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Empowering Leaders On The Corporate Battlefield

What organisational leaders can learn from modern military leadership

What organisational leaders can learn from modern military leadership

by Integral Development Director, Phil Moyle – a former British Army officer

Most organisations’ leadership philosophies are based on the follower-leader, command and control structure. We’ve all been in situations when speaking to a call centre or buying something from a shop when you ask a question they’re not expecting, something their standard operating procedure does not cover. The representative says they “need to check with the manager”. They seem unable to make a decision for fear of getting it wrong or making a mistake. The manager then needs to take time out of her/his busy day and make a decision. Whilst it’s not the representatives fault for asking the question, it generally means that they don’t have clarity from their manager. They may be unsure of what their task is or they do not understand the vision of the organisation. It could be that the manager just has not been clear.

 

Wearing Monkeys

 

If managers gave clarity and trusted their staff more, this would enable staff to start leading. Staff would become more engaged, responsible and empowered to do the job because the manager has trusted them to do so. Instead of constantly asking the manager to fix the problem, the staff member would have already found the solution and fixed it. The manager is not then continually wearing ‘monkeys’ on her/his back, or spending time putting out fires, or being copied in on unnecessary staff emails who seem intent on covering their backs.

But how do we get our people to do this? How do we get people to start thinking differently and to start using their initiative, make decisions and take responsibility? Some larger organisations particularly struggle with change as “that’s the way it always been done” and staff are simply following standard operating procedures.

 

Turn the Ship Around

 

Former US submarine commander David Marquet really struggled with that concept when he took over a failing submarine. This was part of America’s nuclear deterrent. The ship and crew were highly procedural which led to a disengaged and demoralised team going through the motions. In his book, “Turn the Ship Around”, Marquet describes how he used intent-based leadership or in military speak ‘Mission Command’ to implement a new way of leadership within his team. The effect was felt within 24 hours. After a couple of months the ship began to really improve. After a year, the ship went from being the poorest performer in the US Navy to best ship ever. But how did he achieve this success in such a short time frame with no additional resources or change in personnel? He gave his crew clarity. Everyone understood his vision and what they needed to achieve. From the overall big picture, right down to the individual team tasks, everyone was clear what they needed to do. He created an environment which everyone bought into.

The crew took ownership of their tasks and if someone was away on a course or on leave, people would immediately step up because they understood the intent. There was a huge sense of empowerment and understanding how they all contributed to the overall vision and mission.

With everyone leading, this freed up his officers to start not only doing their own jobs, but to start being more strategic themselves; less reactive and more proactive. It also gave them the opportunity to spend more time with their teams on the ‘ground’ thus displaying real leadership characteristics and capabilities. Many of his officers went on to command their own submarines and his legacy is still felt today in the US Navy.

 

Rewind Back to 1806

 

Europe was a very different place to what it is today. Until then, Prussia was the military superpower of Europe. Due to the relative small size of its population, it often ‘boxed above its weight’. Napoleon was sweeping through Europe and at the Battle of Jena, the Prussians were decimated. War was beginning to change. Generals traditionally stood on the top of opposing hills and would conducted their armies below them as the battle unfolded. Rather like the conductor of an orchestra or chess grand master, they would move their troops to gain the initiative in order to out think their opponents.

However, industrialisation had started and the momentum of the battle moved at a far greater pace than the generals could keep up with. Their plans and orders were left in tatters and the troops on the ground were left demoralised, deflated and defeated.

 

WHAT, WHY and HOW

 

The Prussians strategised how they could improve but still use the same limited resources. It became apparent that if the generals’ only game was their intent, this would give the troops freedom to create their own plans as circumstances dictated. It was imperative that the generals were clear and that the troops understood WHAT the task was that they had to achieve and WHY they had to achieve it, but they left it up to the men on the ground to work out HOW they would achieve their mission. This was because they were nearest the action. They knew exactly what was happening and could adapt their plan accordingly without having to take the time to seek approval from the generals, by which time circumstances may have changed and they would have lost the initiative.

 

Auftragstaktik – the new Lean and Agile

 

The troops still had clear parameters to work within and they still reported back to the generals who were still ultimately responsible. But this decentralised structure and new sense of empowerment created an enormous sense of mutual trust between the men on the ground and the generals. Everyone was clear what the objective was which created unity of effort.  This new style of leadership, Auftragstaktik, ensured the Prussian army were now a lean and agile organisation, able to create and implement their plans fast with flexibility and would out-think their enemies who were often of a much greater size. They would lead on purpose.

NATO and many western allies finally adopted this style of leadership in the 1980s into military doctrine, known as Mission Command. This meant that whilst the senior officer would still be responsible, all ranks of soldiers (and in particular special forces units like the Special Air Service) would be contributing to how they could best achieve the mission.

 

Learning from Military Blunders

 

At first glance it may appear strange that business should have anything much to learn from the military. After all, business is not war, and armies have produced some of the most appalling examples of organisational incompetence that history has ever known. However, if we look beneath the surface, we discover that precisely because of some of those catastrophic failures, a few armies learned some essential lessons better than many contemporary corporations.

To what extent then is intent-based leadership a potential solution? Several themes are emerging: ineffective delegation, lack of pace, rigid silos, poor decisions. Some symptoms are very simple: meetings that go on forever, lack of trust, poor morale and pressure on resources. The focus that is produced by intent-based leadership simply enables you to achieve more with whatever you have got. Which amounts to saying that it is a key to unlocking some neglected reserves of productivity; a notion far from the minds of the Prussian generals who developed Auftragstaktik. The further back we look, the further forward we can see.

 

Intent-based Leadership Today

 

Intent-based leadership is now used by many different types of organisations. From large multi-national corporations such as Wal-Mart and Amazon, to small manufacturing companies and from public sector governments to emergency services, including the Country Fire Authority in Victoria following the Black Saturday bushfires; intent-based leadership is gaining momentum.

Intent-based leadership cuts through the noise of management fads to focus on the essentials which have distinguished high performance organisations throughout history. There is a growing body of evidence that business organisations of the 21st century which have the persistence to embed it in their daily practice may be no exception.

Integral Development offers intent-based leadership in a half day workshop – LEAD ON PURPOSE or as a module within its suite of leadership programs

 

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