“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
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
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.