Tuesday, March 20, 2012

With Your Head, Not Your Heart

There is an old saw, particularly noteworthy as we prepare for the NCAA Sweet 16, that you should always ‘bet with your head, not your heart.’ There is a similar adjunct for leadership, and that is that you need to make decisions with your head, not your heart.

I talk a good deal about passion and its importance in leading and bringing about change. A leader with no real passion is either a poor leader or a negative one.* Real leaders abound in passion and they communicate that to their followers and teammates every day.

But when it comes to making decisions, you have to lead with your head, not your heart. Decision-making is a skill developed over time, through experience in leading and making decisions, and then the conscious and deliberate process of considering your decisions, evaluating the results of your decisions, and determining what decisions worked and why they worked, what decisions didn’t work and why they didn’t work, and what decisions had no effect at all, and why they didn’t. This is a process that requires crisp, clinical analysis and evaluation, but it does improve decision-making over time – dramatically.

Good decisions in difficult situations requires reflection – even if it is only brief reflection – and that means coldly evaluating the situation through the lens of your experiences and your intellect and then making your decision – coldly, as dispassionately as you can.

So remember, bring your passion to the game, but make your decisions coldly and analytically

* Negative leaders (the term is taken from the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer) refers to leaders who have all the skills and all the trappings of a great leader, but who, in the end, focus on self, who build personality cults and fanatical followers, not teammates, who place self above the goal. They may have great passion, but it is either directed toward themselves, or it is an act (or both). These people, if they have the skills to be leaders, will develop into evil people; Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot are all examples of negative leaders.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Strategic Clarity

An interesting thing happened several years ago: and it speaks to just how confusing people can get when they try to be ‘too clever by half;’ under the ‘Lancaster House Treaties’ the Royal Navy (the United Kingdom’s Navy) and the French Navy began planning to operate as more or less a combined force, with Royal Navy and Royal Air Force aircraft operating off of a French aircraft carrier and the two navies collaborating with various patrols in support of NATO obligations.

The agreements actually go well beyond that and entail the two nations extending collaboration between their defense forces in virtually every area. Granted that politicians and ambassadors often make statements that are a bit grandiose, but one ambassador recently said of the ongoing collaboration that: “ [t]he long-term future of the partnership is assured thanks to bipartisan … support that will outlast any leadership changes.”

What does this have to do with leadership? Well, two points, actually. First, how could two separate organizations have the same goal? The simple answer is that they really can’t. They can be close, but they will never be the same, except in the rare event that they both face a truly existential threat. But even then they are likely to view the threat differently and they are likely to develop different plans to address the threat. If so, how can they have the same asset being used in both plans simultaneously? Answer: they can’t.

Clarity of your goal is the sine qua non of successful leadership. Is it likely that two different countries are going to have the same – precisely the same – goal? Is it even possible? Which suggests that the first time there is real strain this arrangement will be in jeopardy, as will both nation’s plans.

The second point is the comment above: the partnership will outlast leadership changes. For that to be true (and this is true of any interlocking partnership) the ‘leaders’ who come in following any leadership changes will have to agree that whatever were the goals of the past will be their goals. In short, they will not be allowed to change direction. In short, they will not be allowed to lead, only to manage.

The intention here is not to comment on the UK and France and their treaties. They are perfectly free to sign treaties and try to bind themselves to each other. But the lesson any leader should draw from this is this: successful plans, and all successful leaders have good plans that are keys to their success, begin with clarity of goals. Two separate and equal organizations can only with great difficulty have exactly the same goal, and then usually only for a short period of time. Trying to make such arrangements work usually requires a great deal of effort for little product. Further, such an arrangement will severely limit the ‘range of movement’ of the leaders on both sides. Before you enter into any such arrangement, consider that, and then move wisely.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


There is an old saw that ‘you get what you inspect.’

This is a saying that is particularly well regarded among those who command ships, and there is many an admiral in the US Navy who made his career on his ability to carry out demanding inspections of his ships. But it raises a simple question: are inspections effective in ensuring that an organization (ship, corporation, non-profit, etc.) remains focused on its goals and is efficiently and effectively using its people and assets in moving toward those goals?

The short answer is: It depends.

There are three major pieces to keeping an organization, any organization, on track. All three are important. Any two without the third is like a stool that is missing a leg: it will fall over (it’s just a matter of when).

The three pieces are:

1) Communicating the vision. You – the leader – need to build followers who have the same vision – the same goal – as you. You ability to do this is essential. It is, in fact, your primary task over the long term. If you fail to do this, then when you leave there will be no more believers in the goal, and the organization will never get there. So, whatever the goal is, however it is encapsulated in a vision, it is your responsibility to communicate it, and to make believers.

2) Training and teaching your subordinates. Once you have found ‘followers’ and made them ‘believers’ you need to give them the tools they need to achieve the goals. Part of that you should already have in-work – a plan, an executable plan – that leads to the goal. But you also need to make certain that each of your teammates (and they are teammates now, or shipmates as they say in the Navy) is able to do what is assigned. And that means you need to train and educate and equip them with the necessary knowledge, skills and tools to carry out the plan. This is – again – your responsibility as the leader.

3) Instituting a control process. There needs to be a means by which you not only keep everyone on track, but one that allows you to monitor process, identify problems, apply corrections, and when necessary, change course. Remember, the plan isn’t important by itself, it is a means to reach the goal. You need to know how much progress is being made. And that involves two steps: establishing metrics and regular reporting on those metrics (getting the right information – both on your own organization and on the world around you (and how it impacts your organization)), and carrying out inspections.

Inspections are more than audits, they are way to communicate with the organization. Positive inspections communicate, teach and improve the organization, negative inspections punish. If you have developed your ‘followers’ properly, they will have adopted your goal as their goal, and they will want it badly enough that they will 'hawk' the process and the daily goings-on and make sure things stay on track. Inspections will be analogous to watching game films with the head coach who will continue to correct because everyone wants to get better.

There was a recent government study on US operations overseas - specifically Iraq and Afghanistan - that concluded that perhaps as much as $60 billion has been lost to waste of the approximately $1 trillion that we have spent in the last 10 years in or concerning these two countries. (Frankly, I find that remarkable: that only 6 cents of every dollar was lost to waste is pretty remarkable. If you have never been involved in large government programs you may not understand that. Having seen how inefficient government can be, I would have guessed the number would have been in the $200 - 250 billion range. Nevertheless, $60 billion is a great deal of money.) So, there is now a bill in Congress to tighten reporting, oversight and inspection.

It raises a simple question: will it work? My answer is: I doubt it. Inspections and increased oversight will only work in the short term. That is why some ship captains often use that method: they know they are only going to be in command for 24 months so they spend 24 months squeezing ship and crew so that everything looks perfect during their command tour. They leave the crew exhausted and frustrated and the ship able to pass inspections but able to do little else well. But over the long term does it provide more capable crews and ships to the fleets? The answer is no.

Long term solutions, as with the issue of managing waste in an operation that lasts as long as US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, require changes in the people, not just the process. Increasing the number or depth of inspections, but not changing the process will also fail to eliminate the problem.

Can you eliminate problems in an organization, problems like waste? Certainly. But the key is not inspection - though inspection is an important element. The key is leadership - people have to be committed to the system and the end goal and willing to keep the process honest and on track. And that is your job – you’re the leader.

Friday, March 16, 2012

How Did This Happen?

Politicians and pundits, editors, advice columnists, financial advisors, and seemingly everyone else – they all ask the same question, in one form or another, again and again: How did this happen? Or as my paper said the other morning: How did we get in this mess?

The answer, 99.9% of the time, is simple: poor leadership and poor planning. Both are important, and they are, in fact, opposite sides of the same coin. Good leaders have good plans, good plans are found where there are good leaders.

But that doesn’t answer the question: how did this (whatever ‘this’ represents) happen? I’ll use the case discussed in my paper (The Virginian Pilot) to illustrate the point. The issue is the road network in the greater Hampton Roads area. For those not familiar with the area, Hampton Roads, the southeast corner of Virginia, is an area normally said to encompass the seven cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News and Suffolk. The area is cut by dozens of waterways, estuaries and rivers, which translates into dozens and dozens of choke points in the form of bridges and tunnels. In addition, the area has witnessed remarkable growth over the last 25 years and the road network is therefore being used by more vehicles than intended, and the roads and bridges and tunnels not only need repair, they need to be expanded. All of which is driving (no pun intended) the governor and the Commonwealth bureaucracy to consider tolls on various bridges and tunnels to raise the necessary funds for expansion and maintenance.

As expected, many people are outraged and insist the state and federal funds should be used rather than charging tolls. Without getting into the specific pros and cons of these arguments, there are a number of lessons in leadership we can draw from this situation.

The first is that sound planning requires discreet planning sessions which ask extreme questions. If a road network is designed for a city of 50,000, with an expected growth rate of 3% for the next 25 years, that means the city will double in size. Simply put, if the road network is supposed to last essentially as is (less repairs) for the next 25 years, then the road network should be designed for 100,000 people.* But what happens is the city grows at 5%? That would mean that at the end of the 25-year plan the city would have more than 160,000 people and would therefore suggest that the infrastructure would be seriously overloaded.

What can be done about this? Despite what we often see from many ‘leaders,’ the answer is straightforward. Simply put, the leader needs to direct the planning staff to engage in more advanced ‘branch’ planning, and the planning staff needs to develop a plan that not only has planning ‘transients’ that consider more extreme planning assumptions (what if growth is 5% vice 3%?), but also tests for those assumptions. If at the end of the first year or second year of the cycle there is more than 3% growth, there should be a rigorous review not only of the plan, but also of the assumptions that underlies that plan.

How critical is this? The Japanese recently revealed that in their safety planning for the nuclear facilities damaged in last year’s tsunami, they never considered the possibility of an earthquake of the size which they experienced (9.0 on the ‘Moment Magnitude Scale’ (MMS)) or of a 30 foot tsunami hitting the reactor complex. Why was that? Of note, in the last 50 years there have been 4 earthquakes more violent then the one that hit Japan last year, 3 of the 4 were in the Pacific basin, the 4th was in Indonesia. If they were planning for worst event it would seem that they missed the mark. (The strongest earthquake on record is one that took place in Chile in 1960 – the Valdivia Earthquake – which registered 9.5 on the MMS.) As a 9.5 MMS earthquake releases 5.6 times as much energy as a 9.0 MMS earthquake, planning for a known earthquake value would have resulted in a substantial increase in survivability. In fact, one would think that, assuming a desire for an extra margin, one might plan for a 9.6 or 9.7 MMS earthquake to ensure some extra margin of survivability. Yet just recently the Prime Minister of Japan made the following comment:

“We can no longer make the excuse that what was unpredictable and outside our imagination has happened,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. “Crisis management requires us to imagine what may be outside our imagination.”

(‘Globe and Mail’ - YURI KAGEYAMA – TOKYO, The Associated Press, Published Saturday, Mar. 03, 2012 8:39AM EST - http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/japans-government-failed-responding-to-earthquake-tsunami-pm/article2357703/?utm_medium=Feeds%3A%20RSS%2FAtom&utm_source=Home&utm_content=2357703)

Of course, some will respond that the entire problem is that such events are outside our imagination; hence there is no way to plan for them. In fact, good planning can compensate for a lack of imagination. And good leaders know it.

Whether the issue is fairly mundane one, such as the issue of a population growing at 5 or 6% vice 3% (though the consequences of such a situation can be far from mundane), or the issue is something as catastrophic as an earthquake, tsunami or a terrorist attack, the ‘trick’ of planning for worst case contingencies is actually fairly simple: avoid looking for the worst case cause (at least at first) and begin with worst case results; then work backwards.

Thus, in the case of the Japanese reactors, you would begin with this simple question: what will we do if the reactors fail catastrophically? Then planning would develop basic evacuation plans, containment plans, etc. As the costs of these efforts became more clear, the planners would also learn more about what might cause such catastrophic failure and would develop plans to mitigate or eliminate such risks. For reactors this might involve locating them further from cities, on higher ground, on certain types of ground or bedrock, certain distances from various fault lines, establishing large minimum stand-off distances for housing and commercial facilities, building them in different areas relative to prevailing wind and weather conditions, etc.

For city planners this might involve issues such as more robust road networks then would seem to be at first needed (building with extra margins of growth), providing tax incentives for more dense rural development so that there are fewer drivers on the roads during peak periods, working with commercial developers to develop different arrangements of industrial concentrations to alter traffic flow patterns, working with home builders to develop alternate locations for housing developments, etc.

The point is that there are many ways to address problems, and all of them are cheaper than dealing with a crisis after the infrastructure has suffered a major failure, whether that failure is a sudden one caused by a tsunami or a slow motion one caused by growth rates that no one anticipated and no one reacted to as it took place around them. And the way to address those problems begins with simple leadership and sound planning.

* I am assuming that the planning process has enough rigor that someone specifically laid out hard timelines and baseline planning assumptions, such as (for a city planner) clearly stating the period of study, growth rates for the period of study, basic assumptions about growth rates for neighboring cities during the same period, basic assumptions about regional, state and federal economic growth and populations growth, etc.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

For the Gipper

"Tell them to go out there, and win one for the Gipper!”

We all respond to rallying cries, it is perhaps something on our make-up. It is certainly part of the American heritage: the tough but determined underdog, fighting against seemingly unbeatable odds, wresting victory from the jaws of defeat.

I bring this up because I have heard a number of politicians lately, not least the President, recently paint 'dooms-day' pictures of the future, then adding something to the effect 'if you vote for me we might stand a chance,' or ‘maybe someday ‘this’ might help.’

Here's the thing: that's not good leadership and it's not even good theater.

People don't respond well to doom and gloom unassociated with a real idea for saving the day. To tell someone the house is burning down and there really may not be a way out, but you should 'follow me anyway' is either narcissism or sociopathic behavior. Leaders don't do that. Leaders have a plan. Real leaders are honest about the problem, but also convincing about the solution, because real leaders have real plans that provide real results and they share them with their followers and their potential followers.

Ronald Reagan had the ability to not only identify the key point – the goal - and focus on it, he also had the ability to construct reasonable plans to achieve that goal. And these weren’t little goals: when the rest of the world believed that the West was locked in a losing struggle with Communism, Reagan saw it otherwise, had a plan, and acted on it. And while the risk was huge (truly existential risk), Reagan always managed to smile, to raise the spirits of those around him.

Leaders can talk about bad situation, leaders can demand increased performance, leaders can insist on sacrifice; but they can’t hope to get anyone to listen if the “reward” for the sacrifice is still doom and gloom. Leaders, and ‘wannabees’ need to be positive and upbeat, no matter how dire the situation. And they also need to make sense – or have such a string of incredible successes that everyone is willing to believe that success will follow – as the night the day – no matter how dire.

And do, to all you politicians out there, the ones who claim to be leaders and the ones who want to be leaders, how about some details? Tell us the plan. We can give Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich full credit for having some real, credible plans that they insist they would enact if elected. Let's get all the politicians to lay out there plans, including the President. And let's get the “children” in the media to stop asking inane questions about ‘your favorite musician’ or ‘first car’ or whatever, and focus on the major issues, and let the politicians display their leadership and their plans - or their lack thereof.

Knute Rockne didn't step into the locker-room and say 'play harder.' He gave them specific instructions. Let's try and think like Knute.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Keeping the Good Guys

I had a chance to sit and talk to a good friend last night, a very capable and experienced leader, who has demonstrated his talents under the most stressing of conditions – repeatedly. He is a combat commander who has successfully led men in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is very concerned with what he sees as a ‘hemorrhage of leadership’ in the US military.

His perception, which I share based on my own observations, as well as conversations with other middle grade officers throughout the services, is that a disproportionate percentage of the cream of the young officers – those with several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have reached the 8 – 12 year point in their time in the service, are choosing to leave the service. Two questions arise: why are they choosing to leave? And what can any organization do when faced with the same problem?

One of the basic problems facing any organization is the organization itself. Every organization of more than a hand-full of people very quickly takes on a persona; it has unique characteristics. And as it ages, people within the organization will take on some of the characteristics of that persona. We speak of people becoming ‘company men’ but don’t often reflect on that fact that organizations do cause real change to people, in their behavior, in their beliefs, in the way they act and the way they dress. As the organization grows larger and older, this persona, and eventually an accompanying rule set – hard and fast conditions that must be adhered to – grow larger and stronger.

While these are outward manifestations of the organization’s persona, the more important characteristics are the ones that are not seen, the suppression of characteristics that are dangerous to the organization. And what would those be? Essential to every organization is survival. The older, and the larger, an organization becomes, the more energy the organization expends on its own survival. Other issues, other goals, become secondary. The organization truly focuses only on one thing – its own survival. And this forces unusual behavior.

For example, in a business in a very competitive field, survival means remaining competitive. The business rewards those who contribute to remaining ahead of the competition, finding new ideas, saving unnecessary expenses, hiring the most talented workers; the organization strives to remain nimble, profitable, competitive. In short, the business behaves in a manner consistent with what we expect from a business.

What happens when a business finds itself in a field that is highly regulated? The business spends more time lobbying government, more time looking for people who understand the regulatory process, who are comfortable ‘maneuvering’ within the regulations, and less time looking for bright, competitive, imaginative people. The focus shifts.

When we move to a large government bureaucracy, where money is a function of ensuring a given House and Senate Committee is satisfied with the agency’s plans and their distribution of money’s to various programs or districts, the focus shifts again. Agencies are not rewarded or penalized for performance or non-performance, respectively. Rather, agencies are often rewarded (receive more funding) for identifying that a problem is worse than last estimated, as well as for identifying new problems that had gone unnoticed. Within the agency, people are rewarded not for saving money (except at the lowest levels), they are rewarded for significant growth in funding. Managing a multi-billion dollar program through to completion is a major ‘feather in your cap’ in Washington, and will lead to more senior positions in the future. Identifying that a major program was grossly over funded will lead to a few days or weeks of notoriety, but rarely leads to more senior positions.

In the DOD, in uniform, the situation is much the same: while junior officers, those with less than 12 – 14 years of service, promotion is based on fairly clear performance: do well, in fairly clear, simple terms, and you will be promoted. But, as officers approach their first command selection (as Commanders or Lieutenant Colonels), the services begin to select officers based not on aggressive, risk taking, aggressive behavior, and creative thinking, but instead, begin to look for those who will not only place the unit (battalion, ship, squadron) at risk, but also will, over time, learn how to not place the service at risk. The Organization is now starting to cull the herd, looking for officers who can be trusted to do ‘the right thing,’ that being those actions that will not bring any challenges to the status quo, officers who can be eventually placed in front of a Congressional Committee and will say what the system wants to hear. Officers who might stand up and say ‘there is a better way, a different way’ are dangerous in that they threaten the organization and it is therefore important to cull them from the herd.

As these officers continue on in their careers the culling becomes more pronounced: selection to colonel, selection for major command (a colonel/captain level command, such as a brigade, regiment, wing, major ship, etc.), and then selection to ‘flag’ (brigadier general/rear admiral). In fact, selection continues after that, with only the most trusted being nominated for 3 stars, and later 4 stars. Even then, it is notable that the services will end up with ‘mavericks’ at the 3 and 4 star level – not often but there are usually 2 or 3 in the service at any one time. These men will only wind up in Washington as a 3 star by mistake and never as a 4 star. Rather, they will be sent to an operational command – CENTCOM or PACOM, etc. There they can command troops, fight wars, meet with foreign powers. But what they cannot do is participate in budget decisions, they cannot and do not participate in the ‘inside the beltway’ combat where, as one chief of service said a few years ago, ‘the real work takes place.’

Who then do they select of these key three and four star jobs, the admirals and generals? Simply put, the pick the guys who have exemplary records, bright, capable managers, but who will not think for themselves. They pick the company men.

And the culling begins when they start choosing those battalions commanders. And that is what the JOs see – guys starting to bend, to ‘sell out’ to the organization in order to get their command.

What do we call the guys who don’t select, the guys who are weeded out because they are perhaps a bit too energetic, take a few too many risks? What are such people called? Leaders.

This is what the junior officers are seeing: the most capable colonels aren’t making brigadier, the most capable lieutenant colonels don’t make colonel. And the ones who do are the guys the junior officers see as the bottom half of the barrel. And a few officers, who the junior officers saw as tough, creative leaders, change, and they are promoted. And so, not wanting to change, and not wanting to be led by men they don’t respect, they leave.

That is a tough situation. There is little we can do about it right now, and fixing it is a serious issue. But there are also lessons to be learned from it for any organization.

The first lesson is this: as the leader of any organization – learn to accept risk. Selection of ‘company men’ is founded on the simple truth that all organizations are inherently risk averse and become ever more risk averse as they age and grow. The leader must do all that he can to tamp down risk aversion, and it begins with your daily behavior and you willingness to delegate authorities.

Second, develop a clear long-term strategy where the goals are clearly outside the organizational construct. Clear long-term goals that speak to external realities (leading the industry, etc.) can be used to force your organization to remain nimble and competitive. Vague goals will drive the organization inward. (Being able to defeat the Japanese Navy (the US Navy goal immediately prior to WWII), vice ‘protect US interests’ which leads you to ask what interests, from whom, and how well?)

Third, pay particular attention to promotions. Develop a real process to identify good leaders AND bad leaders. Include junior people in assessments (people assessing their bosses.) Keep asking yourself if the selection process is adequate for identifying the very best people, and don’t be satisfied with the process as it exists.

Fourth, spend real time and money training and educating your junior leaders and spend time evaluating their performance. Ask hard questions and demand high performance.

Finally, learn how to delegate. Let your leaders grow. Give them room to try new things and room to fail. In fact, put them in positions where they must fail and watch how they get up.

One of the hardest parts of leading is identifying the young leaders who will replace you. Give it the attention it deserves.