Lessons from history: appeasment

chamberlainOf course you have to be careful when saying that you can learn from history. Every historical events is embedded in a particular set of circumstances, and no two episodes are the same, and it is dangerous to imagine that just because something worked once, it will again. It does not stop politicians doing that.

One major example of this is the run up to the Second World War. Contrary to the view that Chamberlain was a weakling or a coward, he was actually a tough-minded realist; and that was his undoing. He’d seen the results of the Great War, and did not want to go there again; he could not imagine that anyone else would. No reasonable man would want another war, and it stood to reason that leaders of other countries were reasonable men, so you could take it for granted they wanted peace. Of course they might threaten war, but that was a political gambit, and the trick was to find out what it was they really wanted and then cut a deal. It’s how politics works the world over. For Chamberlain the lesson of history was that everyone had his price – so find out what is was and then beat him down to a lower one.

Nor was that wholly wrong. Mussolini of Italy was such a man. He talked big, but would usually settle for something quite small. Even Stalin, a man of much darker character, was a pragmatist. He settled for ‘socialism in one country’ in the 1920s, and whilst talking about his concern for the ‘workers of the world’, he was a ruthless egotist anxious to hold on to power for himself, and prepared to cut a deal even with Hitler if it left him undisturbed in possession of what he had. So, you could feel a deal of sympathy for Neville Chamberlain’s approach. OK, Hitler was a tiresome fellow who seemed to keep upping the ante, but surely even he had his price? At Munich in 1938 Chamberlain thought he had paid the price (although to be accurate the Czechs had paid the price); but he was wrong. Sometimes you need a longer perspective on history.

If Winston Churchill had a strength apart from his oratory, it was his historical perspective. He wrote more history books than most historians, and he knew his history well. His horizon was broader than Chamberlain’s. He thought back to Louis XIV of France and Philip II of Spain; he knew that leaders existed whose ambitions were such that they would take risks no normal man would; perhaps because he was very far from being a ‘normal’ man, Churchill could spot others of his type.

Churchill, too, was wiling to take risks other shunned, and that was why others shunned him in peace time. They didn’t want to hear about wars and dangers, they wanted to believe Chamberlain. But when the war came the fabric of normality was ripped to shreds. Churchill had always spoken as though the sky was falling in; in 1940 it was. Only then, in exceptional times, did democracy call this exceptional man to power.

The lesson there is complicated. Democracies are great levellers – they like leaders like Truman and Attlee who don’t disturb them with visions. But when the chips are down – but perhaps only then – they are willing to try a different type of man. The problem is that leaders of the normal type are apt to make Chamberlain’s mistake and assume that foreign leaders are made in their own image. When they get that one wrong, we all pay.

Leadership in Tough Times

The Iron Mike statue at Fort Benning symbolizing the motto of the Infantry:
Follow Me

I’ve been accumulating articles again, this time mostly on leadership. That a good thing because if there is one thing we need in these days, it is good leadership. It seems sometimes that what passes for leadership in the crony-capitalist/ corporatist/ political world is based on three things: 1: who you know; 2: how much money can you give me and; 3: the quarterly bottom line.

Basing your leadership in a business or nation on any (or all) of these things is a recipe for disaster. This is how the Western Roman Empire died. Of taxes grown so high that citizens welcomed the barbarians. America is not exempt from the laws of nature, that’s why our founders used them to try to safeguard us. Ayn Rand (yes, I have problems with her philosophy too but, remember that she was born and raised in Soviet Russia and make allowances) warned us about the looters and moochers, and we ignored her even as we watched them bring the Warsaw Pact down when confronted with a real American leader. Are we Soviet Russia in, say, 1987? Not if enough of us say otherwise. The core of America is still here; the people who know all about doing a day’s work for a day’s pay, and all the rest of the real world’s laws. These are the Americans that need to lead now.

Trevor Nagle is doing extraordinary work in this area. Like me he bases a lot of it on the military. Unlike me, he has extensive experience in the military. But, either way, the US Military is the last reasonably pure concentration of the ‘Old America’ and our sacred traditions. We are wise when we draw on these for they are the representatives of the America that built the modern world. I’ve linked to two of Trevor’s articles here. I recommend that you read everything he writes, including his book. The first is: Leadership Values in Tough Times: A Litmus Test

In the shadows of an announcement of an additional 87 workers being laid off from a local Fortune 500 company this week, I happened upon a rather caustic tweet to the company’s CEO.  In it, the author expressed disgust at the layoffs and corresponding press release, which explained these necessary moves as brought about by expense efficiency efforts to combat an unacceptably high expense ratio and floundering company financials (my words, not theirs).  But it wasn’t the decision to lay off nearly 100 employees (on top of those “lost through attrition”….a poorly spun misnomer at any organization) that bothered the “tweeter,” but rather the exorbitant raises the company’s executives received in the past year.  Quite honestly, it’s a sentiment I share…..

I think back to the federal government’s bailout of AIG several years ago and the uproar brought about by continued payout of huge bonuses to top officials of that beleaguered company.  The explanation offered to the public was that to forego this piece of compensation would result in the loss of many of the senior leaders, those who would flee to “greener” (pun intended) pastures.  I’m sure similar arguments would be posited by this Fortune 500 company.

“But, we can’t afford to lose these executives.”

I’ve never understood that reasoning.  You can’t afford to lose the leaders whose leadership has brought you to the brink of financial disaster????  Who can you afford to lose, if not them??

Emphasis mine.

Continue reading Leadership Values in Tough Times: A Litmus Test.

That’s a lot of the problem, when you get to a certain level in our politically connected corporations or political institutions there is no penalty for failure. If I screw up and cause the injury or death of a fellow worker, I expect to be at least fired, and possibly charged criminally as well as face a civil suit. That’s as it should be. I, and I alone, am responsible for what I, and the people under my command do. Nobody else, not the foreman under me, not my boss, not the pretty girl in a short skirt that distracted me : ME. That’s the way personal responsibility works. Let me add here that I thank God every day for the competent people I work with, they have saved me from many costly screw ups, I said I was responsible, not that I was perfect, none of us are!

That’s all well and good, I hear you saying but, how do I remember that in the heat of the conflict? Good question, I’m glad you asked. You do it the same way our military does it. You distill it down to truisms. Nobody does that better than the people who train their leaders at the school where “Everybody works but John Paul Jones“. That would be the US Navy, Trevor has published five of the truisms from the Division Officer’s Guide. Here they are:

  • Leadership is the essence of our profession.  Certainly, leaders need an understanding of operational details (be that driving a 100-ton warship or ensuring the proper processing of insurance claims).  But regardless of the industry, it’s about leadership, not expertise, that is most critical.  Surround yourself with technical experts.  Then support their ability to leverage their expertise.  Lead…..don’t manage.  And don’t assume because you’re the leader, you are the “smartest one in the room.”
  • People are our most valuable asset.  An aircraft carrier is merely a gigantic piece of floating steel, if not for the skilled and dedicated people running it.  Quit treating your people as a cog in your organization’s money machine, and begin valuing them as the most important asset at your disposal.  Without them, you have nothing but profitless process and machinery.
  • Provide recognition to deserving people.  In keeping with the second truism, if you treat your people as critical to your success, you will naturally want to recognize those who provide the most value to your organization.  This isn’t a call for inequity in treatment, but instead for leaders to provide consistent and continuous recognition (in a way that speaks to the personalities and motivators for each individual follower).
  • Listen to your people.  Get in amongst your followers.  Know their interests, passions, joys and concerns on both personal and professional levels.  Adopt a genuine “we’re in this together” leadership approach.  If you listen to them, you’ll gain loyalty and genuine emotional and rational commitment (the bases of interpersonal trust), and when it comes to technical problem solving, you’ll have many more resources than your own expertise can muster.
  • Accept change and plan for uncertainty. Change is the only constant these days.  Leaders who understand and embrace changes (even when painful) will go far in any organization.  Those who resist change (or fail to champion changes to others) will not lead for long.  Continuous improvement and willingness to adapt to ever-changing environments and situations is critical for today’s leaders.
Doesn’t that sound like the person you want to work for? Yeah, me too. They’re getting very rare but there are still some of us who try.
This is also why our military is so good. This is how General Washington led, So did John Paul Jones, and Stephan Decatur, Winfield Scott, William Sherman, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jackson, John J. Pershing, Raymond Spruance, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Billy Mitchell, Douglas MacArthur, Anthony McAuliffe and all the rest. Note how their leadership fared in the most intense of leadership challenges, battle itself.
Where are you going to find a better model? Not a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. It is time, in fact it is past time, for the real leaders in and of America to step up to the plate. I would say there are two out and the bases empty in the bottom of the eighth inning and we’re down by a couple of runs. We had best get to work. The other thing is that when times are tough is when we need that steadfast leadership, when things are easy, so is leadership.

An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

Leadership and Management in America; What’s the Problem Here? Part 4

Special cases and summary

I will readily admit that because I do operations this is considerably easier for me. It’s not difficult to compare the number of outlets installed or poles replaced in a day. If you are trying to lead an office force, you are going to have to figure out some reasonable and objective standards with, and for your people.

This bears only tangentially on my experience so I’m going to let Michael talk about the current culture (sounds toxic to me, by the way) in the technology sector.

My issue with “fail fast”, and the more general cavalier attitude toward business failure observed in VC-istan, is that people who espouse this mantra generally step outside the bounds of good-faith failure, responsible risk-taking, and ethical behavior. When you take millions of dollars of someone else’s money, you should try really fucking hard not to fail. It’s a basic ethical responsibility not to let others depend on you unless you will do your best not to let them down. You should put your all into the fight. If you give it your best and don’t make it, you’ve learned a lot on someone else’s dime. That’s fine. The problem with “fail fast” is that it sounds to me a lot like “give up early, when shit gets hard”. People with that attitude will never achieve anything.

Usually, the worst “fail fast” ethical transgressions are against employees rather than investors. Investors have rights. Dilute their equity in an unfair way, and a lawsuit ensues. Throw the business away recklessly, and end up in court– possibly in jail. One can’t easily fire an investor either; at the least, one has to give the money back. On the other hand, a remnant of the flat-out elitist, aristocratic mindset that we have to kill the shit out of every couple hundred years (cf. French Revolution) is the concept that investors, socially speaking, deserve to outrank employees. This is absurd and disgusting because employees are the most important actual investors, by far, in a technology company. Money investors are just putting in funds (and, in the case of VC, money that belongs to other people). They deserve basic respect of their interests for this, but it shouldn’t qualify them (as it does) to make most of the important decisions. Employees, for contrast, are investing their time, careers, creative energy, and raw effort, often for pay that is a small fraction of the value they add. Morally speaking, it means they’re putting a lot more into the venture.

I’ve seen too many sociopaths using “fail fast” rhetoric to justify their irresponsible risk-taking. One example of a fail-fast acolyte is someone in his mid-20s whom I once saw manage the technical organization of an important company. I won’t get into too many details, but it’s an ongoing and catastrophic failure, and although it’s evident to me at least (because I’ve seen this shit before) that he is personally headed toward disaster, it’s not clear whether the company will follow him down the drain. (That company is in serious danger of failing an important deliverable because of decisions he made.) I hope it doesn’t. First, he took a scorched earth policy toward the existing code, which was written under tight deadline pressure. (Despite this twerp’s claims to the contrary about the “old team”, the engineers who wrote it were excellent, and the code quality problems were a direct result of the deadline pressure.) I don’t consider that decision an unusual moral failure on his part. Give a 25-year-old programmer the authority to burn a bunch of difficult legacy code and he usually will. At that age, I probably would have done so as well. That’s one very good reason not to give snot-nosed kids the reins to important companies without close supervision. I remember being 18 and thinking I knew everything. A decade later… turns out I really didn’t. Taken too far, the “fail fast” mentality appeals to impulsive young males who enjoy waving a gun around and shooting at things they can’t see and don’t understand.

My second encounter with this person’s “fail fast” sociopathy was in a discussion of hiring strategy, in which he discussed building “30/60/90 plans” for new hires, which would entail milestones that new employees would be expected to meet. As a way of setting guidelines, this is not a bad idea. Technology workplaces are a bit too dynamic for people to actually know what a person’s priorities should be three months in advance, but it’s always good to have a default plan and baseline expectations. New hires typically come on board, in a chaotic environment, not knowing what’s expected or how to “on-board”, and a bit of structure is a useful. This little sociopath wanted to take things a bit further. He thought it would be a good idea to fire people immediately if they missed the targets. New hire takes 35 days to meet the 30-day goal? Gone, after one month. No chance to move to another part of the organization, no opportunity to improve, no notice, no severance, and it’s all made “fair” by putting all new hires on a PIP from the outset.1

OK, I find this interesting as well as toxic. I wouldn’t work for this fool, and I would expect that if you do you’re going to have a bad experience that will have repercussions throughout your career.

Then there is this. All companies have jobs that are just plain boring, and lots of them are filled with university graduates that are (at least supposedly, intelligent and educated) although I really don’t understand why. It doesn’t take a B.A. Degree to run the switchboard or get coffee. Here, read this:

I would like to dedicate this article to all of my fellow intellectuals who, by no fault of their own, have found themselves trapped in a fluorescent dungeon of boredom, forced to test the limits of their sanity  by relentlessly performing thoughtless and menial tasks for upwards of 40 hours a week.

It’s a tough economy, and it seems that having a handful of college and graduate degrees can only soften the blow so much. So here we sit, after investing years of our lives and hundreds of thousands of (the government’s) dollars into our educations, only to be performing jobs that a high-school drop out with a full-frontal lobotomy would fail to find challenging.

In order to first determine whether you fall into my target demographic of weary office drones I have prepared a short quiz.


  • You are concerned that the incessant tingly feeling in your head might actually be your mind slowly going completely numb

  • You have experienced at least one sudden-onset moment of clarity during which you stopped pouring your boss’s coffee and thought to yourself “wow, I really miss thinking.”

  • The highlight of your month is an office birthday party (free cake almost compensates for a life devoid of any real meaning, right?)

  • You find yourself flying into a fit of uncontrollable rage when someone uses your mug- I mean come on; it had your NAME on it in TWO places! TWO! (I’ll save you some serious introspection time: it’s not really about the mug.)

  •  The cashier tells you that you owe $2.83 and you realize that counting out the change is the most action your brain has gotten since…you can’t even remember when.

  • You see a computer screen when you close your eyes to go to sleep at night

  • You know more about your boss’s kids than you do about your roommate

  • On at least one occasion you have accidentally answered your cell phone by mindlessly reciting the mandated greeting used at your office: “Thank you for calling ____, this is ___ speaking, how may I help you?”

  • You’re fairly confident that a machine could do your job…not even a fancy machine…on some days, possibly even a stapler.

  • You have wondered on more than one occasion if your co-workers think you’re mentally challenged. The tutorial on how to sort mail by recipient and place it in their corresponding mail box was definitely a red flag…However, the explicit instructions given on how to stuff envelopes (“you have to fold the letter into thirds, you can’t fold it in half or it won’t fit.”) was really just a slap in the face. 2

How are you going to supervise, motivate, make a team player out of this person? Is there some way you can make their job at least somewhat interesting? I don’t know either but, I do know we are wasting an irreplaceable resource here, so we’d be well advised to figure it out. She may well have valuable input but, you’ll never know until you ask. A lot of these jobs have been automated, which is why really bad typists like me type these days but still, there has to be a way.

You know, I, like you have been watching the nonsense at GSA all week. Could this be why the government has this sort of problem more than we do in the private sector? I don’t recall ever seeing an office type government job that I couldn’t have done in half the time with half the people, maybe they are just bored out of their minds.

OK then, obviously I don’t have all the answers, and the answers I have work for me but may not for you. That’s why when in doubt I fall back on our military heritage and look for the answer there, large (or even small) corporations have existed for about 150 years, armies go back at least to the siege of Troy in our tradition, experience counts, so use it. I saw this article the other day, Trevor sums up these themes very well:

Nestled amidst the swampy forests of Fort Benning, Georgia, the image of Iron Mike is a common site.  No, not Mike Tyson.  Rather, Iron Mike, the U.S. Army’s Infantry symbol and mascot.  An advancing soldier, rifle clutched in one hand and his other arm raised above his head, beckoning others forward.  The infantry motto….Follow Me!

It’s this image that inspired a nineteen year old Army Private in the early 90s, not only for its romantic visage of honor and courage, but for the message it held up as the standard for leadership.

Half a decade later, it was the Navy’s touted values of Honor, Courage, Commitment that helped round out my vision of what leadership means.  It’s a combination of all these that defines the highest quality of leadership to me.

  • Follow Me

  • Honor

  • Courage

  • Commitment3

Note that Trevor has explained the bullet points very well go and read his post.


This is hard for me to sum up. Partly because we have limned problems in various sectors with different actors which probably mandate different means to obtain optimum (or even acceptable) outcomes. If you’re the person in charge of a company with all these type of actors, how are you going to generate a paradigm that will encompass the receptionist with an M.A. degree, the programmer who dropped out of high school and forgot to shower all week, the lineman who learned his trade in the US Army in Iraq, the social climber without any respect for others, the office manager who never made a mistake, and all the rest. I would bet we all have different answers and I haven’t a clue who’s right or wrong, or in between. But if that’s your job description, you had best figure it out, if you want your company (and you) to succeed.

Leadership and Management in America; What’s the Problem Here? Part 3

The Military Heritage

On March 28, 2102, Senator McCain gave the Forrestal lecture at the Naval Academy and talked a good bit about the difference between leadership and management. Note that neither Sen McCain nor I am disparaging management, it’s essential but, leadership is far harder to learn and every bit essential. Note that if you follow the link, Dale at Command Performance Leadership has the entire speech as well as his commentary, I recommend it highly.

In a little over two months, we’ll commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, when barely six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we faced an enemy supremely confident in their ability – not just to defeat, but to annihilate – the battered remnants of Halsey’s Pacific Fleet.  We were overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned.  The Japanese brought 8 carriers, we had barely three; they had 11 battleships, we had none.  And the Japanese had the best fighter aircraft in the Pacific – the Mitsubishi Zero – that easily dominated the slower, less agile TBDs, SBDs, F4Fs, and Marine F2As.

Making matters worse, our forces were plagued by faulty equipment. The Mk 13 torpedo was notoriously unreliable. In fact, not a single torpedo dropped at Midway by Torpedo 3, Torpedo 6 or Torpedo 8 even detonated. And the new electrical arming system on the SBD’s had the annoying habit of randomly releasing the bomb when the Master Arm switch was selected. 

But in the end, the battle turned not on numbers or equipment – but rather on the actions – and the leadership – of some truly extraordinary men. What they did at Midway has become the stuff of legend.

Men like LCDR John Waldron, skipper of Torpedo 8, who led his 15 TBD Devastators against one of the enemy carriers at wave-top height and barely 100 knots, while trying to fend off the far more capable – and deadlier – Zeros.  With no fighter cover of his own, Waldron’s fate was sealed.  His last transmission to his squadron-mates was simple: ‘We will go in. We won’t turn back. We will attack. Good luck.’

And men like Marine Major ‘Joe’ Henderson, who led his mixed squadron of F4Fs and F2As against the carrier Hiryu.  Struck by anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft in flames, Henderson pressed the attack – on what would be his last flight.

And LCDR Wade McClusky, who, despite being dangerously low on fuel, kept searching for the Japanese carriers until he found them, and whose extraordinary leadership – according to Admiral Nimitz – ‘decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway.’The Battle of Midway was won not by superior equipment, and certainly not because we outnumbered the Japanese. We won because of the stout hearts and uncommon leadership that for one hundred years has been the hallmark of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. 

My grandfather commanded a carrier task force in the Pacific during WWII. He made it a point to talk with pilots after they returned from a strike, asking them, ‘Do you think we’re doing the right thing?’ He knew that if you ever stopped learning from your men, then you stopped leading.

Today, we hear a lot about ‘management,’ and not nearly enough about leadership.  That worries me.  One thing of which I am certain – there is a great difference between managers and leaders. Competent managers are useful in any endeavor.  But they are plentiful. Our nation graduates over 150,000 MBAs every year. But leaders … true leaders … are rare. And they are a far more important asset than managers.1

This strikes me as the old John McCain, the Naval Aviator who overflew Hanoi, who kept his head in the midst of exploding ordnance on the USS Forestal in 1967, and above all keeping the faith in the Hanoi Hilton.

But his points are just as valid for us as they are for the Navy. We need leaders in all areas of business, to train, to innovate and to develop our people. Where are we to find them?

Maybe a better question is, “What makes a leader?” Those of us in the civilian sector have coasted for years with what we can pick up from the military. We don’t teach it, and lately we rarely practice it either.

One of the key characteristics of the leader is honor (you can maybe substitute ethics here, although it’s at best a subset of honor). I have gone into mid 5 figure deals on a handshake and a promise to work it out. It was fine because I knew I was dealing with an honorable client who didn’t yet know what he wanted/needed to do but understood that I would help him define as well as implement his goals. While certainly we were both in the deal to make a profit I and he understood that if the project blew up in everybody’s face, none of us would remain unscathed, including the principal. And that is key, if the people you are dealing with have no skin in the game, except the glory they think they can get from screwing everyone concerned, run like hell. I’ve also dealt with clients that I wouldn’t rust to buy me a cup of coffee with a 60 page contract specifying it.

As I said above, much of our honor code comes from the military, dating back to Greece and Rome. Why? Because it has proven to be the best way to order the business of war. There is a huge caveat here though because while there is law and rules of engagement involved in the military and warfighting, there is much more involved. In truth, western armies have known for centuries that if they want a well-ordered army they need very good non-commissioned officers (NCOs). This is where the tradition is, this is the first line supervisor who will catch you is, this is where your buddies are. Few men actually think about the slogans that motivated them to go to war in battle, they are far more concerned with not letting down their buddies. Part of what seems to be happening in our military right now, appears to be that our senior NCO’s are retiring and their replacements have been so busy in the last ten years fighting battles without enough time to study, that some of that heritage is being lost. Armed Forces Journal ran a very good article lately on the problems the military is having.

The Problem

The problem of battlefield discipline predates the modern law of armed conflict. The problem is raised, if somewhat obliquely, in Homer’s “Iliad,” in which the erratic and uncontrollable rage of Achilles culminates in his abuse of Hector’s corpse — an outrage even by the standards of that violent time. In 1066, William the Conqueror is said to have expelled a knight from his assembly for mutilating the body of the conquered King Harold II.

Under the modern conception, war is violence for a purpose, organized and sanctioned by the nation-state. Acts of violence that would otherwise be unlawful take on a gloss of legitimacy — and sometimes even honor — because they are committed under the authority of the state. There is a difference between the civilian ethos of violence and the warrior ethos of violence. Warriors are given a special privilege of legitimate violence, but this violence retains its legitimacy only so long as warriors adhere to the warrior ethos. So the very nature of war raises the problem of battlefield discipline.

Indeed, war demands discipline. War is not violence for its own sake or for the personal gain of the people committing it. Without discipline, the violence cannot be directed to serve the pragmatic political purpose for which it is called forth. This is especially true in a counterinsurgency, in which the berserker approach often works to defeat rather than advance the aims of the campaign. Also, in the absence of discipline, the violence occurs outside the authority of the nation-state, thus stripping it of its legal justification. Combat without discipline is not war.

The problem, then, is to unleash a brutal, destructive force while containing and directing it to achieve limited objectives. There is a very small margin of acceptable error because the misdeeds of just a few undisciplined soldiers can undo the work of many thousands of their more disciplined comrades. (Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak’s concept of the “strategic corporal” gets at this reality.) To this end, a military commander must not be a mere manager of violence, but rather a leader of individuals whose job it is to commit violence.

Though not specifically talking about the military, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” addresses the problem facing leaders who are responsible for training others in ethics. Though Aristotle believes in universal standards of virtue, he recognizes that the process of becoming virtuous may vary from person to person. Aristotle uses the analogy of a doctor who learns what is theoretically good for everyone and then applies that knowledge to the practical details of an individual patient. The process of training others in virtue begins with an understanding of the general principles of the law, but it does not end there. Rather, it is a matter of continued training and habituation over time that must, to a certain extent, be tailored to the individual.

The law is a blunt instrument, a generally applicable set of rules that does not and cannot deal in such fine distinctions. The saying goes that “hard cases make bad law,” which means that judges should focus on the general principles of the law instead of the specific facts of outlier cases.

Military commanders, though, must be concerned with the hard cases — their business is people, not principles. Battlefield discipline, then, stems not from the law of war but from the ethos of the warrior.2

While our problems in the private sector are not the same, they bear some resemblance. It’s hard to be loyal to a huge corporation or even a big factory, in truth if it’s not led well, it’s nearly impossible to be loyal to your team. I’ve seen it forever where you have a brown-nosing supervisor, he always has trouble with his people. This is often a problem when a large company is run by the quarterly bottom line, especially when it is proud of its degrees in accounting and its MBAs. I wrote about this some in relation to the meat-packing industry where supervisors are being squeezed for output while being denied enough authority to do anything good, there’s not even enough money to properly maintain the plants.3 I depend absolutely on my journeymen to keep things going, and going right. They’ve been around (either with me or other companies) long enough to know how to do almost everything right, and I make sure that they know I’ll back them up.

Interesting enough, I learned long ago and far away that if I wanted good people in my group, the things I needed to do was, praise in public; criticize in private, never blame them to my superior, certainly I require good performance from them, but I do it, not my boss, and to help them be better. This is what Michael O. Douglas was referring to as “remove the blocker”. There is nothing new here, it’s been known for hundreds of years, you just have to do it.

Leadership and Management in America; What’s the Problem Here? Part 2

The Problem with Managers:

Management is never easy, whether you’re a journeyman electrician, a first line supervisor, in industry, a platoon leader in the Army, or anywhere else. But we’ve made it almost impossible sometimes.

Michael O. Church has been posting some outstanding articles lately on personnel management in the technology industry. I don’t always agree with his analysis but, am willing to admit that his is better than mine in his industry, and maybe better overall. First, one place where I completely agree with him is on so-called Performance Improvement Plans, which I classify as three lies for the price of one. They have nothing to do with performance, they are useless for improvement, and they indicate the lack of a plan for personnel development.

Two years ago, one of my friends was served with a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) issued to him from a large company. If there is a TPS Report Museum, there must be an entire wing dedicated to PIPs. I’ll say one thing about these: they should never be used, and they don’t work. The first way in which PIPs fail is that they don’t work at improving performance. A manager who genuinely wishes to improve an employee’s performance will address the matter, one-on-one, with the employee in a verbal meeting (or series of meetings) where the intention is discovering the cause (“blocker”) of low performance, and decide either (a) to resolve this problem, if it can be done, (b) to accept transient low performance if the cause is a temporary one such as a health problem, or (c) to determine that the problem is irresolvable and terminate the employee (preferably in a decent way). On the other hand, written negative communication about performance (formalized most finally in a PIP) is universally interpreted as an aggressive move and will lead to distrust of the manager, if not outright contempt toward him. As soon as a manager is “documenting” negative performance, the relationship between him and his report has failed and he should progress immediately to a decent termination. Never PIP. Fire, but do it right.1

We all know that there are people who will never fit into any particular setting. It’s a kindness to them and to the company to find a way to amicably separate. If you ever been that person, you know what I mean.

Speaking of this, a lot of extremely unethical things happen in American workplaces, and that is a result not of “bad people”, but the bulk of this behavior comes from morally-average people who are scared. One of the things people fear most at work is a sudden, unjust, badly-structured termination that leads to a long-term career problem. This fear motivates a lot of the bad activities that occur in workplaces that lead to unsafe products and defrauded customers. The best thing a company can do for its culture, and for its macroscopically visible good citizenship, is to establish a policy of managing terminations in a proper way– to say that, yes, we’ll fire people whose poor performance constitutes an unacceptable cost to us, but we’ll always do so in a way that ensures that good-faith low performers (i.e. decent people who are a bad fit for their role) move on to more appropriate jobs.

How does a PIP actually affect performance? First, it destroys the relationship between the manager and the employee, who now feels “sold out”. If claims in the PIP suggest that others contributed to it, it may destroy the working relationship between the employee and his colleagues, causing isolation. PIPs usually carry a biased or even inaccurate summary of the employee’s work as the motivation for the Plan. Second, PIPs often generate a lot of additional work for the employee, making it harder to perform. A PIP usually contains deadlines equivalent to a 40-hour per week work schedule. This seems reasonable, except for the fact that many work demands are unplanned. An employee who faces responsibility for an emergent production crisis during a PIP will be forced to choose between the PIP work or the emergent crisis. A PIP’d employee ends up actually ends up with four conflicting jobs. The first is the work outlined in the PIP, which is already a 40-hour obligation. The second is any emergent work that occurs during the PIP period (which is usually unspecified in the PIP, but claimed to be covered by a vague “catch-all” clause). The third is the legalistic fighting of the PIP– the employee must contest false claims about his performance or the company will represent him as having agreed with them, which damages his position if he ends up in severance negotiation. The fourth is the job search process, which must be commenced right away because the PIP usually ends in termination without severance.2

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Another thing that Michael talks about is the flatness of the organization, and I have often seen this come into play. As a first line supervisor, I can control about 5 people maximum, in my field, if I have good journeymen, which are my field’s equivalents to NCO s it might expand to 7 or 8. If they are exceptional maybe 10 but that’s the limit. And I can’t really delegate this, because from my chair, I can’t tell brown-nosing from objective reporting. If I get out into the field, remembering that I’m an expert myself, I can tell but, then I introduce a lot of lost time into my day, lengthening it beyond all reason. So, my span of control is effectively 7-8 front lines supervisors and 5 is better. With 5, I can work on developing them to the next level, teaching them and their people how to excel, maybe motivating them a bit and so forth. This is how you grow a business while maintaining quality. But this more leadership than it is management. 3

The American Way of War 2

Lithograph of Lee's Surrender, with Taylor sta...

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There are two main themes to the American way of war. They have come down to us from their first glimmerings in the War of 1812, where we learned that our soldiers, like all soldiers required discipline and leadership. Once we took that lesson to heart, as epitomized in West Point, a distinctly American style became inevitable.

One part was that we needed a different sort of officer, for the American soldier is, and always has been, a free man, giving some part of his life voluntarily to his country. The rigid pattern of Europe would not apply here. The other thing was that from very early America needed engineers, as did the Army, so West Point developed as the cradle of engineering in the United States.

The American style in its adolescence was on display in the Mexican War, with the amazing sight of a major amphibious landing, with the march through Mexico, and especially Stephan Watts Kearney’s march to Santa Fe and then on to California (with only 120 dragoons).

But the real showcase came a bit later. Here is where America became a world power, although nobody realized it, or cared. The American Civil War (or War Between the States, if you prefer) was a spectacle for the ages. Why? Read on.

The showcase war that everyone watched was the Eastern Theatre, with the main actors being the Army of the Potomac (Federal) vs. The Army of Northern Virginia. Here were fought the legendary battles: Bull Run (1 & 2), Chancellorsville, the Seven Days, Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, the Muleshoe, Cold Harbor and finally the Siege of Petersburg. The Union spent years trying to find a general who could win here, the problem being they were fighting two of the finest generals ever to wear an American uniform, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. The Confederates pretty much ran rings around the Yankees who had the structural problem of being tied too tightly to Washington, although it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, given that the Occupation of Washington would have led almost inevitably to recognition of the Confederacy by the UK and France.

The legend comes from this; here we have two of the largest armies ever seen up to that time fighting each other to a standstill, not for a season but, for four years with neither one able to finally beat the other. When Grant became Lieutenant General, he co-located with the Army of the Potomac, Grant never commanded that army, G.G. Meade commanded it to the end of the war, what Grant commanded was the United States army. He co-located with this army because he knew he could trust Sherman to fight the Army of the Tennessee properly, but didn’t think that Meade would. He gave Meade the orders that wherever the Army of Northern Virginia goes, there also you will go.

Grant has come down to us as a butcher, much like Field Marshal Haig int WWI. He wasn’t. He showed enough daring in the Vicksburg campaign to scare none other than Uncle Billy Sherman, and Uncle Billy didn’t scare easy.

The thing is from this point on the strategy could have been written by George Patton. The Army of the Potomac held them by the nose, and the Army of the Tennessee kicked them in the a$$.

The real story here for our purposes is this. You remember that earlier I said there are two strains in the American way of war? Here they are, in full display.

The Army of Northern Virginia had the most superb leadership of any American army anywhere, anytime. It fought what may well have been the most powerful army in the world to a standstill for four years. Actually, immediately after the war, not only the US, but both Germany and France adopted the corps artillery plan developed by the Army of Northern Virginia’s Porter Alexander, When Lee surrendered the Army was so fought out that some commentators say that it didn’t so much surrender as pass directly into legend.

The Army of the Potomac on the other hand, while well led, did not have leaders of the caliber of Lee (Grant may have been close, some of his early campaigns would indicate this but the situation did not allow). What they did have was the nascent industrial power of the Union. This was the most lavishly equipped and armed army in the 19th century. It was also the beginning of modern warfare and it took time to learn to use the new weapons like rifled muskets and rifled artillery extended the kill zone by orders of magnitude. The Army even used aerial observation for artillery spotting and reconnaissance. The first crude machine guns made their appearance as well.

The two thrusts of American War making are these:

  1. Superb and daring leadership at all levels but especially in small units.
  2. Overwhelming (and accurate) firepower and mass.

There’s another thing running through this narrative, logistics. The Army of the Potomac was pretty much always well supplied (except tobacco, which the troops habitually traded coffee to the Rebels for). These were huge trains which could have happened only with the railroads that the military built and ran. It was a marvel of the military world, and the world noticed. After Chickamauga, the 11th and 12th corps of the Army of the Potomac were sent to reinforce Thomas. This was by rail (from the History of War): ” By the middle of the first week of October some 20,000 men had been moved to Bridgeport from Virginia, a journey of over 1,100 miles in eleven days.” Think about the size of that movement, and the speed, this was something entirely new in the history of war. There is a story that at one (of the many) places where these trains went around a corner, there were three officers watching, they wore sort of funny uniforms and their headgear was what a later age would call Pickelhaube. Yes, they were observers from the Great German General Staff. Think they learned anything?

And that may be the greatest American innovation to art of war of all. As Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, the main key to winning is “Getting there firstest with the mostest” and Americans do that better than anyone.

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