When I joined the military, I thought that the leadership principles we were taught were unique. I assumed they were military specific. Shortly before I retired I began to interface with large organizations, and I was surprised by what I saw. Thriving organizations were using the same principles that we used as small teams in combat. The companies that were struggling, often times were not.
I spent the last week traveling through Asia, discussing leadership with multiple entities and organizations in the financial sector. I open each discussion the same way, with an admission that nothing I am going to cover is my creation. If I had to give my career in the SEAL Teams a grade, I would go with right down the middle, a “C”. Average. What is unique, and what is well above average, were the people I was surrounded by, and the example they provided. I spent 17 years learning from amazing leaders and mentors. I practiced leadership and decision making, then saw those principles tested in real world environments. Leadership does not happen by accident in the SEAL Teams, it is taught.
More often than not, I see organizations that incorrectly equate position or job title to leadership. You are a leader because of what it says on your office door or business card. I see leaders choosing micromanagement as a default strategy, fostering environments of reliance, instead of empowerment. I see subordinates afraid to step up and take action, even when they realize that something needs to be changed. When I ask leaders why they choose this strategy, most often I hear “this is how it was done by the person before me.” Micromanagers breed weak subordinates, and even weaker future leaders.
When I ask corporate leaders about their training programs, and the importance they place on them, I often hear “time” available is the critical limiting factor. This is an interesting concept. If you cannot find the time to train your people in both leadership and decision making, how will you find the time to clean up the mess they make when they eventually fail? Sometimes I hear about “rising to the occasion”, which is an ego driven lie. Everyone gets lucky sometimes, but no one rises to the occasion. You FALL to the level of your training.
Leadership should be treated as a professional license. Imagine an applicant going to the DMV on their 16th birthday, attempting a driving test in a manual transmission vehicle, without having spent a single day behind the wheel? The results would be obvious, and no one would be surprised. People would tell you that the outcome was certain, and it was unwise to attempt the test. You had no experience, you had no practice. The experience you needed cannot be gained by reading books about driving, or the rules of the road. It can only be achieved by doing. Why, is leadership treated differently? Time and time again I meet people who are waiting to achieve what they consider a leadership position before adopting a mindset, and practicing being a leader. It is a recipe for failure.
How do we learn to drive? We find a mentor, someone with vastly more experience than us, and they teach us. We start in parking lots and empty spaces, we make mistakes that are not catastrophic, and we learn from our mentors. Over time, they say less and we do more. We are driving the vehicle, but they are right there in the passenger seat in case something goes wrong. When we encounter a situation we don’t know how to handle, they are there to lend us their experience. Eventually we achieve an experience level commensurate with the test, and upon passing a set standard, we drive the vehicle on our own. It is systematic, logical, and exponentially more safe and effective than just throwing someone the keys and hoping for the best. It is exactly how you should approach and teach leadership.
From my own experience, a critical component of learning leadership, and how to make decisions effectively, is to fail. YOU MUST ENCOUNTER FAILURE.
As an example, the ability to prioritize information is an important quality that effective leaders must have. The best way to highlight its importance is to cause a failure from a deficiency in it. Junior leaders in the SEAL Teams have a difficult job. They are surrounded by A-type personalities, in a demanding position, in charge due to their rank, and often low on experience. They are new, and stressed about making mistakes in front of their peers. They are inexperienced, and stressed about making the wrong decision. They are easy to overwhelm.
All information is valuable, but not all information carries the same value. Combat is a very dynamic environment, just like business. There is a lot to manage and keep track of. My favorite technique to overwhelm a junior leader is to overload them with non sequitur information, ask questions that have no bearing on the task at hand, and ask them to make micro decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with the macro goals. I am attempting to interrupt their prioritization of information, and when I do, their ability to make decisions decreases, and hopefully stops all together. When that occurs, you have arrived at the optimal teaching point. The impact is obvious and undeniable, failure. Over time, it becomes harder and harder to overwhelm these young leaders. They will not allow their prioritization to be interrupted, and their situational awareness and decision making drastically improve.
The training scenarios where we learn these lessons are often times more complicated and physically difficult than actual combat. This should be the goal, in any training scenario. I am sure it is a motto used throughout the military, but it is truly better to sweat in peace, than to bleed in war.
When I speak in front of organizations I always ask the audience “who in this room is a leader?” The results are always the same. One or two hands, but often none. This is direct insight into the managing style and leadership environment in any organization. If you were to ask a platoon of SEALs (usually around 16 guys) who is a leader, every hand in the room is going to go up.
Leadership has nothing to do with title. If you do not currently have a “leadership” position, then you need to be leading by example. Lead by the standard that you set, and how you conduct yourself. Study and train for the test now, so that when it presents itself, you are prepared. If you are in a leadership position, create and foster an environment where the qualities and principles you are looking for in the next generation of leaders is being fostered. Train and practice with your people. Attempt to develop them into better leaders than you are, then sit back and watch what happens to their performance, and its outcome on your team.