Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why Does the US Military Produce Exceptional Leaders?

(This is an amended version of an article I posted a couple of weeks ago, but which from which I inadvertently omitted two paragraphs.)

There have been any number of books and articles written over the past several decades about the US military and why it produces so many good leaders. Many wax lyrical about devotion to duty or the patriotic motivations of the people themselves or their exceptional skills or any other number of factors. While I think it is true that many of those characteristics are found in many people in our armed forces, I think most of these theses miss the mark. In fact, I would submit that the leadership skills that are produced in the US military (and in the armed forces of many nations around the world) can be replicated by any organization that commits itself to doing those few things that the armed forces have done regularly.

What are those few things?

1) Clear goal (mission) - Each of the services is provided an abundance of organizational clarity because the overarching goals are clear and, for the most part, fixed. When someone joins the Marines, they are going to defend the nation; they take an oath to in fact do just that. Everything that is done after that is tied directly to that overarching goal. Why do you keep the mess hall clean? To feed the troops so that they can be healthy and ready to respond to orders – in the defense of the nation. As the tasks increase in complexity this clarity allows the leadership to sort through a great deal of ambiguity quickly, and focus any organization, and the people within it, on the appropriate task. Additionally, it provides a foundation for which communication down through the ranks, a commonly held intellectual and emotional position shared by all that can be used to tie together any number of specific tasks, providing a clear and unbroken string that reaches from the very bottom of the organization to the very top.

a. Also to be considered is that the overarching goal, which acts as the glue that keeps so much together, is one that provides true self-actualization. Young soldiers and sailors may join for some adventure (or even just for a job) but they also have the real – and massive – benefit of being regarded both by their peers at home and themselves as doing something that is much bigger than simply their own lives. In the strictest sense they are self-actualizing while within the military. This not only helps everyone perform at the 'top of their game,' it also makes it easier for the leadership to extract higher performance from these people.

2) Opportunity to Lead - People in the military get a great many opportunities to lead (they can also avoid it if they want; people reading military resumes who have no military experience should make sure they have someone they trust who understands what is being said). From day one you are being placed in charge of people and tasks. You are not only given many opportunities to lead, you are given many opportunities to fail. This isn't said in a negative way; you will usually find that for the first few years in the military you will routinely be given tasks that exceed your capabilities. Your leadership will see how much you are capable of and will then routinely step in before things go 'terribly wrong.' In this way you not only learn quickly, you learn while continually expanding your capabilities. You also learn that 99% of all leadership requires team building, that you can't 'do it' alone and you can't even 'lead' alone, that having a well integrated team around you and above you that you plug into is as important as producing your own well integrated team. The result is a great deal more leadership experience in any given time frame then you will encounter in most other positions.

3) The Gunnery Sergeant (or Gunny or GYSGT) - For the first few jobs that an officer has in the military, as a division officer and as a junior department head, or as a platoon leader and then as a company commander, the real day-to-day running of the organization is not in your hands. Instead, the guy who really is 'in-charge' is the senior enlisted, the 'Chief' or the 'Gunny' or the 'First Sergeant.' Well beyond any soppy, nostalgic paean to senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers), the fact is that the Chief (Gunny, etc.) is there to teach 2nd Lt Jones how to lead. He does that both by leading the division/platoon and teaching by example, and by engaging in day-to-day mentoring of the young officer. This continues up through, at a minimum, the command of the company. In fact, in any number of larger units the senior NCO in the command acts as the right hand and trusted advisor of the commander. Seasoned battalion commanders and SEAL team commanders (who will have 15 years of experience in the military) rarely act without at least consulting closely with their most senior NCO. What makes this leadership construct particularly effective is that the lieutenant who is the titular senior to the NCO (but who had better listen when the NCO tells him something) is not competing with the NCO for either promotion or position. The NCO is interested in making the unit work and perform at its best, as is the lieutenant, both can be recognized for their performance, and it benefits both when the other succeeds. Further, the lieutenant, who enters the relationship with little to no leadership experience, will be recognized for being squared away when he listens to his nominal subordinate and 'does what he is told.' This built in 'humility school' helps to build leaders who place unit above self-aggrandizement and leads to improved unit performance.

4) Planning and Exercises – The military at every level produces plans – formal and informal; those plans are regularly reviewed by the next echelon, the plans are modified, and then the plans are exercised. Not only is there an opportunity to learn from those around you as you watch them plan, you will be given a good deal of guidance to make certain that your planning has addressed each major issue. Planning will also include detailed discussions on how to execute the plan itself. Further, once the plan is completed, the military engages in exercises. In fact, the military has a seemingly infinite array of exercises, including daily training plans (two aircraft in the same squadron practicing particular types of engagements or weapons deliveries, for example), unit level exercises (perhaps platoon or company sized maneuvers on the base training ranges), all the way up to theater level war games that involve sophisticated computer modeling, senior decision-maker gaming and discussions, and the movements of literally tens of thousands of personnel, hundreds of aircraft, and dozens of ships. The military plans, they analyze and critique the plans, and then they practice the plans.

5) Debriefs - The military loves to debrief. Every decision is reviewed; every action is deconstructed and reconstructed, and then discussed in detail. The bigger the exercise, the more effort is placed on this debriefing process. Debriefing is professional – that is, impersonal and analytic – but painful, whether you are a new F-15 pilot or a seasoned veteran with 25 years of service. Army division commanders (major generals in command of 12 – 15,000 personnel) routinely take a brigade or more of troops onto maneuvers against an 'OpFor' (Opposing Force) and get pushed around and get lots of troops 'killed' the first time they run through the training range. Then there is a detailed debrief, plans are adjusted and they are taught how to tighten up their plan and fight and win. Not only does it save soldiers lives when they reach the real combat zone, it makes every leader in that division – from Division Commander down to the Corporal who is leading a fire team - a better leader by forcing them to review their decisions and forcing them to determine why one course of action worked and another didn't, AND to understand which decisions worked and why and which decisions didn't work, and why not; this is true even when you 'win.' It is enlightening to learn that the decision you made had no positive impact on the success of your team even when you won. The first time someone experiences a debrief like this it can be eye-opening, but the results in improved decision-making and improved leadership are even more eye-opening.

6) Training ('schools' commands) - Everybody in the military trains and trains hard. They also train smart. With few exceptions every warfare specialty sends their best back to be an instructor. The guys who are teaching tactics to new F-15 and F-22 pilots are the pilots who have already completed several operational tours and are judged to be the cream of the crop. Instead of remaining in operational units the crème de la crème are sent to be instructors. In most cases the process of selecting officers for promotion has been developed to the point that it requires that anyone who wants to get promoted must spend time in the schools commands at some time in his career. This forces the best people back for at least one tour as a trainer some time in their careers. In short, the services invest in training, investing time not only in making junior officers better, but also at every step along the way demanding continual training and education as you are promoted. This is the 'simple' recognition that you need to invest in training and education if you want to make people the best they can be.

7) Education – The services also insist on and invest in education. Attendance at staff colleges and service war colleges, and have an advanced degree are now virtually required of nearly every senior officer. (Some few officers will reach the rank of colonel without these things, but that is a rare event, and definitely the exception, not the rule). Professional growth through study and earning a masters degree in a field of study directly related to your particular specialty is recognized as necessary to maintain high performance.

8) Communication – From the first day that you are placed in charge of anyone, you are required to communicate. The military has both a requirement to communicate and a process to support it. In most units (of any size) there is a daily muster in which the platoon leader or division officer stands in front of the troops and tells them what is going on today. This accomplishes a host of things: it demonstrates to one and all that the “Lieutenant” is in charge, that is, responsible; there is no dodging. The morning muster also establishes what is going on: ‘here are the special tasks for the day, and the people who need to execute those tasks are X, Y and Z,’ while providing the leader the daily opportunity to both communicate what the overall organization is doing, and, more importantly, how today’s tasks connect to the overall organization and long-term goal; and finally, getting up in front of the troops gives the new leader the opportunity to develop as a communicator.

It is worth noting that many other countries have similar processes and produce exceptional leadership; in fact, I would suggest that in some cases they produce officers as good or better then the US. I would single out the British and Australian forces for producing consistently excellent officers, but have also met many exceptional Japanese, Republic of Korea, Chilean and New Zealand officers and senior NCOs. I would suggest that our advantage over these officers rests more with differences in funding for new systems and technologies, as well as more money and time available for training and exercises results.

So, what does this mean if you are running a business, even a small business?

First, Make sure you have a real goal, one that is essentially fixed, a long-term goal that you can use to pull everything together. Take the time to understand how that goal connects to every task in the organization. I have been in some great organizations where the night watchman understands – and can explain – his role and how it connects to the overarching strategic goal. Work towards that standard.

Second, as you advance, take advantage of all the leadership experience you can get your hands on, and encourage your people to do the same. When you are in charge, give everyone opportunities to make decisions and to lead.

Third, find a mentor, or two or three, pick them based on leadership experience. Talk with them frequently and give them the details, make sure they understand what is going on so that they can provide real input. Insist on painful honesty, they aren't there to make you feel better. If you ask for advice, listen. If you ask the question: 'What would you do?' pay attention to the answer. If you want to do something else, you should be able to explain, in a logical manner, why you have chosen to do that something else rather than what your mentor suggested.

Fourth, Learn how to plan, then practice it – it's another art. Start small and then grow. There are any number of books on strategic planning that can help (many aren't very good, but they are better then nothing). Read several, and compare what they are saying. If you have the time and money, take a class in planning. Construct some plans with your staff or partners and then pull them apart. Play 'what if' and see how the plan responds to various developments, then adjust the plan and do it again.

Fifth, keep track of decisions and learn how to debrief. When you make a decision, right down a few notes, to include why you made the decision you made, and what information led to that specific decision. Write down some alternate decisions that were considered and rejected. Note why you rejected those decisions. After the decision plays out, revisit the decision-making process, to include both the decisions that were considered and rejected and the one that was selected. Try to determine as accurately as possible within your time and budget constraints what happened and why, and what role your decisions had in the outcome – if any.

Sixth, invest in training. This will be a major expense for many small businesses, one they can hardly afford. But as much as is possible, consider it. Balance making your business bigger with making it better.

Seventh, invest in education. This will be even more difficult for most businesses. Certainly for certain very large businesses they might be willing to do this, but most medium and small sized businesses will find this difficult if not impossible. If that is the case, at least give careful thought to particular educational standards you would like to have in your company and hire to that standard.

Eight, take the opportunity to communicate. Whether it is by walking around and talking at the coffee pot or holding daily or weekly meetings or whatever other means you choose, make certain not only that you and your leaders and managers are talking to their people, make certain that they do it regularly and frequently. Don’t let your ‘leaders’ hide in their offices, make them talk to their people. Not only will it ‘get the word out’ and produce a more tightly integrated organization, it will also serve to hone your junior leaders.

One final thought: the question of motivations is perhaps the most difficult question to ever answer. It is a subject that often comes up in combat zones, or more accurately, after you have left the combat zone and are looking 'back' at it. Young Marine PFCs* have often amazed me because they are, in fact, so motivated. They join the Marines ready to slay dragons. It is rarely as simple as young men filled with 'piss and vinegar' who want to prove they are tough, though there is obviously some of that, and that is the most visible facet of it. Instead, you bump into them by the score in any Army or Marine company, 20 year olds who are truly determined to change the world, and who believe they have both the skills and the opportunity to do so. They are operating at the very top of Maslow's hierarchy. It is a testimony to the skill of their drill instructors that the gung ho spirit that led these young men to enlist has been nurtured and fed and focused so that they get to their first unit and they are coiled steel, ready to spring.

That level of motivation reveals itself years later, when veterans will look back on their enlistment with a great deal of nostalgia, and why not: it is often true that never in the remainder of their lives will they ever operate at the very pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy. They may have spent a solid year completely self-actualized, whereas most people will rarely spend more than a few weeks at a time at that level of motivation. No wonder they do incredible things in the military!

At the same time, this level of motivation makes leadership that much easier. Placed in charge of a 40 young, tough, well trained and very motivated Marines, and given a squared-away Gunnery Sergeant, the average Marine 2nd Lieutenant will often find his job a good deal easier than he might have expected. It may well be that motivating an 18 year-old kid to make every cheeseburger the same way, each time, day-after-day, is as difficult, as challenging a leadership problem as getting another 18 year-old kid to conduct a patrol through the streets of a small but violent town on the other side of the world. The 2nd Lieutenant's organization – the Marines – provides him with the training and skills and support and guidance to do his job. The question is whether your organization is providing your "2nd Lieutenant" with the equivalent training, skills, support and guidance?

* Private First Class


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