Thursday, October 24, 2013

Good Leaders Don't Do Their Own Brain Surgery

It has become commonplace for our current leaders – in politics, business, the military, etc. - to never admit to any failings, to any gaps in their knowledge, to never show that they rely on others for key expertise.  It seems that the leader must appear to be all-knowledgeable, and let no one else share in the credit.  Any counsel that he might receive, and advice, if and when provided, is provided only in private, out of the line of sight of any media or devoted followers.

Such is the arrogance, the hubris of some of our so-called leaders that it leads me wonder if they do their own dentistry or brain surgery.  But, as an old boss and friend of mine used to say, ‘if you learn nothing else from watching me, learn what not to do.’

Thankfully, such was not always the case.  In Machiavelli’s ‘the Prince,’ written in part to provide guidance to the new Doge of Florence (Lorenzo de Piero de Medici), Machiavelli makes a point of commenting that great Princes have great advisors, advice that has been shortened in modern times to ‘A Prince will be known by the counselors he keeps.’  But what Machiavelli said is more subtle than that, and it has a lesson for anyone in any position of leadership.  (The following comes from Chapter 23 of ‘The Prince.’)

Machiavelli stresses that the Prince (fill in any position you want, from President to Governor to CEO to shop supervisor all the way down to Scout leader), should be both ready to ask for advice and someone who patiently waits to hear the truth.  And the truth needs to be the whole truth.  In fact, Machiavelli tells the Prince that he should be displeased with anyone who withholds the truth – for any reason.

Machiavelli also notes that a Prince who is not wise cannot have wise advisors.  If by some chance a less than wise leader finds himself with wise advisors, he will soon lose de facto control to them.  Machiavelli is adamant that history has shown that a Prince with poor advisors is not wise.  No matter what you may think about a leader, if he surrounds himself with mediocre advisors and assistants, he is himself mediocre.  And when you find a leader who is surrounded by poor counselors, you are right in believing he is neither a competent nor a wise leader.  If it is possible, he should be replaced.

If on the other hand you find wise counselors, acting in the nation’s or organization’s interest, and serving the leader (President, CEO, etc.) the root of that is the leader’s wisdom, not that of the counselors.

Leaders who respond to problems by suggesting that they did the right thing, but their less than adequate deputies didn’t know what they were doing, or that ‘someone made mistakes’ and thereby shift the blame are simply trying to hide their own failings.  Every leader will have deputies who make mistakes.  How quickly the leader owns up to those mistakes and when necessary corrects the errant deputies – and perhaps moves him if need be - is a good indicator of how capable a leader he really is.

The better, the more capable a leader is, the more he will be seen to seek out top-flight counselors.  But this is an easily deceptive practice; many leaders seek to confuse by selecting counselors with known biases.  Instead of choosing bright and capable counselors who will present them with the truth, they choose those who will present them with what they – the leaders – already believe; the real truth is withheld from the ‘boss’ so that he is ‘protected,’ the accepted truth is never challenged, and the hubris of the leader is never challenged.

But great leader are willing to brook disagreements and accept hard truths.  Great leaders know that problems only get fixed when addressed: the faster they are recognized, the faster they will be addressed, and thus the faster they will be corrected.  As you take on more and more responsibility that behavior requires ever more intestinal fortitude, delegating authority to your subordinates so that they can execute your orders, but accepting responsibility for their actions, accepting the truth and moving quickly to address real problems and solving them. 

The one good thing in all this is that such behavior is learned behavior.  You can practice it every day; from day one, begin with the simplest things: choose the best subordinates, delegate authority, trust your subordinates, accept responsibility, demand honesty.  After a while, these too can become habits – and good ones.

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.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christopher Columbus

521 years ago 12 October, around 2 AM, a lookout onboard Pinta – Rodrigo de Triana – sighted land.  Columbus may not have arrived at the ‘East Indies’ or eastern Asia, but he had found the New World.

There has grown up over the past several decades a whole industry of people who have debunked him; we have been told that multiple Viking voyages had reached North America, and indeed the remains of small towns, dating back roughly 1,000 years, have been unearthed in Canada’s Maritime Provinces.  The Irish also lay claim – via Brendan the Navigator – to having reached these shores well before Columbus, perhaps as early as the 6th or 7th century.  And there is, of course, the speculation that Egyptian sailors, using reed boats, may have journeyed here more than 3000 years ago. 

And while there is debate as to who first reached the New World, others bemoan the subsequent exploration and colonization of the New World by the Old, and the destruction of the Aztec and Incan civilizations; and while certainly there were many deplorable events in the following centuries, I must admit remain a bit confused as to why I should weep over the destruction of civilizations that actively engaged in human sacrifice (both of them) or cannibalism (the Aztecs), or the blame heaped on Columbus as if he brought all this on, or the idea that somehow if he hadn’t found the New World that it would never have been found and none of what followed would have happened.

Yet the fact remains that it was Columbus who opened up the New World, leading four separate expeditions over the years, and leaving the New World – and the whole world – fundamentally altered.  Arguably, all that happened would have taken place anyway without Columbus; it just would have taken place a few years later.  But that misses the point: it happened the way it did, and it all started with Columbus’s epic voyage.

He had led his small fleet of three ships west from Spain on August 3rd, and they departed the Canary Islands on the morning of September 6th.   They sailed westerly for 36 days, no maps, only a compass, a half-hour glass to mark the passing of time, a log to measure ship’s speed through the water, and the knowledge of the stars.  Columbus had a quadrant for obtaining an ‘altitude’ of a star, but he didn’t use it at sea, only ashore once he reached the West Indies.  But with just these simple tools, throughout his four voyages his navigation skills were remarkable, particularly in accurately finding his way back home to Spain.

Columbus was, in fact, a great explorer and leader, a man with the most of the traits needed for a great leader: a clear goal / vision, the intellect and drive to turn that vision into a real plan, the ability to communicate that vision and goal to those he needed to influence – in his case Ferdinand and Isabella (the King and Queen), a superb decision-maker with clear moral authority, and at least to some (the King and Queen), a charismatic man.

Whether he was all these things to the men who made up his crew isn’t really known, though there is some historical reporting that suggests that he was a demanding ship’s captain.  Given the times, and the traits of many who became sailors in that age, that is likely.  But, given what he was trying to do – sailing off the map so to speak (there were maps, they showed you could sail straight west to China, and they were well short on the real distance – and detail) – it is probably fair to say that he would not have accomplished anything if he had not been stern and demanding.

Columbus managed not only to convince the King and Queen to fund his voyages, he convinced men to sail with him, and then repeated his voyage 3 more times.  He remains one of the great ship captains, and great navigators of all time.  And in practical terms, he is still the discoverer of the New World.

What Columbus can teach us about leadership is, in many ways, the same thing that we can learn from many of the leading figures of history: Columbus was a driven - we might say obsessive - man, he was committed to his goal of reaching the Indies and was fearless – and tireless - in pursuing that goal.  But great leaders are often (usually) obsessive, single focused, committed, tireless in their chase.  They live and breathe their dream.  And if they are bright enough and talented enough, they can reach that goal.

Enjoy Columbus Day!