Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Leadership at 3 AM

It was the inestimable Shelby Foote who said about General US Grant that "Grant the general had many qualities but he had a thing that's very necessary for a great general. He had what they call "four o'clock in the morning courage.” You could wake him up at four o'clock in the morning and tell him they had just turned his right flank and he would be as cool as a cucumber."

Perhaps this is the root of the recent flurry of comments as to what this or that potential president would do in response to a ‘3 AM phone call.’ But, as might be expected when everything seems to be compressed into 30 second news bursts, the recent discussion doesn’t always seem to get to the heart of the matter.

First, it is important to remember what is the real issue; as pointed out by Shelby Foote, the issue is whether you remain clear and cogent when you are threatened with doom – literal or figurative. You are sound asleep, you believed all was well when you went to sleep, and now the enemy (however conceived) has turned your flank, is running up behind you and may well have you at their sword points. The enemy may be physical, psychological, fiscal, whatever. But if the ‘enemy’ continues, your way of life is going to change dramatically, and for the worst. The thing your army, your side, needs now is your calm judgment about what to do to save them from ruin. GEN Grant had experienced moments when it looked like his army would collapse, and he had not shown fear and his judgment had not failed him.

The modern equivalent of that, from a national perspective, would be some sort of indication that the United States was about to be attacked or was being attacked. Since the days of Lincoln this has happened only twice: the Cuban Missile Crisis and September 11th. In both cases the President performed well.* Both Presidents had had some experience to fall back on: in the case of Kennedy he had combat experience that told him to make an accurate assessment first, do what you can to make it better, try not to do anything to make it worse, and if possible, ‘buy’ some time while you assess the situation and conduct some planning. Bush had not had a similar experience to Kennedy, but Bush had his years as governor of Texas to fall back on, which provided the proper degree of trust in the process of being the executive of a large, well established organization, in this case the well groomed process that surrounds the President as Commander-in-Chief, and he moved to a position where he knew he could get accurate information and make a considered decision.

Every President will, of course, benefit from the large, well trained and very well equipped organization that exists around the Office of the President. It is a fair statement that a President, any President, will have enough support that it would be difficult for him or her to make a truly stupid decision at ‘3 AM.’ But, there are some points that we can learn from considering the leader of any organization that is surprised and threatened with doom, whether it is a nation, an army or a private organization. Looking at great leaders in times of crisis lessons do emerge and are of value, even if we never are fated to lead a nation during her darkest hour.

Always remember that you are the leader. When no one can see you, you are the leader, when you are in the bathroom you are the leader. (This is the real weight of leadership (‘it’s lonely at the top’) and any leader who hasn’t felt it is shirking his duties.) So, when they ‘call you at 3 AM’ your response will be echoed throughout the organization. If you are calm and sure, they will be as well. If you let panic enter your voice, that too will get around. It is essential that those around you understand that they can, in fact, ALWAYS count on you to be the leader when they need it, not when you simply want to lead.

Prepared – Good leaders are always prepared. That is because they spend a great deal of time thinking ahead, exercising their brains, working out possible courses of action. This is true whether you are the President of the United States of the President of John Doe, Inc. If you have nothing else to do, think through various situations and work out basic steps you would take if that situation were to develop. You will never encounter exact copies of your plans in the real world, but, the more you think and exercise and plan, the more likely you are to have a framework that you have considered. Machiavelli considered it to be the duty of a Prince to look at each piece of terrain and think about how to defend it, and how to attack it, and to do so continually. The Prince’s number one responsibility was to defend his city, and to not prepare for it was a disgrace. His right duty was to spend much of his time considering how to defend the city and what would be needed to properly do so.**

Confident – the leader’s response in the dark of the early morning sends a signal to every single person in the organization –whether you believe it or not. Calm leaders are infectious, and so are worrisome ones.*** Teach yourself to be calm. In the movies we often see leaders of various stripes engaging in high drama, even yelling and grabbing people. It makes for good theater. It also makes for lousy leadership. When things get bad, good leaders are calm, quiet and considered.****

Experienced – Experience teaches that the situation is rarely as bad as it seems and it is rarely exactly what the first reports detail. Nervous leaders often will cycle between not making decisions at all and making decisions in a hasty and uninformed manner. Experience teaches that the best thing to do sometimes is simply ‘wind the clock.’*****

Experience as a leader under stress does not guarantee that you will make good decisions. But lack of experience will certainly ensure a spotty performance at best until you have accumulated some experience.

* Pearl Harbor doesn’t qualify for several reasons: it was not the United States proper at the time, but a territory; there was certainty that the Japanese could not invade the United States itself, and their was a certain intellectual acceptance that the US and Japan were going to be at war soon; Pearl Harbor was a tactical surprise, but Roosevelt certainly didn’t fear for the loss of the United States itself. Nevertheless, his handling of the crisis in the days immediately following December 7th was brilliant.

** This is why President’s and their immediate staff should participate in various war games – not because they are war mongers, but because it is both necessary that they understand what US forces can and cannot do, and because they need to be prepared for whatever might happen, and there is no better way to do this then ‘gaming.’ Corporations and other private organizations that are interested in their organizations surviving in the event of a catastrophe, (what now falls under the catch-all ‘Continuity Of Operations’ or COOP) should also be engaged in planning and exercises. Stockholders should demand it off their Board of Directors.

*** Churchill is perhaps the paragon of a great leader continually performing well under great stress. With his nation fighting alone against the Nazis and the Axis Powers for nearly a year he never showed anything but complete confidence that the UK would, in the end, be victorious, no matter what the reports might show. He extended this confidence to the issue of the ‘3AM phone call,’ instructing his staff not to wake him unless England were actually invaded. Throughout all of World War II Churchill was only woken a couple of times, no matter how dire things might be around the world.

**** Taking a lesson from several great leaders I worked for, I made a general rule for all situations: you can raise your voice under four circumstances – 1) the building is on fire; 2) someone is shooting at you – specifically; 3) you are having a baby; 4) you win the lottery. Other than that, shouting is of only negative value – it makes the situation worse.

One of the lessons taught in flight training is that, when things look bad in the airplane, and you are not sure what to do, wind the clock (many aircraft, even the most modern, have wind-up clocks in the instrument panel, for a number of reasons). What this forces you to do is concentrate on a specific action for a few seconds, which should both calm you down and allow the situation to become a bit more clear, and prevents you from doing something really stupid while you recover your wits.


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