Saturday, December 28, 2013


Several weeks ago (On December 3rd) a man died who had a great deal to tell us about real leadership.  The and was Edwin Shuman III, a retired Navy Captain, an A-6 pilot, father of four - two sons and a daughter and one stepson, grandfather of nine, great-grandfather of one, brother to five - three sisters and two other brothers, an instructor at the Naval Academy.  And a Prisoner-Of-War in Hanoi from March of 1968 to March of 1973.

He was noted among the other ‘inmates’ as the guy who, in December 1970, organized the first church service in the prison.  For this act he and four others were severely beaten.  But they did have a church service, and many more in the years that followed.

There are a great many things to say about Captain Ed Shuman – all of them good; he was an exemplary man in every way.  He was also an excellent leader and there is an important lesson in leadership to be learned from his actions.

It is important to understand that Shuman was not the senior man in the prison – not by a long shot.  But he happened to be the senior man in the crowded room that held 42 prisoners. And so he took charge; he acted as he believed was right.

Very few will ever face the kind of situation faced by Captain Shuman and the other POWs.  But there are a host of valuable lessons to glean from his actions, the simplest and most obvious is this: when you believe something needs to be done – take charge.  It doesn’t really matter whether it a great issue or a minor one; if you think something really should be done – then take charge, get ‘it’ started, whatever ‘it’ might be.

This is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  There is a natural reticence in most people to act, to lead, when they are clearly not ‘in charge.’  And there certainly are certain times when it is clearly inappropriate to act and passivity is the preferred course of action.

But our real fear in acting overwhelmingly involves two possibilities: 1) that we will ‘go off’ in the wrong direction, or 2) that even though we are going in the right direction, we will be chastised for ‘leading the charge.’

And neither really is that important.  A story a friend of mine used to use perfectly illustrates the point: the rhinoceros and the turtle:

There were two animals on the svelte in central Africa, a rhinoceros and a turtle, and they were friends.  The rhinoceros was always going off, charging at things and running off in a great hurry, breaking things and getting everyone angry at him.  His friend the turtle moved slowly and deliberately, with no miss-steps and no grave errors, and everyone liked him.  The other animals noted all this and one by one they asked the wise old owl what they could learn from it.  The owl answered:

“The turtle is patient and calm, and never offends anyone.
The rhinoceros is loud, brash, constantly charging about, constantly breaking things, and he makes everyone upset and angry.
Therefore, it is best to be…the rhinoceros.”

“But why?” asked all the animals.

“It is simple,” replied the owl, “the turtle never gets anywhere or accomplishes anything of note.  No matter what direction he heads, it doesn’t matter. The rhinoceros on the other hand is loud and brash and he breaks things. His eyesight isn’t very good and he sometimes even breaks things he wants to keep.  But he makes things happen.  Even when he goes off in the wrong direction others see him doing so and tell him and he turns and heads in a new direction.  And when he is finally pointed in the right direction he charges through any barrier.  The rhinoceros gets things done.  Be a rhinoceros.”

Every organization, of any size, engaged in any and every kind of activity, needs rhinoceroses if it wants to succeed.  As a boss, you need to foster an atmosphere that allows people to “take over” and “lead a charge.”  As one of the folks in the middle, you need to be ready to lead a charge, to stand up and take command.  To be a rhinoceros.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Branches and Sequels

‘It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.’ - Publilius Syris

Planning is a strange thing: everyone does it to some extent, some people are more diligent and formal about it; but very few people do it well.

There are some simple reasons for this, but the two key reasons are this: a well constructed and complete plan is usually a good deal of hard work, and such a plan requires hard choices and that means good leadership.  But the thing of it is, a well-constructed plan is actually worth a great deal more than simply the plan itself.

This is because of a couple of things that are intrinsic elements of the process of making a good plan.

1) The boss (irrespective of what kind of organization) views the plan as his.  Good plans begin with the ‘goal’ of the organization, and that goal comes from one person: the boss. 

2) The first details – the ‘guidance and intentions’ that spell out what the Boss really wants and how he, in general terms, he wants to get it – are also creations of the boss. 

3) As the planning process advances and the plan is developed, the Boss stays involved, works with the planning team, and approves the plan at each major step.  Good plans thus become completely infused with ‘the Boss.’  And that means he has completely ‘bought in.’

4) Good bosses know that the plan IS the future, and they put their best people on the planning team.  These people will first plan the team and then assist in its implementation.  No one knows the plan better then the planning team, and no one will know better how to implement it then the planning team.

5) Good planning means that the planning team has spent considerable amounts of time understanding the environment in which they function: the economy, the technology, the law, the competition, the local and regional business climates, etc., etc.  They understand the organization itself: its strengths and its weaknesses.  They understand the trends, and they also understand - at least as well as anyone else in the organization - various indicators that something has changed.  They will know when to execute the basic plan, and will also know when the situation has changed and the plan no longer ‘fits.’

6) Good planning also means that a wide range of options – courses of action – have been considered before a final recommendation was made to the boss from which to develop the strategy and implementation plan.  Those options form the basis for variations on the plan, what are called ‘branches and sequels.’  Branch plans are variations of the plan that are designed to respond to changes in the organization, the environments – particularly the competition – or both.  Sequels are follow-on plans, plans for what happens if the first plan succeeds – based on the new conditions, and plans for what happens if things don’t go quite as per the plan, again with variations based on those new conditions.

The result is that the value of a plan is as much – or more – in the process that produces the plan as in the central plan itself.  When done right the process produces not simply the plan but a small core of people who are fully informed as to the goals and motives of the boss, his boundaries – what he will and won’t do, what he will and won’t consider for further action, a detailed knowledge of the organization and its capabilities and limitations, a detailed knowledge of the ‘world’ in which they are operating – competition, laws, technology, etc., and a ready ‘playbook’ of actions that have been looked at, in some cases studied in great detail, perhaps even ‘gamed,’ and a knowledge of what might and might not work in given situations.

Plans come and go; every good leader and every good organization not only has decent plans, they know when to modify the plan, and when to flex to a branch plan, and when to move to a sequel, and when to move into a new plan development cycle.  Good plans and good leaders don’t fall in love with their plans; they stick to their goals and use the plans and the planning process to achieve them.

The lesson here is summed up best by President Eisenhower, who had helped to craft a wide range of US military plans throughout the 1930s and throughout World War II: ‘the Plan is nothing, but the Planning is everything.’

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Nelson Mandela RIP

Nelson Mandela died the other day, may he rest in peace.

There are a great many people who will right much better eulogies of his life and accomplishment then I am able, so I will only add a few thoughts on some of the leadership lessons Mandela taught – and can still teach through the history of his life and struggle, and they are applicable in virtually any situation, especially any leadership position.

There are many lessons we can draw from his life, but I’m going to focus on just 4:

Don’t let power corrupt you.  This is one that the vast majority of people fail to understand.  As Lord Acton noted more than a century ago: ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Mandela could have had absolute power, he could easily have held onto the Presidency of South Africa as long as he wanted.  But, as with a few other leaders before him, he drew a lesson from history, walked away, and set a precedent for the peaceful and regular transfer of power.

This is so much more difficult to do – in any setting – than is commonly appreciated.  The temptation is always present to hold on, and the justification is that ‘I am needed, they [whoever ‘they’ are] can’t survive without me.]  Whether we are leading a Scout troop, a small business, a large business or a government, it is easy to convince ourselves of how crucial ‘we’ are.  But good leadership is about making yourself ‘dispensable,’ about leading people to focus on the long-term goals, to train others to handle the problems, to lead – and to delegate, and to remove ourselves from the solution.  In the end good leaders make themselves unnecessary, and then freely cede power and position.

Focus on the big thing.  Mandela focused on the big thing: on freedom and equality and a better government.  He made the idea of equality and representative government the issue, not the past, not injuries already suffered, but the new country, the future, the Constitution.  Achieving your goals is difficult under the best of conditions; achieving them while letting your focus wander is impossible.  The leader has to stay focused, and he has to keep everyone else focused.  It is always a demanding task, and he performed it very well indeed.

Don’t hold a grudge.  This is the other side of the coin to maintaining focus.  It is very easy – far too easy – to turn any situation into a matter of feeling as if you are owed something for the past.  Even if you are, the truth is you will never get anywhere if that is your focus.  If you expect both restitution for previous grievances AND you expect to achieve something worthwhile, you are living in a dreamland.  No one has the energy and the necessary life-span to do both. You cannot look forward and backward at the same time, and holding a grudge is all about looking backward.

Smile. The simple truth is that no one can long endure working for any goal if they aren’t in some sense happy.  And that begins with the Boss.  If you show up at work, no matter what work is, and the Boss is always upset and angry and unhappy, in the end you will be too, and all of you will find it that much more difficult to reach your goals.

On the other hand, even under the worst of circumstances great leaders find ways to get folks to smile; it may be a grim smile, it may even be gallows humor, but they will find a way to get folks to smile.  Even in the worst of times, the pictures of Mandela showed his captivating smile.  Like Churchill in bombed out sections of London flashing his ‘V for Victory’ sign and his determined smile, there is more to be gained by a smile then a grimace.

There is much more, but those four points are enough for now.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Experience: How Much is Enough?

There are all sorts of adages about experience and they are particularly common when we talk about leadership and management.  But the truth is that the basic fact of experience is often ignored when it comes to selecting very senior leaders for organizations of any size, to include our within government.   Thus we elect people with no substantive leadership experience to be governors (or presidents) and we feel nothing terribly wrong with appointing people with no leadership experience to head huge departments of the government.

There is an obvious problem with a demand for too much experience; you can draw up a dream resume (I see them all the time) that is so extensive anyone who had actually achieved all the ‘required’ elements would need to be 150 years old.  (I saw one recently – from a Defense Contractor – who was looking for a recently retired Army or Marine Colonel with combat experience as a brigade / regimental commander, a master’s degree, fluency in a second language and extensive experience on procurement of a major program, with Joint Staff experience.  When you looked at the details it was literally impossible to have done all that they wanted.)

And other jobs obviously can’t be perfectly duplicated: you can’t be the governor of a state before you are governor of a state, ergo, you never did ‘that job’ before.

Which leads to a simple question: what is ‘enough’ experience to lead a huge corporation or a state (or the country)?

First, a warning: everyone has limits.  Very often, more often then we like, someone who did well at one level of leadership fails at the next.  While often passed over as simply the ‘Peter Principle’ (though real enough), the real issue is that people do have limits.  The man who is competent running an organization of 100 people sometimes fails – and fails dramatically - when running one of 1,000.

(The converse is rarely true: someone is a poor leader in smaller organizations but succeeds in larger one; there are a few examples, but they are rare and always have some strange explanation.)

Two points come to mind: you need several leadership positions before you reach a certain sized organization; and you need to have had time to think.  Let me explain.

You need to begin with smaller organizations, one that lets you learn the fundamental dynamics of leadership, how people work, how to communicate, how convince people and build followers.  This is as true of absolute dictators as it is true of the manager of a corner drug store: there is a real need for real followers, people who believe in supporting you – for whatever reason.

A small organization, perhaps less than a dozen, certainly less 40 is needed for a start.  An organization of such a size lets you learn ‘up close and personal’ how people relate to each other, to an organization, and to their assigned tasks.  And in very real sense – as I will explain in a second – you can experience every possible leadership challenge in a small organization; the differences between a small and large organization can be in many cases only one of numbers, not the real leadership issues.

(That military platoons are no larger than 45 men is a demonstration of this point, particularly when we remember that the leadership of a platoon really rests in the hands of the platoon sergeant; that is why the platoon sergeant is there: to lead the platoon and to teach the brand new officer with the titular leadership role.  It is, in fact, and ideal structure to learn how to lead.)

Once you have had some experience leading a small organization you need some time to sit and think about what you have learned – a rotational schedule of 2 years in leadership and a year out is probably best. Under ideal circumstances you would have one or two small organizations, and one or two medium organizations (100 to 200 people in size) before you end up with an organization of roughly 500.

The 500 man organization (and the number can fluctuate up and down a bit – the more structured, the larger) is a key experience, as it is the last organization that anyone can actually lead and feel and see and know the whole organization.  What everyone finds is that it is at this sized and organization that they have the most rewarding leadership experience.  Having led several organizations of this size, and several larger than this, the key is the realization that with a 500 man organization you are right on the edge having a personal contact throughout the organization. 

Every leader or manager when he first takes over such an organization will feel that it is perhaps just a bit too large to control.  As they gain some experience they will learn at first to control it, and later find that the level of interaction and response from such an organization is almost the perfect fit, just the right size to both ‘be in charge’ and have enough size that the organization can accomplish significant things.

Then you get moved up the ladder and you find yourself in charge of 1,000 or more people.  And suddenly everything has changed.

The truth is that this is the break point.  Somewhere between 500 and 1000 people it become truly too large to control.  If you are smart and capable you realize this quickly and count on your staff and your deputies – the folks who are in charge of those departments underneath you that have anywhere from 100 folks to 500 folks.  If you aren’t smart you try to run 1000 people the same way you ran 500 – and you will eventually learn that you can’t.

This is the key leadership lesson: once you reach 1000 people you find you are back to leading that team of 20 or 30 or 40.  You have your key staff, and you have your key deputies – the leaders of the smaller units.  They become the people you actually lead.  You must lead them, train them to manage and train them to build followers, and give them the ‘tools’ and resources so that they can do their jobs.

(Again, in the military a battalion – anywhere from 450 to 650 men – is the largest medium sized commands, and commanders are still in the field with the troops.  The next command echelon, known as a ‘major command,’ is a brigade (or regiment in the Marines) and is one that is commanded by a colonel and a staff and the ‘hands-on leadership’ is with the 3 – 5 battalions found within each brigade.)

This leadership lesson is the key one to transition between running a small and medium sized organization and a large one.  Once you have learned the lesson you can arguably run an organization of 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000, because the real lesson is the same: you are no longer in direct control, you have staffs and deputies and others who are real, regular, daily contact with the people who do the real work.  It is a simple lesson to learn in one sense: you can learn it the first time you are “in charge” of a large organization and realize that the folks doing the work have no real idea who you are or what you really want. 

The truth is that the majority of senior leaders never learn the lesson.  Most – the vast majority – of the leaders of large organizations (and the military is as guilty as anyone else) either end up trying to run the organization as if it had only 100 people all located under one roof, or they try to run it as if it were nothing more than a large-scale accounting problem, just a bunch of numbers that can be moved around.  Neither works.  In most large and well funded organizations there is enough management ‘padding’ that senior leaders can focus on stock prices and quarterly returns and technology and their lack of leadership skills are ignored until a problem develops and then they are promoted to the board and someone else is brought in.  This can go on for quite some time with institutional inertia preventing collapse.  In the end real leadership is needed to save the organization (if it private), but the truth is most private organizations don’t last that long.  (The number I have heard quoted is that the average $1 billion business lasts 12 years before being bought up by someone else.)  So, they can develop a good idea or business model, grow too large for the ability of their leadership, stumble along for a decade or so, and then be bought up.

This is equally true in government, where we routinely see large departments in state and federal government headed by someone who was a senior staffer or elected official for decades and who has no leadership experience of a large organization.  So, they come in, run the department for 2 years, it stumbles along – often wasting a great deal of money – and then the department head goes off to a new position (often to head a large corporation) with a well credentialed but misleading resume.

But if you want someone to take the organization into the future, to actually grow it and make it thrive, you need real leadership.  And that means the leadership needs real – meaningful – experience.