My son is a soldier by choice. One of those rare, true patriots, willing to put his life on the line to protect and defend our country. And, no matter how you feel about war/the military/ government/ guns/politics/religion (and all those other topics we seldom discuss in the business world), I believe most people admire those brave men and women who willingly face danger in service to their country.
Of course, as a mother, I admit that I would vastly prefer to see him in an ultra-safe profession. But that’s another blog…..
Recently, my son was leading his troops on a training exercise here in the USA, one of those long marches where you walk a long way, carry heavy equipment and wear heavy gear. Early on in the march, his foot began to bother him. He ignored it. It got worse. He ignored it. And worse. He ignored it. After all, he was the leader. He had a plan. A goal. A mission to achieve. And besides – he had to set a good example for his team. If he complained, he would look weak. If he asked someone else to carry his gear he would look weak AND lazy. If he turned back, he and his team would fail to accomplish their goal.
So the only choice was to march on.
By the time the exercise was complete and the goal accomplished, a bone in his foot had completely broken. He had to wear a cast for several weeks. He was still leading his team, but from a chair or crutch. So his ability to lead, for a short while, was limited. His physical conditioning was compromised. Thank goodness, at least he was in the USA and not in a war zone.
I, of course, said “You should have turned back when the pain got severe – you can’t lead as well with a broken foot!” I’m a mom.
He, of course, said “Not an option!” He’s a soldier and young leader.
So, my thought for today is: When leading others, whether it be in the military or in the business world, when it is appropriate to abort a mission? What factors need to be considered? Typically, in even the smallest enterprises, significant time, training, and resources have been invested in preparing for a goal and implementing action to achieve it. The goal is often part of a larger strategy. In today’s world, beginning action around the goal may be public knowledge, having been Tweeted/Facebooked/LinkedIn or otherwise communicated. So calling something off can be embarrassing and expensive. Not to mention requiring rethinking the overall plan and goal.
The military produces many great leaders, and we have much to learn from them. Two excellent books on leadership from the military perspective are It’s Our Ship, written by Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, and Heroic Leadership: Leading With Integrity and Honor, by Air Force Major General William A. Cohen. In It’s Our Ship, Captain Abrashoff points out that “Your true colors shine through in your actions. And if your signals don’t match your actions, you will not win the trust of your crew.” In Heroic Leadership: Leading With Integrity and Honor, General Cohen discusses universal laws of heroic leadership. One of these laws is: Put duty before self – a leader who focuses on duty and puts the mission and the team before his own concerns provides an example for others to follow. It is these philosophies that informed my son’s leadership decisions.
However, both of these leaders also point out that being prepared for the unexpected is important. Learning from every experience and telling the truth to your people are crucial in order to maintain respect and support. “Learning to take the right risks in the right way is paramount to survival and success,” states Captain Abrashoff. Good leaders calculate the odds and have backup plans in place. While not every risk can be anticipated, an experienced leader usually has plenty of lessons learned “in the trenches” that he can share with others.
Obviously, each situation is unique. There is no one right answer. But I would suggest that experienced leaders consider and articulate the potential problems they may face when developing and executing a strategy, and that they have alternative plans prepared to deal with those problems. Even more importantly, experienced leaders need to prepare new and future leaders to anticipate potential problems, and to insure that they have back-up plans ready as needed. Let young leaders benefit from your “years in the trenches”. Teach them to look at problems and opportunities from many angles. Tell them stories about your own missions – both those that succeeded and those that failed. When was marching on the best option? When was it best to switch to an alternative plan?
Show your future leaders that preparing in advance for problems can make it much easier to change direction, yet still achieve desired results. The path might be different, but goals can still be reached. Leaders can still lead. Employees can still accomplish important work. Soldiers can still march.
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