Cheerleading is not leadership

The problem with our Potemkin village is not that we don’t have a good enough tour guide. – Anonymous


From a fan’s perspective, there is nothing worse than a one-sided game, the dreaded blowout. And in the world of blowouts there is nothing worse than the High School basketball blowout.  You know what I mean, the games where the talent disparity is so high that there is no chance of the lesser team even competing, never mind winning.

I recently attended such a game.  The score at halftime was something like 51 – 6.  I was seated among the family and classmates of that losing team, and the mood was utter despair and silence.  However, during timeouts, the school’s cheerleaders trotted merrily out on the floor and implored the catatonic fan base to “fight fight fight!” or shouted rhymes about how our squad was about to win because we had heart and spirit.

At first I was amused by the juxtaposition of the basketball team being blown off the court and these cheerleaders enthusiastically jumping and shouting.  It was absurd.  Yet, as the game went on I found myself craving more cheerleading and less basketball.  It was a form of torture to deal with the reality of disheartened boys getting blown off the court; it was sweet relief when smiling cheerleaders were doing high-flying stunts. 

During the second half, as the opposing team repeatedly made easy buckets the score grew worse.  Despite the rout, whenever our boys managed to score, even a single point via free throw, the cheerleaders would jump about, shaking pom-poms and executing impressive high leg kicks.  By game’s end, the boys had lost by 71.  The team left the court confused and dejected while the cheerleaders shouted “good effort” and “nice try!”

But the boys aren’t stupid; they knew despite the shouts from cheerleaders, they just got crushed.


Part of a leader’s job is certainly encouragement.  A leader has to find ways to motivate his team to attack challenges and problems with confidence.  It is a good leadership trait to exhort your team to greatness.  The troops want to be rallied.  They want a leader who says “it can be done!”

However, when exhortation crosses the line and become cheerleading, you are no longer leading.  Instead you have replaced reality with fantasy.  Your team knows this; and you will end up losing your credibility as a leader. 

Once the leader compromises on honesty, he will quickly lose his credibility with the troops.  When your team is walking off the court following a 71-point blowout, resist the temptation to add insult to injury by offering up platitudes about “good effort” while shaking a pom-pom.



The military is facing another year of bad budgets and manpower cuts this year.  More than a decade of war with (at best) mixed results has been rewarded with planned deep cuts of uniformed personnel.  All branches of the military are being cut, manpower will be lost, experience will leave, and weapons systems will be eliminated or moth-balled.  Oh, and for those who remain, your retirement is on the chopping block.

It has the feeling of a high school basketball blowout.

Yet, the sloganeering and empty rhetoric of how “people are our most important resource” continues unabated.  Leaders at all levels are executing high leg kicks and shouting “we have spirit, yes we do!” 

Spirit, we may have, but do we have uniformed personnel to accomplish our mission?

There is a way for a basketball team to respond to a blowout.  First, you honestly assess how badly you played; you accept reality.  Then you get to work in practice.  The coach, as a leader, doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to find bright spots in a 71-point loss.  Instead he puts together a plan to address shortcomings and overcome failure.  The situation requires honesty.  Slogans simply aren’t going to cut it.

Cheerleaders might tell the team they are wonderful, but a cheerleader isn’t going to solve the problems of that team.  Problem solving requires a leader – a coach.  The coach is going to get back to basics.  He will focus on basic skills and the most important skills.  A back to basics approach focused on mission accomplishment.


The troops aren’t stupid. 

They doubt our sincerity when leaders say “our most important resource is our uniformed personnel.”  The troops have seen budget cuts gut training and readiness.  They have seen the projected troop strengths going south.  The troops see vital resources diverted to social engineering efforts and CYA programs designed to placate media firestorms.

The troops aren’t stupid.

They watched as the entire DoD went into freak-out mode when DoD civilians were furloughed for 11 days (which was eventually only 6 days) last year.  Those same troops can’t help but notice there is no similar outcry when the military announces huge cuts in uniformed personnel.  And yes, the troops see that there are approximately 750,000 civilians working for the DoD.  There are 750,000 elephants in the living room, eating peanuts, as uniformed manpower gets cut.  The troops know that 750,000 civilians in the DoD is almost the same size of the Army and Navy combined.  They also see that there is no major cut planned for civilian personnel in DoD.  The troops know that Mr. Putin isn’t concerned with civilian DoD employees as he calculates his next move in the Ukraine, yet civilian manpower in the DoD is untouchable. 

The troops aren’t stupid.  They see the stories and speeches calling for cuts in EARNED benefits to military personnel. 


We do have a great military.  The people who serve in our nation’s defense are great people and they do great things every day.  They need advocates and they need resources and they need leaders. 

But they don’t need cheerleaders – because they can see the score.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

2 thoughts on “Cheerleading is not leadership”

  1. Chris

    Another great post!  But I wonder if I’m the anonymous in your quote.  I know I’ve used this metaphor on many occasions, and perhaps one of them was with you.

    I’m bothered by the halo effect that now surrounds the CSAF.  He came to speak with us at SAASS and he is every bit as charismatic as people say he is, and so much more so than his predecessor.  But what has he actually done?



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