Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Leadership Fundamentals

Vince Lombardi said “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.” Of course, what Lombardi said is true whether he was talking about football or any other endeavor: it’s all about fundamentals. And this is particularly true for the leader, the guy in charge. Leadership is about fundamentals.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw and article about Bush and Rumsfeld, the war in Iraq, and the Pentagon uniformed leadership. This article is not going to comment on whether the decision to go into Iraq was right or wrong; for the purposes of this article that is irrelevant. The issue is whether the leadership failed at certain levels. The contention of the article I read was that the leadership in uniform was essentially blameless and Bush and Rumsfeld bear all the blame.

Unfortunately, leadership isn’t that easy. Particularly inside and organization as large as the Department of Defense, but, in fact in any organization of greater than perhaps 20 people (yes, I said 20 people), echelons will develop (formal an informal) and that means many people must exercise leadership. Once an organization grows to more than several hundred it will develop at least two intermediate echelons (it must, for simple span of control reasons, but that is the subject of another article). At that point it is as much incumbent on the intermediate leadership as the senior leadership to exercise the fundamentals in order for the organization to achieve success. The Admirals and the Generals seem to have forgotten this.

Leadership consists of six key elements, but only the first two are important here: vision and communication. In the case of a President, any President, situations develop that he can either choose to address or choose not to address. In the case of the United States, either path will have clear repercussions, either path will be continually analyzed and interpreted and criticized, either path will bring difficulties. Particularly in the case of war, no matter how well thought out the original plan, no war goes the way it was planned, not even close. (For those who may remember the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, it seemed to go very smoothly. For a war, it did. However, even the briefest review of the details will show that a large number of very bright people worked very hard to achieve those results, and there was still a great deal of improvisation necessary. And that war was a rarity.)

This is true of any plan, whether it is the invasion of another country or the opening of a corner grocery store: nothing will go as planned. Does that mean the vision was flawed. No. Does it mean the planning wasn’t perfect? Yes, but no planning is perfect. Does that mean the planning was a waist of time? No, the planning helps to identify problem areas and should give you some idea of what steps will need to be taken to overcome them – it helps you to better frame what is possible and what is not and that helps to prepare you for what does happen.

Once you have arrived at your goal and created your vision, you have to communicate it. This is the overwhelming weakness of virtually every leader. Motivating people to follow you and your vision is achieved through communication – the more the better. As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that you have not communicated enough – ever. The few organizations that I have seen that seem to have communicated enough were all sports teams at the championship level, and then only the ones that really stand out. Think of John Wooden and UCLA – teams that seemed to win effortlessly (though, as Wooden will say, it was all hard work and fundamentals.) In literally every other great organization there were and are still shortfalls as a result of some element not fully understanding the vision and their role in achieving it. Again – you haven’t communicated enough.

In the case of the war in Iraq, the President supplied the vision and the initial communication. I would submit that he failed to keep communicating. This is best demonstrated by the simple fact that every time he went on TV and explained what the US was trying to do in Iraq the support for the war would rise substantially. But, then he would wait weeks, sometimes even months before he spoke of it again, and support would erode. This is not unique to this war. In fact, this is something that happened during WWII and about which FDR expressed real concern. If such is the case with something as large and as visible and as serious as a war, how much more must you communicate to your company about your vision?

But, in regard to the war in Iraq, the subordinates also failed. The failure of the ‘middle management,’ the Admirals and Generals, particularly those in the Pentagon, to not only unite behind the President and the Secretary, but to do all that is necessary to make sure the plan was as sound as it could be is not the President’s failure, it is the failure of the Admirals and Generals.

In this case, is some of the blame focused on Bush and Rumsfeld justified? Certainly, just as some blame is always justified. Coach Wooden wasn’t perfect, no one is. But, in this particular case, neither were the Generals and Admirals. It has been documented that several times Rumsfeld circulated missives asking whether they were on the right track or whether they needed to try something completely different. These missives regularly received ridicule both privately and publicly.

Now, most of us will never have the responsibility to make any decision that begins to approach that of going to war in degree of complexity or gravity. But the lessons are still there. If we are to lead, we have to lead, and that means we have to make choices, when others would choose to wait for consensus, and we have to be responsible for those choices. We have to ensure that our subordinates have the opportunity to voice concerns, and then we have to make sure that, once the decision is made, that they are all using the same game book, and that they are committed to the plan.

Virtually all of us will also find ourselves in a position of ‘middle management,’ that is, we will be communicating the decisions of our boss. At that point it is our job to ‘get onboard.’ If you don’t like the decision, talk to your boss, do what you can to change the decision. If you cannot accept the decision, then leave. But, whatever else you do, you should neither accept someone working against your directions if you are in charge, nor should you do it yourself if you are working for someone else.

When we find members of the team who aren’t committed to the game-plan, they need to be either convinced to join – communicate - or released. My own observation (I retired from the Navy a couple of years ago) was that there was more than a little obstructionism and ‘bureaucratic sniping’ taking place within the Pentagon when it came to the efforts of Bush and Rumsfeld. This is, unfortunately, to be expected in any organization. What the President and Secretary Rumsfeld did about it is a matter of record. But the lesson to be learned for anyone in any organization is best summed up with a line out of the script of ‘The Caine Mutiny,’ from the lawyer LT Greenwald, “You don't support your captain because you like him; you support him because he's got the job or you're no good!”

It may be true that General X or Admiral Y had all the right answers and nobody listened. But I doubt it. It is more likely true that the General or the Admiral had some right answers and a lot of wrong ones. Maybe if, instead of ‘sniping’ and ‘whining,’ they had worked together at fixing the problems around them, many of the problems would never have developed into bigger ones.
In every organization there are bright, talented people who don’t like the way things are going. They can and should voice their objections in a reasonable manner. Quiet, deliberate, thoughtful action may yield a better answer for everyone. If their objections are overridden, and they still feel strongly about it, they can vote with their feet. If they choose to stay, despite their objections, then ‘get onboard and pull an oar.’ If they get onboard but don’t pull the oar, the captain ought to ‘throw them over the side.’ What the captain must not let them do is sit around and complain and ‘poison’ the rest of the crew.


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