Leaders…attention! A vital lesson for all leaders from an unlikely source: the military.

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“I might take a bullet to my head and so whoever takes my place needs to be better than me. I train and mentor others to be better than I am”. So said the Lt Colonel with whom I happened to be chatting to about the difference between the military and the corporate worlds when it comes to leadership. He believed that the practice of developing leaders in the corporate world was tainted by leaders withholding information from those being groomed for leadership responsibilities. He explained it as a practice designed by leaders to preserve their own position and power. Development happened of course but only up to a point.  That point would be defined by the threat posed by the person being groomed for leadership.

I think the Lt Colonel has a point.

I don’t think you will find anyone in the corporate sector that would be quite as brazen about this allegation as our military friend but I do think that most would privately acknowledge this to be the case. After all, why would I groom someone to take my place? Why would I not be threatened by someone who sits lower down the pecking order but who clearly shows more talent and potential than I represent to the corporate enterprise?

Power and politics exist in every setting, a point confirmed by the Lt Colonel who said that this would also be true of the military. I didn’t want to tell him that I already knew this based on my knowledge of having watched the TV show Army Wives, as I didn’t think admitting such a source would add to my credibility in the context of our conversation!

The military has always been associated with ‘command and control’ leadership. However, somewhat surprisingly, the military leads the way in the understanding of disseminating information and allowing those ‘on the ground’ to make vital decisions. “We need our troops to be able to think for themselves. We give them as much information as we can in order for them to execute the intended strategy – and strategy often becomes redundant in the heat of battle,” explained the Lt Colonel. It made perfect sense. Yet, I know of many corporate environments where this would be said but not practiced. The gap between what is said when it comes to leadership and what is practiced within the specific corporate environment would make traversing the Grand Canyon seem like a mere hop, skip and jump.

We don’t promote others better than ourselves as they might well become a threat to our position; we withhold information for having that information is what gives power and leverage in the game that is corporate politics. It is a sad reality and it is one that needs to be called and challenged if we are to build the kind of environments capable of meeting the challenges of the 21 Century.  One of the significant changes that has occurred in recent times is that information has become accessible to almost everybody. No longer is information the right or preserve of those in leadership and the gap between leaders having the information and it getting to the masses has shorted considerably. Leaders need to understand this shift in the rules of the game. Many don’t.

It is entirely possible to develop corporate cultures where providing access to vital information, in order for people to better execute their responsibilities, is practiced. Creating such an environment requires a radical mind shift from those in leadership. Ironic isn’t it that we need to look to the military as the pacesetters in the understanding that command and control leadership is defunct for our current context?

Does this mean that there is no place for command and control leadership within our environments? No, this isn’t the case. Leadership is always context specific and there will be a context where command and control is entirely appropriate.

The context is that of crisis. When it comes to crisis decision-making there is never the time to consult and in order to save lives perhaps, someone needs to make a rapid decision. A great example of crisis decision making and adopting a command and control stance was that of airline Captain B. ‘Sully’ Sullenburger and US flight 1549 on January 15, 2009. Sullenberger wasn’t flying the plane at the time when, shortly after take-off from New York, a flock of Canadian Geese took out both engines reducing the plane to a mere glider. At a crucial moment in the ensuing communications between the control tower and the cockpit, Sullenberger simply said, “my plane” and in that instant took over command of the stricken aircraft before making aviation history by successfully landing the plane on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board survived.

Those in leadership need to understand the need to build corporate cultures where decision-making can be pushed down to where it is needed – at the customer inter-face. Leaders need to understand that empowering staff to act like owners, owners who know where the company is heading and how it plans to get there, is a good thing. Leaders need to recognise that doing this is easier said than lived but smart leaders know that there really isn’t a choice. It will necessitate building different corporate cultures. It will mean having different conversations and engaging in different questions. It will mean letting go of past assumptions about how the world looks, works and interacts. It will necessitate that current leaders become learners. Mistakes will be made along the way but initiatives to play the game this way will need constant backing and encouragement. Lessons will need to be learnt quickly and over time the culture will change and with that, so will the results.

As I said, it won’t be easy. But if the military can learn and implement such a shift, then surely the corporate world can too?

Fall out.

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2 thoughts on “Leaders…attention! A vital lesson for all leaders from an unlikely source: the military.”

  1. Nirakasha Sookraj says:

    I think the biggest problem in the corporate world is the concept of “selfishness” as opposed the the “selfless” principle in the military.

    A good leader who empowers their staff allows them to feel valued. A valued employee/member of the team will ensure that their efforts are tenfold as opposed to an employee who is not empowered.

    A team is successful not by their towering achievements but the measurement of growth in skills and knowlege within that team. That shows a true leader who has cultivated and upskilled his/her team. Thats just my opinion…

    1. Keith says:

      Excellent points Nirakasha. It would be interesting to know of any companies who measure this in their leadership metrics (leaders upskilling their team). Anybody?

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