The Military's Model of Leadership

"Whenever we have a problem, we call for better leadership and more training." That appraisal was offered by Col. George Reed, who teaches at the U.S. Army War College, a leading military strategy school.

As Reed says, "We value leadership so highly that as a matter of culture we see it as a solution to everything. The truth is, good leadership and training will have a positive impact on most things, but overemphasis can result in overlooking other important variables." That assessment pulled me up short: leadership is the salient edge in every high-performing organization. But Reed is correct. Leadership cannot exist within a vacuum. It must open the door for other initiatives, such as learning and individual accountability.

Sharing the Leadership Load

The military prides itself on instilling leadership into all the ranks, from enlisted to senior officers. Unlike the corporate sector, leadership in military is not assumed; it is taught and then expected to be put into practice. Coupled with leadership is the sense of responsibility, being accountable for your actions, from ordering supplies to sending troops into combat.

When things go wrong, as they are wont to do in any organization, Col. Reed suggests that leaders ask questions about the organization, the context, policies and available resources. One of the findings at Abu Ghraib for instance was that the soldiers responsible for guarding Iraqis were from a military police unit, not trained for the hazards of a maximum security prison located in hostile territory. Hence, as Reed notes, they were out of their depth as well as unduly pressured to produce enemy intelligence. Consequently, the U.S.-Iraqi prison system was set up for failure. It was absent training, resources, proper supervision and leadership.

Leadership is not reserved for the big issues, nor is learning. Both must be integrated into the culture of the organization and continually taught, expected, practiced and renewed. From leadership and learning emerge a sense of accountability, a form of personal leadership that makes people responsible for outcomes. The job of pushing leadership, learning and accountability falls to managers.

Here are some ways to instill this practice into your organization.

Distribute thinking. Well-meaning managers want their people to do for themselves, but all too often they short-circuit the process by issuing orders instead of taking time to think first. To be fair, managers are put into positions where they can only react (get the job done) rather than pro-act (think first). So here’s a suggestion. When circumstances permit, say at the start of a project or the start of the business cycle, call people together and ask for their input in how to approach the project, how to circumvent obstacles and how to hurdle those obstacles when they arise. A moment taken to think first can prevent a month of cure.

Coach for specifics. Very often, managers issue directives that are vague and ambiguous. For example, a manager may ask an employee to demonstrate more creativity or more initiative. The what, where, why and how are left to the employee’s imagination; and hence the directives are left undone. Here’s where coaching comes in; it focuses on specifics, what actions an employee can take to improve her performance. Then, if a manager wants more initiative, he can suggest ways to demonstrate that initiative such as developing a plan, forming a team or executing against criteria. The more specific a manager can be, the greater he increases the odds of encouraging an employee’s own creativity, and ultimately responsibility and leadership. (Hint: Giving specifics does not circumvent thinking. It merely provides the employee with a suggested roadmap that can be modified with the employee’s own ideas.)

Promote ingenuity. Troops engaged in combat situations are among the most resourceful of all teams. Today, we see soldiers armoring their military with scrap iron scrounged from the streets of Iraq. Those soldiers are not waiting around for supplies or even for Donald Rumsfeld; they are applying their own ingenuity. Entrepreneurial startups are equally resourceful. A leading reason why Japanese manufacturers of a half-century ago pioneered just-in-time manufacturing along with the quality control measures of Deming and Juran was because of scarce resources. You will find that same ingenuity in resource-deprived startups from Silicon Valley to Bangalore. Committed people with good ideas find away way to make things happen.

The limits of Leadership

"Imagine the organization that has been given a Herculean task with insufficient resources to accomplish it," says Col. Reed. "We’ll run good leaders into the ground if we try to train and lead our way out of that situation." Again, leadership is not a universal panacea. In fact, leaders are really not responsible for all of the doing; they set the direction for others to carry through.

Leadership demands delegation, asking others to share in the load. At the same time, leaders must ensure that their employees have the authority and responsibility to get the job done. For example, if a manager asks an engineer to be a project manager but neglects to assign people to her team, then the project is doomed to failure. The engineer may be held responsible for missing the deadline, but in reality it is her manager who is at fault.

Successful organizations are those that value learning and expect their people to learn from their mistakes as well as their successes so that they grow their own skills. With such knowledge comes empowerment and accountability. That is leadership on a personal level, one that can propel the entire organization forward.

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