Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Lesson Learned

There are a few things we can all learn from the recent firing of General McChrystal, some ‘truths’ about leaders and their interaction with their staffs and others.

First, a leader always needs to know what his central message is. So does his immediate staff. So, sell the message. Sure, you may like the old days when you were a: (fill in the blank) fighter pilot, punch-press operator, traveling salesman, etc. You aren’t any more. You’ve been promoted. Leadership, particularly senior leadership, is about communicating the goal, and the strategy to get there. That is your job. Your staff’s job is to facilitate that. Focus on the message.

Second, Don’t fall off message. If you are trying to keep a diverse group of folks together you can’t say disparaging things about them, no matter how far away you are, no matter how obscure the connection. In fact, you shouldn’t even say disparaging things in front of your staff or your personal secretary. Instead, always strive to be as professional as possible. Even if your strategic partner is a mess, don’t say it in public. If it needs to be discussed, discuss it with those who absolutely need to know, and no one else. Remember what your mother told you: if you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything. So, keep it professional and analytic.

Third, Expect the press to do their job. If a reporter is walking around your organization – factory floor, ship, whatever – don’t expect that any story that comes out will be sugarcoated because you gave him your time for a few days and a coffee mug with the corporate logo. Reporters are supposed to find stories. Expect them to do so.

Fourth, Look the part. You’ve all heard the line ‘don’t let ‘em see you sweat.’ Well, in fact the line should be ‘only let ‘em see what you want them to see.’ The simple truth is that great ideas can be undermined by the proponent, the leader, being seen as silly or cynical or a hypocrite, whether that is the truth or not.

Fifth, Your Staff Reflects You. Machiavelli (a hard but accurate observer of power and those who wield it) observed that a ‘Prince is known by his counselors.’ If you are a bright guy and you hire a jackass for a close assistant, maybe you aren’t so bright. Be careful whom you put on your staff; make certain you can trust them, and at the same time, always work to ‘raise their game.’ If you ‘let your hair down’ so will they; if you are sloppy, literally or intellectually, they will become sloppy as well. Pick the best staff you can, but always seek to improve your staff.

Sixth, Make sure every position is filled. No one starts the baseball season without a full bullpen. One of the glaring gaps in the article about Gen. McChrystal, and all the articles and discussions that followed, is that nation-building is not a mission of the military. It isn’t even a mission of the state department. Rather, if we are to be successful, it is a mission of the entire government. The glaring omission in all of the discussions about Gen. McChrystal and Afghanistan is that there is no mention of the lack of presence of all the other team members. Where are the people who might help Afghanistan with energy, agriculture, water and roads, sewerage treatment in the cities and towns? Are there people working on each of these? Yes. But at the senior staff level what you see is a large number of soldiers, a smaller number of retired soldiers, and a few career foreign service members. The senior staff needs to reflect the full breadth and depth of the problem in order to ensure that the planning and execution also reflect the full breadth and depth of the problem. That is as true in Afghanistan as it is in any other organization.

Last, a leader is always ‘on.’ Time and again in the article about Gen. McChrystal we are provided examples of the General making various gestures or comments to members of his staff. Certainly, some of the men who work for him are old friends. In most cases that behavior is only acceptable if it were just between the two men, or within a very small, intimate circle of friends. It is certainly not acceptable when the reporter was present or when they are outside the office or hotel room. The fact of the matter is that the leader – general, president, CEO, etc. – is always ‘on.’ Every word, every act, every facial expression will be read by someone, and passed along – for good or ill. If you are confident and upbeat all the time, that will come across. If you are convinced that you are in a hopeless position, that will come across. To say, ‘well, I was just sitting and thinking,’ or ‘I had a bad night’ is meaningless. The message is already ‘sent.’ The leader sends messages all day, every day.

You need to decide what messages you want to send and then live that every moment you are out of the house or on the phone. You must always be on.


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