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

%d bloggers like this: