Posts Tagged ‘initiative’

5 Things You Could Learn from Military Leaders

November 14, 2011 18 comments

VeteransI was stunned to learn that the unemployment rate among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is up to 12.1%. That’s more than 3% higher than the national average. The more I looked into it, the more misconceptions I discovered employers had about military experience.

A few weeks ago, Mark Norton, my friend and coworker at McKinney Rogers, asked me a great question. He was preparing a speech to a group of Japanese businessmen in Tokyo and asked me which aspects of military leadership I thought were most applicable to business leaders.

I came up with four things on the spot that I learned in the Army that I’ve seen lacking in the corporate and non-profit worlds. I’ve since added one more. Here they are:

1. Develop Junior Leaders. Junior officers and NCOs win today’s battles. Developing their judgment and empowering them to take initiative enables decentralized execution—which gives organizations the agility needed to operate in highly complex, rapidly changing environments (sound familiar?).

2. Leverage “Commanders Intent.” As Ike said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” Understanding the leader’s intent—her purpose, key outcomes, and defined endstate—empowers individuals and teams to adapt, improvise, and succeed.

3. Task Organize. Missions and teams are not all created equal. Form specific teams to achieve specific outcomes. Establish universal standards and train people to operate globally in different multifunctional teams.

4. Use your Operators as Trainers. In the military, training falls under operations—not HR. Operators understand what skills the field needs, and they’re the natural choice to teach those skills. Human Resources tracks and records individual progress, but never delivers or resources training.

5. Focus on “Mission first, People always.” The forced choice between making your numbers or caring for your direct reports is a false dichotomy. Taking care of your people is taking care of business. Likewise, taking care of business is taking care of people.

Don’t assume that a veteran’s experience is void of business relevance. There are exceptions of course, but the vast majority of veterans have learned to get results by working hard, thinking creatively, and taking care of people.

I don’t know about you, but I’d take someone like that on my team any day.

What other aspects of military leadership do you think would benefit business leaders?

Out-of-Control Leadership

September 7, 2011 5 comments

leadership adventureWe all want control.

We want to control our finances, our projects, our teams, our relationships, our future. We yearn for that sense of security that control promises. Just look around—nine out of ten advertisements are selling you some form of control.

Control, however, is an illusion and the security it offers is hollow.

Truth is, there are a million things just beyond your grasp at any given moment. The weather. The price of oil. The competition. The people around you. Your next breath.

You can respond to that truth in 3 ways:

  1. Do Nothing and be tossed around by the wind and waves of life.
  2. Try to control the uncontrollable and wear yourself out in the process.
  3. Learn to adapt to any situation life throws at you.

Exceptional leaders don’t waste time trying to change the wind—they learn how to sail. An experienced sailor can use wind from any direction to propel her boat in the direction she desires. Depending on how she trims the boat and sails, she can run with the wind, cut at right angles or even beat a course upwind. She can’t control the wind, but she can use it.

In the same way, exceptional leaders adapt to changing environments, harness the emotions in a situation, and adapt to the needs of those around them.

True power doesn’t come from control—that’s a small, limited substitute for power. True power belongs to those who can harness the uncontrollable, adapt to the inconceivable, and maneuver in the unknown to accomplish their goals.  This is true power, true security, and true freedom.

How are you at Out-of-Control Leadership?

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?

Watch Your Words

June 20, 2011 7 comments

leadership communicationYou need to be careful what you say as a leader.

I remember a Beetle Bailey comic strip from years ago that begins with General Halftrack standing atop a cliff watching the sun go down. He remarks to his aide, “What a beautiful sunset. I hope the troops are enjoying it.” His aide immediately runs off. In the final frame, unknown to the General who is still soaking in the view, every soldier on Camp Swampy has been mustered to stand in formation and watch the sunset.

I saw the same thing happen recently in a corporate team. A leader mentioned an idea in passing—just thinking out loud—and it was taken as a directive, so much so that resources were diverted from the team’s main effort to satisfy what turned out to be a fleeting thought.

Many leaders don’t realize the frustration they can cause with a few idle words. Here are three things you can do to prevent well-meaning staff members from going overboard:

1. Communicate clearly what your priorities are. Be overt about it. Tell people specifically what their main effort should be. No one should have to assume or infer anything.

2. Think about how others might misinterpret your words. Put yourself in their shoes, then clarify as necessary. Telling others what you don’t mean is just as useful as telling them what you do mean.

3. Train others to listen for and learn your intent. If they can understand that, then they’ll be armed to take initiative and make smart decisions without you.

Use these three tips wisely and you’ll avoid suffering the resentment of your team over something you never intended in the first place.


Shooting for the Moon

May 25, 2011 1 comment

leadership vision

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. 

John F. Kennedy

50 years ago today, John F. Kennedy charged congress—and the nation—with the most ambitious goal of the 20th century: putting a human being on the moon. This idea galvanized the nation for years to come. Many still look to the accomplishment of this goal on July 20, 1969 as one of America’s greatest achievements.

How did this simple statement drive such a monumental effort? I believe it met—and exceeded—all the criteria of a SMART goal:

1. Specific: He completely avoided ambiguity. When speaking of the future we tend to use vage speech. Kennedy left no wiggle room. He even included bringing the person home (that’s the tough part).

2. Measurable: The Space Race had been in full swing since the Soviets launched Sputnik four years earlier. The US needed a quantifiable goal—a way to judge and determine success.

3. Ambitious: You’ve got to stretch yourself, inspire yourself, push the envelope of what you think is possible. This is where purpose and passion are forged. Landing someone on the moon still fires the limits of our imagination.

4. Realistic: Counter to the previous criterium, your goal must remain in the realm of possible, albeit on the edge. Putting someone on the moon in the 1960’s would be difficult, but doable.

5. Timeline: “…before this decade is out…” Setting a time limit is crucial. it focuses and intensifies your work, giving you something to drive toward. Otherwise there’s no urgency.

What are you shooting for—what’s your moon?

3 Myths of Military Leadership

October 22, 2010 10 comments

Military Leadership MythsIn November, Harvard Business Review‘s spotlight is on “Leadership Lessons from the Military.” It’s up already and is a great little resource if you’re looking for how military leadership can apply to other sectors. Some of the comments, however, are fascinating. From their responses, you’d think people actually believe movies like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon” are accurate documentaries on life and leadership in the US Armed Forces today.

I actually run into this quite often. Year after year the military rates far above every other sector in the National Leadership Index (an annual study on confidence in leadership conducted by the Center for Public Leadership), but many people don’t understand how these leaders are developed. Here are the three most common myths I encounter:

Myth #1: Soldiers are trained to be mindless automatons. Actually, just the opposite is true. Initiative is driven into junior leaders from day one. Lieutenants and Sergeants are trained to think on their feet and react to reality – without direct orders. The most important part of any military plan is the “Commander’s Intent.” It’s a concise description of what the commander wants to achieve and how he or she would like to achieve it. Five minutes after the bullets start flying, everything in a plan can (and often is) rendered obsolete – everything except the Commander’s Intent. That’s the one thing you can cling to while you improvise a practical solution.

Myth #2: The military uses fear to motivate people. True, you’ll find plenty of fear in military training, but it’s primarily injected into situations to help soldiers learn how to deal with it. Fear is a reality of battle – and life. The ability to overcome your fears and perform under pressure is essential to succeeding in combat (and anything else in life). It’s also the foundation of a little thing called courage. And a bit of courage goes a long way as a leader.

Myth #3: The military cares more about their mission than their people. “Mission first; people always.” That’s the mantra that’s lived in the military. Without the mission the organization wouldn’t exist, but without the people the organization can’t accomplish it’s mission. As a Company Commander if one of my soldiers missed morning formation, we’d go looking for them – not to punish them, but to make sure they were alright. As leaders we made it our business to know our soldiers, their families, and their dreams – what made them tick. We made ourselves responsible for them.

How do you think military leadership does or doesn’t apply to other endeavors?

3 Things Leaders Need to Take

May 25, 2010 6 comments

leadership initiative responsibilityExceptional leaders are defined by their generosity. They give value, attention, counsel, insight, vision, service, guidance, protection, and inspiration to their followers. But there are a few things leaders cannot give away. In fact, there are a few things that they must take. They include:

1. Initiative. No one can give you initiative; you have to take it. There comes a time when you have to make the decision, then get off your rear and make something happen. In that moment–since there will be no path or road to follow–let your purpose and intent guide you. Trust both your education and your experience, your intellect and your intuition, to help you see where and when to go. Develop your sense of timing. Stepping too early can be just as bad as stepping too late. But remember: Inaction is worse than failure. Action is imperative; without it, nothing happens.

2. Responsibility. Leaders take responsibility for other people’s actions, not just their own. Growing up people told me to take responsibility for my actions–but you don’t really take responsibility for your own actions, you are responsible for your own actions. You may not always experience the consequences, but you’re still responsible for what you do. Taking responsibility is something leaders do.  They assume culpability for what other people do. Again, it’s not something someone can give you, you have to take it for yourself.

3. Time. Finally, leaders need to take time. They need to be deliberate about how they invest one of their greatest resources. Leaders need to take time to care for themselves. They need to take time to get to know the people they’re leading. They need to take time to cultivate a vision, shape a culture, create a solution, communicate with others, and set the example. All of this takes time and none of it happens by accident.

Initiative. Responsibility. Time. Surrender any of them and your leadership will suffer. None of them will fall into your lap haphazardly. You must seize them, guard them, and use them to move yourself, your people, and your organization forward.

How do you take initiative, responsibility, and time?