I had a conversation recently with Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands and PJ’s Coffee, a privately held food and restaurant company based out of New Orleans. I wanted to learn his thoughts about critical leadership skills and practices based on his combined experience in military and civilian leadership roles.
Boylan has been a leader in business for over two and a half decades—before Ballard Brands, he spent 10 years as an executive at Coca-Cola, then in various entrepreneurial ventures. But his formative leadership experiences were as an army officer.
The Army is one of the few organizations that systematizes its expectations of leadership competencies and development. It makes sense that the Army would be so careful about developing leaders—lives depend on leadership behavior and team cohesion.
Boylan told me, “What you learn in the military is to listen and to take care of people.” He recounted a riveting story of his first leadership experience. As a newly commissioned second lieutenant, fresh out of West Point and Ranger School, he reported for duty at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Thirty hours later, he was literally dropped from an airplane onto a dirt landing field in Honduras.
He was only 22 years old at the time, about to turn 23, with no field experience. But he was immediately the leader of a platoon of 36 soldiers. The platoon had been without a second lieutenant for a couple of months, so it had been led in the interim by the platoon sergeant, a crusty, experienced Vietnam veteran. Within a few days of his arrival, Boylan had to make a critical navigation decision. Against the advice offered respectfully by his platoon sergeant, he chose to move the platoon in one of two possible directions. His decision quickly turned out to be an error. He immediately acknowledged that the sergeant’s advice had been correct and reversed his decision.
Boylan says his main lesson as a military officer was to listen to his team and gather and process as many different points of view as he could. At the same time, he had command responsibility from the outset and had to make and take full responsibility for every final decision.
Three powerful leadership lessons emerged from my conversation with Boylan. Any or all of them are worthy of consideration if you have some time to think about where you stand as a developing leader this summer.
Boylan put listening skills at the top of his list of leadership necessities. He attributed his ability to listen to his being an army brat. “My father graduated from West Point and married my mother there. We moved all around the world. I went to a different school every year of my life, including four different high schools.” Boylan believes this experience taught him to watch and listen when he met new people and learn how they saw things. I argued that not everyone would be equally adept in this situation and I suspected he was naturally gifted at intuiting other peoples’ perspectives.
Whether you’re innately good at listening or not you can improve with practice. And even if you are naturally skilled at empathetic understanding, check to see if you’re actually putting it into practice in your leadership role.
The main trick is to still your mind while you’re listening to someone else rather than busying it with the next thing you want to say or a counter-argument. When you encounter a perspective that is radically different from yours, practice calming down a natural fight or flight response and patiently listen. Follow up with questions to try to understand further why a team member sees things differently from you.
2. Step Up
Boylan’s story about himself as a 22-year-old officer thrust into a position of command responsibility in a combat situation illustrates as well as anything could the need to step up to a leadership role whenever you can. Opportunities for this are rarely as dramatic as Boylan’s situation, but they are still common. No matter how junior you are, if you notice procedural problems that have been ignored in your organization or policies that are absent, don’t assume that everyone senior to you has thought about these issues and decided with conscious intent to pursue the path the organization is on. More likely, they’ve been focused elsewhere, accustomed to “the way we’ve always done things,” or haven’t been able to think of a solution. Propose new policies and solve procedural problems when you see the opportunity. Areas where your fresh view might make a big difference include how knowledge is stored (or not) and passed on in your organization, instances of duplication of effort and new markets or messages.
3. Balance confidence and humility
“I’m always looking for different perspectives and different ways of looking at things,” Boylan told me and demonstrated this in vivo as he talked with me. As a businessman, he describes himself as someone who “helps entrepreneurs become successful. I take their ideas and grow them and give them options.” Both these self-descriptors convey a striking combination of humility and confidence. Leaders need to find a balance. On the one hand, they need to embrace their power to set strategy and agendas. On the other hand, they need to remember that it’s ultimately not about them —it’s about the organization and its mission.
Few people rise to be promising or successful leaders without a dose of healthy narcissism. That’s a good thing. You have to believe that you have something special to offer —your vision, your drive, your judgment. But this belief in yourself needs to be tempered by a broad perspective that takes into account the context and contributions of the complex social network within which you’re functioning.
Leaders need many skills. Any one leader will have natural strengths and inevitable deficits in various areas. It’s worth taking some downtime this summer to actually think about where you stand as a developing leader in relation to particular competencies. Thinking about how you listen, whether you step up and how you handle the tension between confidence in your abilities and sufficient humility are three good goals to start with.
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