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Talk To The Troops: Why Communication Is Key To Effective Leadership

June 19, 2015
Borderless Leadership

I couldn’t figure it out. Why did the big brass at Fort Sill, Okla., insist on these random, no-notice drills in which my troops and I had to show up at 0 Dark 30 and roll out our artillery unit as if we were about to go to battle?

In my newly minted West Point-trained mind, it made little sense to prove instant battle readiness of our 8-inch howitzers. Yes, we had to maintain them for regularly scheduled field exercises and gunnery drills, but “ready at a moment’s notice?” After all, our battle plans dictated that in the event of looming hostilities with the Soviet Union, we would fly to Germany, where we would break out fresh equipment waiting for us in climate-controlled storage. In the end, I chalked it up to “just another Army thing,” specifically – and only – designed to keep us busy and make life a little less pleasant than it could be.

Imagine my surprise when, just a few months after I transferred to my next duty station, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In short order, my former unit packed up those same howitzers I had dismissed and shipped them off to war, where they performed splendidly.

I had made a most basic mistake of a reasonably informed follower: I thought I had a better view from the motor pool than the generals did from their offices. My mistake was honest, and I can only laugh at my 22-year old, second lieutenant self now, but the lesson endures: Leaders have their eyes on a much bigger picture than those in the trenches ever can.

Effective command – the Army’s apt word for leadership – demands many qualities. Among them is a disciplined focus on the whole field, not just the narrow confines of the day or the hour. To counterbalance this, however, leadership also demands a commitment to communicate with subordinates – the folks in the trenches – on how their work, their day-to-day activities, fit into that big picture.

Over the years, I have watched and advised many CEOs and other leaders. The ones who stand out are those who talk with their teams on a daily basis, rather than wait for the big announcement of the next bold plan. They seem to remember their own “time in the trenches,” and make it a habit to discuss their thinking with those who will translate it into action. These leaders listen to the feedback they receive before making final decisions.

Along the way, of course, I have seen some leaders get lost in their own schedules and plans, only to drift away from those daily connections with their teams. At the very least, confusion ensued. In the most extreme cases, I have seen organizations lose motivation and get caught flat-footed by crisis or opportunity. The results were not pretty.

In the end, the best CEOs regularly connect the dots between today’s to-do list and tomorrow’s plans. Success tends to follow leaders who explain the connection between today and tomorrow routinely and across the enterprise. That gives followers what they most crave: a direct link between their individual jobs and success for the entire organization.

That’s something even my second lieutenant mind would have grasped.

By Pete Janhunen


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