Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Basics

Once again, I’m back to basics.  It isn’t coincidence that Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying “football is only two things - blocking and tackling.” 

I was reminded of this during the past several weeks when I had the chance to work with a few true professionals, who I am also fortunate enough to call my friends.  They are all retired Army, Navy and Marine special ops types and we were assisting in training a special ops unit preparing to deploy.  What struck me is that at the extremely high level of professionalism shown by these units, two items are of particular note.  The first is not that everyone is individually trained to a very high standard.  Indeed, that is a ‘given.’  Rather, it is this: individuals, no matter how well trained, do not form an effective team simply by all ‘being in the same room.’

The real first step is ‘Making a Team,’ of bringing together a group of very high level performers and forming them into a high-performance team, where the various skills and strengths and weaknesses (and even among the very best units everyone has weaknesses), are matched, and where self is subordinated to team success.  The key to that is leadership, specifically the fundamentals of leadership: clarity of goals, the necessary intellect to develop the plans to train and then execute a plan to achieve those goals, the effective communication of the plan, the equally important process of tying together individual and team goals.

And no one does that better then the senior ‘non-commissioned officers’ – the Master Chiefs – of the Navy SEALs and the Sergeant Majors of the Marines and Army Rangers/SOF.  There are a hundred different styles, but in the end each one does the same thing: work with the younger sailors and soldiers and build teams. Each has his own style of communicating, and his own brand of charisma – of passion.  They can be rough, and they are all exceptionally demanding.  But they are also some of the most effective communicators and teachers - and leaders you will ever meet.  They know how to build teams.  And it is the team that produces such spectacular results.  In fact, I would suggest that one of the few places where I have witnessed real synergy – where the result is more than the sum of the parts – is in these units. 

Most companies, corporations, organizations of every stripe claim synergy but they are only kidding themselves, and they fall well short of actually even reaching a true ‘sum of all the capabilities of the team members,’ never mind something more.  There are many proximate causes for these failures, but the ultimate cause is that they fail to make real teams, which is itself a failure of leadership.

The rest of the leadership ‘puzzle,’ the second piece to this puzzle, is the process of leading the team, of using this synergy to effect.  That task falls on the commander of the unit and the few other more senior officers (and the senior enlisted – who bridges the gap between the two leadership efforts).  The commander’s task is to properly use the skills of the team as a whole, that synergy developed above, to achieve specific tasks.  Not only must the commander communicate effectively, he must be an effective decision-maker, one who has walked the same path as the sailors he leads, and therefore has the moral authority to give the orders that place the sailors into the situations they will face.

Again, there are a number of different styles of commanders, but all do the same thing: provide that combination of guidance, intellect, decision-making, and moral authority that results in a focused team, acting how, when, and where needed; exploiting the small teams – each made of highly trained men, yet allowing each team member to fully capitalize on his own unique talents and innovative skills.  That comes from long, tough training; but also from clear, common goals, accurate planning, crisp communication, and months and months of team-building.

In short, it is basics.  And it applies to every organization under the sun, whether military, government, corporate, whether in big matters or small.  Leadership is leadership; there are no shortcuts and there is no way to build a team without a clear focus on the basics. Of course, the reality is that many in leadership positions either have never really focused on the basics or for whatever reason believe that somehow they don’t apply to them, that they are the exception.  And just as Vince Lombardi is proven right every weekend when we see winning teams execute the basics – blocking and tackling, and those that try to be too clever by half, lose to those practicing the basics, so do we see in the corporate world as well as in politics ‘leaders’ failing to adhere to the basics and in the end undermining their own organizations.


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