Leader Effectiveness versus Efficiency

By | June 25, 2018

[June 25, 2018]  A friend wrote me on Facebook yesterday and asked about our time in the military and why we were so effective at our jobs but not always very efficient at what we were doing.  Leader effectiveness is not (I repeat not) always about efficiency.

These concepts are often conflated with one another.  It is also assumed that efficiency is good and inefficiency is bad; that efficiency is the gold standard in leadership and that anything else is impracticable.  That is not, however, the case when we look at the results of good leadership.

I think that most people would agree that the best measure of a great leader is the outcome of their efforts.  The greater and better the outcomes, the more effective that leader is measured on any scale of success.

A simple illustration will suffice to show that sometimes an inefficient effort may lead to greater effectiveness.  Back in 2003 and 04, just as we were attempting to stabilize the country of Iraq, our division’s commander wanted us to employ as many Iraqi men as possible.

These were the men, recently unemployed, who had time on their hands and were easy prey for extremists who wanted to recruit them.  Our task was to get them to work, to be productive, to take them off the streets and away from the attractiveness of terrorism.  We did this by creating jobs that were as inefficient as possible so that we could employ more men.1

Effectiveness in accomplishing our tasks is what we wanted and here it was the opposite of efficiency.  Leader effectiveness means getting the job done and within the rules and within the guidance provided to us.  Sometimes leaders must deal effectively with difficult problems; as was the case in Iraq.

The lesson for all leaders is to remember always that results matter more than the technique.  Leadership is about getting results and sometimes how to do it is counterintuitive.


  1. One job we had was filling sandbags.  Those sandbags were used to protect our tents from mortar and artillery fire.  We had automated sandbag machines that could turn-out about 200 sandbags per hour.  Instead of using the machine, we used shovels and employed more men to do the work.  We accomplished our task of employing more men by being less efficient.
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

28 thoughts on “Leader Effectiveness versus Efficiency

  1. Nick Lighthouse

    Anybody who is anybody in leadership positions and is successful knows this to be the case. But don’t try to argue this case, except here in this forum of course. There’s an old saying that one should not argue with idiots because people looking at it can’t tell the difference. So I will suggest that we only try to educate those who have a real interest in being better leaders.

  2. Mr. T.J. Asper

    More good info for my classes this week. Thank you.

  3. Jung Hoon Kim

    Leaders are about what happens. Results matter.

  4. Army Captain

    During my junior leadership years, I thought the same thing; that efficiency equaled effectiveness. Only after spending time as a mid-level officer and then being in combat did I realize that was not the case. In the end, it is always about results. Mind you that these results must be achieved properly but that is the measure of success and little else.

  5. José Luis Rodriguez

    Good one today Gen Satterfield. Thanks.

  6. Gil Johnson

    Below, Kenny gave a good example when he used President Trump to illustrate this very point made by Gen. Satterfield. It’s results that count in the end, not so much the technique (as long as it’s legal and moral). Many overlook the fact that when we discuss strategy, results do matter.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Thanks Gil, I think too many people around the world, including senior leaders, have completed missed the point. Either they are stupid (and in most cases that is true) or they are opposing Trump because they feel threatened and impotent because of him.

  7. Billy Kenningston

    This certainly helps me distinguish between leaders who TALK versus those who WALK the WALK. Thanks.

  8. Shawn C. Stolarz

    From one “effective” leader to another, thanks for a great article.

  9. Janna Faulkner

    Thanks for a good, cogent article this morning, Gen Satterfield.

  10. Kenny Foster

    Like you’ve written before, Gen. Satterfield, it’s all about results. Like US Pres Donald Trump; he may be acting oddly for a politician and people might not like him and he may be crude but he has been VERY EFFECTIVE in carrying out his agenda (which he made clear). That is the real definition of leadership.

    1. Anita

      Well said Kenny. Too many folks are paying far too much attention to fake news rather than to what Trump has actually accomplished. I like it that he drove unemployment down below what Obama said it could ever be.

  11. Tracey Brockman

    Thanks for giving us something to think about and why leadership is not always about doing something fast and using the best methods. In the end, its about whether a leader has been effective that counts.

  12. Yusaf from Texas

    It wasn’t that long ago in my career that I only thought about efficiencies and how to make things run smoother and quicker. Sometimes that is not always what we need and it took me a long time to come to that realization. I guess that is what maturity is all about.

  13. Albert Ayer

    Good way of looking at effectiveness. It would be good to see more on leadership effectiveness and what some of the best ways are at being more effective. Thanks Gen Satterfield for a good article to start off my Monday morning.

  14. Max Foster

    We certainly can’t blame this on “government workers” because they are already inefficient. But they are also ineffective.

  15. Dennis Mathes

    I never thought of it this way but what you wrote makes a lot of sense now that I think about it.

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