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Posts Tagged ‘decision-making’

5 Things I Learned Flying a Desk

November 22, 2011 9 comments

Leadership staffMy first real job as an Army Aviator was as a junior staff officer in an Attack Helicopter Battalion. Instead of helicopters and soldiers I was given projects and paperwork. Instead of employing combat power, I was employing PowerPoint.

My turn in the cockpit would come—and it would go—but the lessons I learned in that first staff job have stuck with me to this day. Here are 5 things I learned early on:

1. The BLUF Principle. BLUF stands for “Bottom Line Up Front.” Every communication (e.g. memo, report, message, etc.) should start with what’s most important. Forget the structure they taught you in English class, get to the point, then—once you have their attention—share the pertinent background, analysis, and exposition.

2. Execution trumps planning. A poor plan executed brilliantly is always better than a brilliant plan executed poorly. As a planner, don’t go for a brilliant plan. Instead, set people up for brilliant execution. Often that means creating a simple, elegant plan that’s easy to understand, easy to communicate and easy to believe in.

3. Leaders are everywhere. Your best leaders aren’t necessarily the ones getting the most out of people on the front line. They may be the ones in the back room helping part-timers understand how the mundane and seemingly inconsequential tasks they perform everyday help ensure the success of the entire organization.

4. Don’t sit on information. The longer you take to process and pass on information—any information—the less time everyone down the line has to think, plan and act. Information is the fuel of informed decisions, do everything you can to maximize the time decision makers have with critical data.

5. Those bastards at Squad HQ. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at in an organization, the folks at the next higher level will seem like incompetent idiots who only exist to make your job—and life—miserable. Get over it. Assume positive intent and give them the benefit of the doubt. Make time with them face to face on a regular basis to have open and honest discussions.

What did you learn from working on a staff?

3 Modern Leadership Myths

November 17, 2011 Leave a comment

mythbustingTen or twenty years ago, debunking leadership myths was easy. In every other corner office you could find an overconfident boss barking orders to masses of underperforming employees. However, over the last decade there has been a shift in the prevailing management winds.

Most of the changes have been good—though none revolutionary. People are getting more respect. Collaboration, engagement, and performance are all on the rise. More and more companies are doing well by doing good. None of it is “new,” successful leaders have been doing this stuff for years. It’s just becoming more acceptable.

However, there are some questionable tenants in this growing “new” leadership doctrine that haven’t been fully thought out. They sound good and leaders are assimilating them as founding principles, but after further inspection, you’ll see many of their premises are flawed.

I offer the following examples and ask for your feedback:

Myth #1: There’s no place for harsh or domineering leadership styles. In this new era of individual respect, the idea of a leader issuing unilateral orders without asking for opinions from others seems utterly barbaric. As a result, the autocratic leadership style is snubbed and reserved for dictators and half-wits. In fact there a number of situations where a strong autocratic leadership style is called for—so we should learn how to use it, not ignore it. What would you think of an EMT that arrived at the scene of an accident and promptly gathered everyone around to hear their opinions on what to do first—CPR, call for more help, or tend to other wounds?

Myth #2: Experience is the best teacher for a leader. It’s etched in every big company’s fast-mover career timeline—get the right jobs to get the right experience. You do that and you’ll be better qualified for leadership positions at the top. I have nothing against experience. In fact, it’s an absolutely essential part of learning—but it’s not always the best teacher. Yesterday’s experience may be totally irrelevant to tomorrow’s challenges. If you’re not careful it could pigeonhole your view of the world and lock you into an antiquated perspective. For experience to make you better, you must reflect on it.

Myth #3: You have to be an optimist to be a great leader. There’s no room for pessimism among great leaders—they’re always hopeful, always positive, and always believing that good will triumph in the end. Yeah, well, you could say the same about the couch potato who sits at home all day watching motivational speakers on YouTube. The fact is, you need some pessimism as a leader. You need to be able to envision the worst possible scenario—and really believe it could happen—if you’re ever going to successfully defend against it. And honestly, without pessimism, there would be no real change. All change starts with a discontentment.

What do you think are the big myths in leadership today? 

When is Good Enough Truly Good Enough?

October 21, 2011 4 comments

leadership

The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing. – Eugène Delacroix

I’ve been giving the label “Good Enough” a hard time for the past few days on this blog. And rightly so, for in any grand endeavor it’s the silent temptress, wooing us to abandon the greatness to which we aspire.

But the harsh words I have for “Good Enough” only apply to the things that truly matter. As I said in my original postPick the things that matter to you, and refuse to settle. As Danilo Vargas and Jeff Brandt brought up, there are plenty of circumstances where Good Enough is, indeed, good enough. If you never settled for anything—in any area of your life—you’d never accomplish anything.

The ability to discern the difference between what’s essential and what’s negotiable is a mark of a great leader.

So how do you know when Good Enough is truly good enough—and when it’s just a cop-out? Here are a few questions I ask myself to help discern the difference:

  • Is this my main effort or a secondary/supporting effort? Don’t compromise on your main effort. If it’s not your main effort, don’t major in the minors, wasting resources on things that won’t ultimately deliver results.
  • Am I in the initial rounds of an iterative process? If yes, then speed is of the essence. Striving for perfection too early in the process can hamstring creativity and collaboration.
  • Is this a functional, go/no-go task where improvement won’t add significant value? If yes, find something else to obsess over.
  • Have I passed the point of diminishing returns? If so, you’re definitely in “Good Enough” territory.
  • Am I pursuing perfection for myself or pursuing excellence? Gut check time. Is this about you and your needs or the goal you’re going after?

Settling for Good Enough and falling into paralyzing perfectionism may seem at opposite ends of a spectrum, but in reality, they result in the same effect. They keep you from accomplishing your purpose. So hold fast to what really matters and be flexible with everything else!

How do you decide what’s essential and what’s negotiable?

3 Things You Need to Burn

October 11, 2011 5 comments

controlled burn

Only YOU can prevent forest fires!

– Smokey the Bear

Despite Smokey the Bear‘s fear campaign, not all forest fires are bad.

Fire is actually an essential part of forest ecology. In addition to clearing out combustible trees, brush and leaves, it stimulates the germination of new trees. In fact, cones from sequoia trees require the heat from fire to open and disperse seeds.

But we spent much of the 20th century trying to stop all forest fires. We damaged ecosystems and created tinder boxes for huge, hot, destructive fires. We ended up killing many of our forests with our kindness. 

We do the same thing in our organizations, in our relationships, and in our lives. We label the fires of change, conflict and constraints as bad—and we avoid them at all costs.

Just as forestry experts now use controlled fires to burn off dangerous undergrowth, here are 3 things you need to burn if you want a healthy life, authentic relationships or a streamlined organization:

• Bad Habits. I never fall off the wagon—if it was that abrupt, I’d realize it was happening. For me, unhealthy living begins with an innocent snack here or there, a missed workout that’s “not a big deal”, staying up just a little later to finish a blog post. Burn the bad habits. Feel the pain of discipline and let it set you free.

• Bad Behaviors. Over time we tend to let more and more slide with those we are closest to. The biting sarcasm that’s gone too far. The lack of follow-up on commitments. The erosion of standards we both once held. What behaviors are you overlooking in your spouse, friends, coworkers, or clients? Set those decaying behaviors ablaze and start over fresh.

• Bad Commitments. Every organization I’ve ever been a part of has suffered from mission creep. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of a Fortune 100 company or a local community board, the temptation—especially after success—to add initiatives that don’t align with your core mission is inescapable. Sear away the distractions and cling to your guiding purpose.

Bad habits, bad behaviors and bad commitments accumulate slowly and inconspicuously—like fallen tree limbs and dead leaves. Soon, not only is new growth stunted—in your organization, in your relationships, in yourself—but you’ve got a layer of dead things that are ready to erupt at any moment.

So don’t be afraid of fire. Use it wisely; use it often.

What else would you add to this list? What will you burn today?

My 3 Core Values as a Leader

September 14, 2011 25 comments

Leading Integrity

I have often thought the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it comes upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: ”This is the real me!”

– William James

What makes you feel alive?

The answer to that one simple question is a huge step toward discovering your core values and your authentic leadership.

This past weekend I shared my leadership core values with one of my closest friends, Doug Crandall. I’ve known Doug for half my life—we were roommates at West Point, peers in the Army, and currently work side by side on the team that delivers Walmart‘s groundbreaking Leadership Academy.

Yet in all those years—all the discussions, debates, experiences, successes and failures we’ve shared—that was the first time I ever shared my core values as a leader.

This surprised me, because I believe (along with Doug) that core values are critical to establishing and living out your identity as a leader. They form and inform the kind of leader you are. Failed leadership can often be traced back to a dissonance between what a leader values (or says he values) and what he actually does.

So, I’ve decided to share my core leadership values with you—the things that make me feel most alive. But first, a few disclaimers:

  • This isn’t a didactic exercise—these values aren’t offered as the “approved solution”
  • I don’t think you can have 50 core values, or even 10 for that matter. 3-5 seems right to me
  • Values are alive. These are mine today—the result of my choices & experiences to this point

My core values as a leader:

1. Freedom. My purpose is to free people & organizations to be their best.

2. Service. My leadership is an offering and a responsibility—not a right or a privilege.

3. Trust. I’m most effective when I trust myself and earn the trust of others.

That’s my list. As it stands right now, it’s just words. I find the only way values come alive for me is with stories. So I’ll spend my next few blog posts sharing stories that I hope will help you understand my take on these three words.

Consider this list my ante. Now it’s your turn…

What are your core values as a leader—what makes you feel alive?

To Change Or Not To Change…

August 30, 2011 1 comment

Azimuth Check

One of the toughest decisions a leader has to to make at any given moment is whether to stay the course or make a change.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about strong leaders who stayed the course—through distractions, trials and temptations—and won the victory in the end. Unfortunately, I’ve heard just as many stories of leaders who kept doing what they were doing only to be surpassed by more agile competitors who adapted to change quicker than they could.

So how do you know the difference between a challenge to be taken in stride and a challenge that demands you to change your plans?

The key is to keep focused on your purpose, not just your plan.

While none of us can see the future, we can all keep our eyes on what’s important—on the reason why we are doing whatever it is we are doing. That “Why” can help us answer any question—be it strategic, tactical or anything in between.

If a challenge makes the journey more painful or uncomfortable, but doesn’t endanger the fulfillment of your purpose, then suck it up. However, if a new challenge significantly hinders your purpose, adjust your plan immediately.

How do you choose between sticking to your guns or changing things up?

How to Prepare for Poor Communication

August 23, 2011 1 comment

Leader Development

Last week I visited the Pea Ridge National Military Park where 26,000 soldiers fought to decide the fate of Missouri during the Civil War. The park is the most intact Civil War Battlefield in the country—if you’re ever in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

I’ve toured quite a few battlefields and I’m amazed at how many times poor communication is cited as one of the contributing factors to a defeat. Pea Ridge is no exception.

Usually, I respond with a renewed appreciation for the importance of good communication, but last week I gleaned a new insight from this reoccurring theme.

I realized that poor communication is inevitable—in spite of all of the books, blogs, and classes. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the power of communicating well as a leader. I’m just saying that even when you’ve done everything you can, misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and missed messages will still plague your projects.

So, if some degree of poor communication is unavoidable, how do you prepare for it? Here are five ways to create a team that can operate effectively in the fog of war:

1. Start with Clarity. The inevitability of poor communication is no excuse for poor communication on your part. Just as in a game of telephone—where you know your original message will be mangled along the way—your best bet is to start with clear and simple statements. Do everything in your power to help others understand; make it difficult for them to go astray.

2. Train your People. The purpose of training is to give people the skills they need to act independently with confidence. As part of your training, practice performing in an environment where communication is garbled or non-existent. If your people learn to perform in an environment of simulated ambiguity, they’ll be much better prepared for the real world.

3. Foster Initiative. It isn’t enough to give people confidence in their own abilities, you must also give them permission to use them. You must encourage and reward their choice to act on their own. Only then will your people be effective in situations where orders are unclear and rapid decisions are required.

4. Encourage Positive Assumptions. In organizations where people are well-trained and initiative is cultivated, people know what to expect from their counterparts. Encouraging your team to assume positive intent with each other can serve to quickly mitigate any negative emotions ignited by unclear or incomplete communications.

5. Decentralize your Execution. Finally, after issuing clear guidance, equipping your people, encouraging initiative and reinforcing positive intent, you can release central control of operations and delegate decision-making down to the lowest level. This creates an agile and responsive organization that can quickly outmaneuver the competition to gain the advantage.

How do you prepare for poor communication?