I have had the great honour and privilege to have led American combat soldiers as a commissioned officer. Leadership is everything as an officer. How do you influence people to do something that they would not otherwise do?
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that leadership must have been easy for me in the army because they believe soldiers just do what they are told. Yes, as a soldier, you are obligated to obey all legal orders, but army leadership is far more complicated than that. A soldier is obligated to respect your rank, but as person, you have to earn their respect. Once you earn their trust and respect, they’ll go above and beyond the call of duty for you. Military leadership is only different in kind to civilian leadership.
Here are 5 things, every leader should know, whether military or civilian:
1. Create a clear and compelling vision
A compelling vision acts as a beacon of light that keeps your people focused on where you want to go. Napoleon Bonaparte achieved great victories on the battlefield. Part of his success was due to his decisiveness and the decisiveness of his field marshals in making decisions. Napoleon made sure his field marshals knew what to do when they didn’t know what to do. His standing order was: “In the absence of orders, march to the sounds of the guns.” If you create a clear vision of what you want to achieve, people will amaze you with their ingenuity and help you achieve that vision, but it must be both a shared and compelling vision.
2. Be open and visible
Never mind email, get belly to belly with your people; let them see and feel your presence. Good leaders lead from the front and set the example for others to follow. When I reported in to my first combat infantry battalion, my company commander showed me around the company area. He eventually showed me to my new office: “And here’s your office, but you’ll never see it, because if you’re doing your job properly as a leader, you’ll never be in it. Your place of duty is in front of your troops.” A good leader must be visible and people must be able to approach you with their ideas, questions, thoughts and concerns. Management by walking around as we used to say in manufacturing.
3. Listen with no agenda
Your people like to be heard and they like to know you’re listening. Listen actively with no agenda other than to listen and understand. Steven Covey tells us, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In order to do that, you have to listen. And it doesn’t hurt, every now and then, to let your folks have a “moan” session. They’ll feel better for it. I once remarked to my Platoon Sergeant that our soldiers complained too much. My Platoon Sergeant looked at me with a big old grin and said: “Sir, if they ain’t complaining; they ain’t training.”
4. Accept mistakes as your own; take the praise for nothing
As the leader everything is your fault, no exceptions! You are responsible for everything your people do or fail to do. If they fail to meet their targets, it’s because you failed to provide the proper guidance and support. You can delegate tasks and authority, but you can never delegate responsibility. If your team exceeds its targets, make sure it’s your people who get all the credit, and be sure to praise them openly and honestly.
5. The personal touches matter
Good leaders know their people. They know their dreams and ambitions, their fears and their doubts. They know what’s important to each individual. A good leader cares. The quickest way to endear your people to you is to show that you care. If your people feel you have their best interest at heart and that you genuinely care about them, they’ll do anything for you. When I was a young front line supervisor for a group of hard-nosed old style union workers, an old grizzly bear manager named Bubba pulled me aside one day. He could see that I was full of vim and vinegar and wanted to do great things, but that I was frustrated by the “union” mentality. Bubba said to me: “These people don’t work for the company, they work for you! The company might sign the their paycheques, but at the end of the day, they work for you and if you treat’em right, there’s nothing they won’t do for you.”