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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Can the military teach us anything useful

Some take aways from a lecture by When the United States Military Academy at West Point got its new Superintendent in June, it got a straight-talking three-star general with oodles of political experience, fresh from the front.
Lt. General Franklin L. Hagenbeck was in Afghanistan as the Commander, Coalition Joint Task Force Mountain, for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Anaconda. He dealt directly, though apparently unenthusiastically, with the local "ruthless war lords."
"Excuse me," he corrects himself, "the Secretary of Defense reminds me that we are not to refer publicly to these men as war lords. They are 'provincial governors.'"
Hagenbeck takes the reins of the storied military college known as West Point at a time when the spectre of an increasingly unpopular war hangs over the nation, if not its military academy, more than the spirit of a post-September 11th patriotism.
For his part, Hagenbeck reacts viscerally to the suggestion that terrorism remains a threat to the Western world. "These people are by no means done with us," he exclaims. "They are unbelievably vicious. You can't imagine what they do to women and children," he says.
With fire in his belly, Hagenbeck assumes the helm of his alma mater. A surprise, he muses, to himself and surely to his mates from the class of 1971. And that's probably true. While Hagenbeck has managed to amass an impressive Army command résumé, his academic pursuits leaned more toward gridiron than scholastic. He pursued and earned a masters degree in exercise physiology from Florida State. (Though the Army did later send him for an MBA from Long Island University.)
Despite a mandate to be a change agent at a venerable 204 year old institution (a place where students come to learn lessons of history forged by the school's former students), Hagenbeck made an interesting promise to the staff and students of West Point. "I promised I would make no major changes except in matters of safety," to give us adequate time to assess what needs to be done "to make the right changes so that West Point remains relevant and ready" for meeting the nation's challenges.
General Take-Aways
In taking key leadership lessons from his military career, General Hagenbeck crystallizes (with a little editorial help from your correspondent) a few that are relevant to a leader in any walk of life.

Develop Personal Relationships with Key Constituents. Whether your career depends on Congress, the media, or the "global community" — as his has — or representatives of other important groups, develop personal relationships with people in a position to influence your agenda (and career).

Pay Attention to the Care and Feeding of Your Boss. "That doesn't mean 'brown nosing' your boss," Hagenbeck bluntly says. "It does mean, know what they want and how they want to be kept informed." Hagenbeck has worked for many bosses in his 35 year career, including two former Chiefs of the Joint Staff, Generals Hugh Shelton and Richard Meyer.
"Understand the critical information requirements of your boss," Hagenbeck advises. "Know why your boss would want you to wake them at three in the morning to tell them something. It differs by individual boss in the same job."

Get Feedback. Leaders give feedback but they need to receive it, too. The Army calls it "counseling." And it is increasingly part of the organization's culture.
Good leaders, Hagenbeck says, are clear when they are providing counseling to their reports ("I'm counseling you about this…" Or, "This is a counseling session about…"), and they make sure they receive counseling to improve performance.

Stay Calm Under All Conditions. "A senior leader should be like a duck on a pond. Even if your feet are paddling a thousand miles an hour, you should appear to those around you to be calm under all conditions."

You can't inspire confidence in others, Hagenbeck warns, if you appear to have lost your cool. So, you need to trust others to do their job. Which means, of course, that you've developed good people capable of doing their work.

Prepare People to Do Good Work. "A good unit does routine things routinely," is a common Armyism Hagenbeck says. It means that a well-trained, well-equipped group of competent people doesn't need managerial intervention to do its job.

When a manager can leave people alone to do their work, it frees the leader to do higher value stuff, Hagenbeck says.
Manage to Standards and Heed Those Standards. Good work depends on having clear standards and managing to them, sure. But it also means, Hagenbeck says, not exceeding the standards on your own volition.

He tells stories about when individual officers, thinking they were doing a good thing, pushed performance beyond specified levels. "There were unintended consequences," Hagenbeck says. "If you want higher levels of performance, change the standards using a process."

Honor the Ethics Code Even When It's Hard. West Point cadets live by a simple Code of Honor: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.
Guess which is the hardest part of that Code? The "tolerate" part. It means, Hagenbeck says, that a cadet who did not participate in dishonorable behavior may be wrestling with his conscience about tattling on a buddy who did. But that's the point.

"Our Code of Honor rests on a glass wall," Hagenbeck observes. "One crack and the whole thing comes tumbling down."
To both encourage cadets to "do the right thing" and keep the system workable, Hagenbeck is afforded some latitude in how he exacts punishments for violations to the Code. He can — and just weeks into his job, already has — outright expel violators from the prestigious academy. Or, for the lapse in judgment, a cadet could be punished by having his or her graduation delayed by six months. Hagenbeck can also force a cadet to repeat an entire academic year of studies for an infraction.
So what do you think? does the military teach us anything useful or is it the what makes a good leader can be applied universally ? Recruiters and HR profesionals take note .....

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