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A Military Leader’s Approach to Dealing with Complexity

October 28, 2014
Borderless Leadership

The most effective leaders I’ve known or studied all share a common trait: they were unwilling to settle for the existing state of affairs. They believed with all their heart that what we focus on can become reality.

In my quarter-century of military service, I’ve been afforded the rare privilege of leading in a broad array of environments: commanding a 500-person special operations expeditionary air refueling group in the Middle East after 9/11; guiding a 7,000-person military community through a dramatic mission transformation in North Dakota; and leading men and women from 14 NATO nations in building a sustainable, independent Afghan Air Force in an active war zone—something that had never previously been attempted.

I know how daunting it can be to lead dedicated professionals to undertake complex endeavors, and I’ve lived the reality of trying to bring positive change to large, bureaucratic organizations. Here are four principles I’ve learned that can help you enhance your leadership while concurrently bringing out the best in those around you.

Principle 1: Craft your vision in pencil, not ink.

It is a well-accepted role of leaders to focus on the future and pursue the possibility it holds. In other words, leading entails being a visionary—confidently looking ahead and ascertaining how best to transform your current reality into your desired future. One of the most significant errors I see leaders make is developing their vision in isolation and then expecting people to accept it at face value. When leaders do this, they violate one of the most important truths of promoting change: our words create our worlds. How we choose to describe and discuss what we are doing and where we are going is important, but what moves people to sustainable, self-motivated action is understanding the why behind the vision. That vision can only be fully realized if leaders involve others in the process of creating it.

Ultimately, what makes a vision come to life isn’t people understanding it, but people choosing to own it. Making inclusivity a priority will increase ownership, enhance motivation, improve information sharing, and result in leaders making wiser, more informed choices.

Principle 2: Believe no job is too small or insignificant for anyone, especially you.

For those of us who have served in uniform, getting dirty, sleeping in tents, leading marches in the mud, or spending hours rehearsing a mission comes with the territory. As a commander, you don’t get a pass because you have the highest rank. In fact, you should be ready to be the first to face hardship and the last to benefit from success. If your team is cold, wet, hungry, and sleepless, you should be, too. You should be prepared to eat last, own failure, and generously share triumphs. This others-centered approach to leading will build deep trust and enduring respect, and reinforce that you don’t expect anyone on your team to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.

Ego tempts many leaders toward self-aggrandizement—the higher their rank, the more pronounced the pull. Choose to direct your effort and attention toward what you can give rather than what you can receive. Demonstrate humility, not superiority. Model for others the selfless attitudes and behaviors you desire to see in them.

Principle 3: Remember that leaders should be generalists, not specialists.

Nobody can be an expert in everything, but the greater your scope of responsibility as a leader, the more you need to learn about what you are demanding of your people. Just like the best sports coaches, who invest countless hours in understanding every position on the field, effective leaders develop a keen sense of how the organization’s various roles, functions, systems, people, and processes contribute to achieving its desired goals. You may be a specialist at one thing, but knowing what others around you do—and how and why they do it—is vital not only to attaining your desired outcomes, but also to realizing your individual and collective potential.

Don’t allow yourself to become stale or small-minded. Make it a personal priority to know more about what is going on around you. If you spent the bulk of your career working in sales, accept a stretch assignment in business development or talent management. You will likely be pleasantly surprised at how this broader, richer view of what’s happening in your organization will enlarge your perspective, enhance your appreciation, and elevate your sense of personal satisfaction.

Principle 4: Recognize that every interaction is an opportunity to equip, engage, empower, and inspire those around you.

The world of physics has a principle: “Every contact leaves a trace.” What this means for leaders is that every interaction with someone—verbal, written, or even through non-verbal mannerisms—makes an impression. Effective leaders understand that every interaction is a potentially powerful means of nurturing a relationship, eliminating an obstruction to progress, or reinforcing trust. Determine to leave a trace that leaves those around you better for knowing you.

Do your part to seed an environment where everyone is compelled by your example. Adopt a walk-the-floor policy instead of an open-door policy. Visit with people in their space. Don’t make them come to yours.

Military work is risky, pressured, and ever-changing. Yet the principles military leaders use to lead effectively are the same skills companies need today to prevail in a climate of increasing uncertainty and accelerating complexity. It is up to each individual leader to choose to put these lessons to work.

By John Michel

Source: Harvard Business Review

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