcher] examined were results focus and social skills. Results focus combines strong analytical skills with an intense motivation to move forward and solve problems. But if a leader was seen as being very strong on results focus, the chance of that leader being seen as a great leader was only 14%. Social skills combine attributes like communication and empathy. If a leader was strong on social skills, he or she was seen as a great leader even less of the time — a paltry 12%

However, for leaders who were strong in both results focus and in social skills, the likelihood of being seen as a great leader skyrocketed to 72%.

So, while it’s tough to deny that military leaders are traditionally (often obsessively) focused on results, the most impactful leaders are the ones who can integrate high social, even personable engagement into their leadership styles.

A Balancing Brain

Lieberman explains in the article that the brain accesses different regions for analytical versus social thinking and that people engage in one to the detriment of expressing the other:

Here’s the really surprising thing about the brain. These two networks function like a neural seesaw. In countless neuroimaging studies, the more one of these networks got more active, the more the other one got quieter. Although there are some exceptions, in general, engaging in one of the kinds of thinking makes it harder to engage in the other kind.

It’s safe to say that in business, analytical thinking has historically been the coin of the realm — making it harder to recognize the social issues that significantly affect productivity and profits. Moreover, employees are much more likely to be promoted to leadership positions because of their technical prowess. We are thus promoting people who may lack the social skills to make the most of their teams and not giving them the training they need to thrive once promoted.

Is it possible that the critical nature of the military’s mission has caused its leaders to espouse and promote results-oriented thinking, thus failing to recognize, and even stifling, those leaders who express more people-oriented, social leadership styles?


No one expects military leaders to be “social” while leading in combat (although there is credence to the idea of injecting levity into situations of extreme stress). The road to victory in war begins with victory at home station, while training and caring for service members and families.

The greatest leaders find a way to offset their focus on results with a personality that people connect with. And as stewards of the profession, leaders should look for and promote subordinates who also display this balance.

Questions for Leaders

  • Examine your own interactions. Do they fall in the extremes of being either results or socially oriented?
  • Who can you seek input from to discover what your prominent engagement methods are? And if they’re working?
  • Would you change your leadership style if you discovered you could be more effective by being less focused on results?

Read Matt Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, access his lab’s work (UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory), and follow him on Twitter at @social_brains.

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