Category: Leadership

Leaders and Followers, Planners and Doers

The author Marshall Goldsmith has a gift for taking classic theories and adding to them, or slightly modifying them, to construct something new and interesting.

A good example of this is what he does with Situational Leadership in the book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be.

He takes the original ideas postulated by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in their theory of Situational Leadership and adds an interesting spin, allowing us to use some of the insights more personally.

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Situational leadership is the idea that one needs to constantly adapt their leadership style to the ever changing environment in which they operate.

If a specific style works in one situation with one particular individual, that doesn’t mean we should adopt that style for all people and situations. However, in part because success is reinforced, that is generally what we do.

Hersey and Blanchard’s premise is that leaders need to adapt their style to fit the performance readiness of their followers. Readiness not only varies by person, it also varies by task. Followers have different levels of motivation and ability for different tasks.

Leaders need to acknowledge that situations change along with the readiness of their staff. To be most effective, different people require different types of leadership.

Hersey and Blanchard outlined four distinct styles:

  1. Directing is for employees requiring a lot of specific guidance to complete the task. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s what I’d like you to do, step by step. And here’s when I need it done.’ It’s primarily a one-way conversation, with little input from the employee.

  2. Coaching is for employees who need more than average guidance to complete the task, but with above-average amounts of two-way dialogue. Coaching is for people who both want and need to learn. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s what I’d like you to do,’ and then ask for input: ‘What do you think, Chris?’

  3. Supporting is for employees with the skills to complete the task but who may lack the confidence to do it on their own. This style features below-average amounts of direction. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s the task, How do you think is should be done? Let’s talk about it. How can I help you on this one?’

  4. Delegating is for employees who score high on motivation, ability, and confidence. They know what to do, how to do it, and can do it on their own. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s the assignment. You have a great track record. If I can help, just ask. If not, you’re on your own.’

The four styles are quite different. The idea is to try and measure the need of your employee and choose the style that best fits them at that particular moment in time. The measuring process needs to happen continually for you to be most effective. The style which best helps Chris in situation X might not be the the one that will help him in situation Y.

Now for the twist.

Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership is a perfect analogue to a hidden dynamic that exists within us when we attempt to change our behavior. It’s the same dynamic whether you call it leader and follower, planner and doer, or manager and employee. The terms are interchangeable as far as I’m concerned.

As we go through life making plans to be a better friend, partner, worker, athlete, parent, son, or daughter, inside each of us are two separate personas. There’s the leader/planner/manager who plans to change his or her ways. And there’s the follower/doer/employee who must execute the plan.

Goldsmith argues that whether you are trying to lead other people or lead yourself, the obstacles are very much the same. You still have to deal with all the variables in the environment: temptations pushing you away from your objective, motivation issues, and self-discipline issues. One result is that we tend to be superior planners but inferior doers. We talk a good game.

If you take a moment to think of a recent plan that you devised but never executed, you’ll realize that Goldsmith is onto something here. Would a successful leader come up with a beautiful plan, throw it out to their employees, and then walk away and hope for the best? No.

To improve the odds of success, a leader would check in. They would look for obstacles to remove. They would want feedback on progression. They would be an active part of implementing the plan. We know this, yet we don’t do it in our own work and lives. We don’t manage execution.

What if the planner in each of us, like an effective leader with his or her subordinates, could size up the situation at any point during the day and adopt the appropriate management style for the doer in us? It’s a simple two-step: measure the need, choose the style.

It gives you such a new perspective to think of your goals in this way. It allows you to step back from the situation and clearly see where you are getting off course. Just step into execution mode and out of planning mode, as any good hands-on leader would do.

We don’t adequately weigh many of your past experiences/failures. This may be a willful denial of why you have failed at a task in the past or it could simply be that you’ve never taken the time for reflection.

It’s not just environmental intrusions and unpredicted events that upset our plans. It’s also our willful discounting of past experience. We make plans that are wholly contradicted by our previous actions.

The planner in us is convinced this time it will be different. Yet if you don’t understand why you failed, you’re doomed to repeat folly. Learning from our mistakes is key to increasing the odds to achieve our personal and professional goals.

Goldsmith’s book is filled with insightful ideas. His decades of experience in coaching leaders is evident throughout the pages; both in the way he highlights his ideas with meaningful examples and the way he explains the evolution in his own thinking. You will find yourself identifying with his client’s issues and walking through the solutions, endowing you with practical tools to help you change your own behavior, whatever your own “triggers” might be.

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Still curious? Check out some other leadership ideas like seeing the world through the eyes of your crew and learning courage during difficult times.

Words Like Loaded Pistols: Wartime Rhetoric

Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is an ancient topic that’s no less relevant today. We are in a golden age of information sharing, which means you are swimming in a pool of rhetoric every day, whether you realise it or not.

The book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith is one tool to help navigate our choppy waters. Leith does an impressive job of unpacking rhetorical concepts while also providing all the knowledge and nuance required to be a powerful speaker.

The book is laid out beautifully, with sections entitled ‘Champions of Rhetoric,’ in which he dissects the work of some of the most famous orators. The chapter comparing Adolf Hitler to Winston Churchill is particularly interesting. 

Churchill

Churchill was a prolific speaker: Between 1900 and 1955 he averaged one speech a week. (That’s 2,860 speeches for those who like math). And they were not just speeches; They carried some of the most famous sayings produced in the twentieth century:

Among the phrases he minted were ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat,’ ‘their finest hour,’ ‘the few,’ ‘the end of the beginning,’ ‘business as usual,’ ‘iron curtain,’ ‘summit meeting,’ and ‘peaceful coexistence.’

While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratory excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker” — in fact, he made many mistakes. And he learned. 

Like many of us, Churchill would even get nervous to the point of nausea before addressing the public. To counter this he engaged in deliberate practiceHe would rehearse his speeches in the mirror, modify them as needed, and scribble meticulous notes including pauses and stage direction. In other words, one of history’s great orators painfully engaged himself in a process of trial, error, and practice

To shape himself as an orator he learned by heart the speeches of Disraeli, Gladstone, Cromwell, Burke, and Pitt. Churchill combined their example with his father Randolph’s gift for invective. But he added something of his own – and it was this that helped tether his high style to something more conversational. He was a master of the sudden change of register – a joke, or a phrase of unexpected intimacy.

Stylistically, Churchill was known for building up to a great crescendo and then suddenly becoming gentle and quiet. Students of rhetoric recognise this as a device to keep your audience engaged, to surprise it. The joking and intimacy showed his prowess with another important rhetorical device, ethos.

Ethos is about establishing a connection with your audience. A joke can help with this because humor is often based on joint assumptions and beliefs; sharing a laugh with someone tends to make us feel closer to them. It’s human nature to gravitate towards those people who are like us (see the principles of influence). 

Yet, for all the aspects of the ethos appeal which Churchill got right, on more than one occasion he didn’t judge his audience well and was unable to persuade them.

When he was an MP in 1935, his colleague Herbert Samuel reported, ‘The House always crowds in to hear him. It listens and admires. It laughs when he would have it laugh, and it trembles when he would have it tremble… but it remains unconvinced, and in the end it votes against him.’

Much like today, in Churchill’s time parliament was designed for a type of call and response dialogue, not a grand soapbox type speech that he was so fond of.

Leith argues that if it wasn’t for the war, Churchill might have never found his audience and surely would have been remembered much differently, if at all.

The thing about Churchill was that, like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, he occupied one position and waited for the world to come to him. He spend much of his political career predicting the imminent end of Western civilization — and it was only by the damnedest good luck that it happened to be on his watch that it suddenly appeared to be coming about. If not, he might have been remembered as a self-aggrandizing windbag with an old-fashioned speaking style and a love of the sound of his own voice.

But when the country really was under threat, Churchill’s fierce certainties were what an anxious audience wanted, while his style — steeped in the language of the previous centuries — seemed to encapsulate the very traditions that he was exhorting them to fight for. What at another time might have been faults became rhetorical strengths. That, you could say, is kairos writ large.

What does that last phrase “kairos” mean? It’s all about timing and fit:

As a rhetorical concept, decorum encompasses not only the more obvious features of style, but kairos, or the timeliness of a speech, the tone and physical comportment of the speaker, the commonplaces and topics of argument chosen, and so on. It is a giant umbrella concept meaning no more nor less than the fitting of a speech to the temper and expectations of its audience.

You could argue that the war needed Churchill and that Churchill needed the war. And unlike conflicts of the past, he also had access to the public like no other leader had before. You didn’t need to crowd into a square to hear Churchill speak, you needed to only turn on the radio.

One of the virtues of Churchill’s wartime rhetoric, however, was that whatever his peers in the House of Commons thought, he was able to speak — as politicians a generation before had not been able to — directly to the public through the wireless.

After delivering many of his key speeches in the Commons, Churchill read them out on the radio. Here, that presidential style — all that gruffness and avunicularity all those rumbling climaxes — was able to take full effect without being interrupted by rustling order papers and barracking Opposition MPs. He was pure voice.

Churchill indeed was pure of voice, but there was another loud voice in this conflict: Adolf Hitler. When it came to speaking, the two shared many things in common, but their differences were just as noticeable.

Hitler

Hitler understood the power of words: He saw them as a tool which he needed to master if he wanted to achieve his goals. He had a strong vision which he believed in passionately and he knew that he needed his people to share that passion if he was to succeed.

From Mein Kampf:

The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history has been, from time immemorial, none but the magic power of the word, and that alone. Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech… Only a storm of hot passion can turn the destinies of peoples, and he alone can arouse passion who hears it within himself.

It would seem that Hitler associated passion with anger, his speeches were known to peak with shouting resembling rage. Even when writing his speeches he would work himself up into a frenzy.

Traudl Junge, the young secretary whose memoir of the last days in the Fuhrerbunker formed the basis for the film Downfall, recalled him composing the speech he gave to mark the tenth anniversary of his dictatorship. He started out mumbling almost inaudibly, and pacing up and down, but by the time his speech reached its crescendo he had his back to her and was yelling at the wall.

Like Churchill, Hitler would often practice in front of a mirror and choreograph the whole performance, but he would take it much further. With an eye for theatrics, he would pay close attention to the acoustics of the venue to accent both his booming voice and the martial music that would accompany him. He was particular about the visuals, with his dramatic lights and placement of flags.

Hitler also used pauses to his advantage. While Churchill would use them mid speech to maintain an audience’s attention or ‘reel them in’, Hitler would use them at the beginning.

It could go on for anything up to half a minute, which is (you’ll know if you’ve tried it) a very, very long time to stand on a stage without saying or doing anything. When he started – which he’d typically do while the applause was still fading out, causing the audience to prick up its ears the more — he would do so at a slow pace and in a deep voice. The ranting was something he built up to, taking the audience with him.

Hitler liked to control every aspect of his performance and paid close attention to those details that others dismissed, specifically the time of day that he gave his speeches (a lesson infomercials learned).

He preferred to speak in the evening, believing that ‘in the morning and during the day it seems that the power of the human will rebel with its strongest energy against any attempt to impose upon it the will or opinion of another. On the other hand, in the evening it easily succumbs to the domination of a stronger will.’

Hitler had a keen interest and insight into human nature. He knew what he needed from the German people and knew the psychological devices to use to sway the masses. He was even cognizant of how his attire would resonate with the population.

While other senior Nazis went about festooned with ribbons and medals, Hitler always dressed in a plain uniform, the only adornment being the Iron Cross First Class that he had won in 1914. That medal, let it be noted, is a token of bravery, not of rank.

This was a calculated move, an appeal to ethos: I am one of you. It was a tricky balance, because he needed to seem like one of the people but also to portray an air of exceptionality. Why else would people follow him if he wasn’t the only one who could do tend to Germany in its time of need?

As a wartime leader, you need to make yourself both of and above your audience. You need to stress the identify of their interests with yours, to create unity in a common purpose. You need, therefore, to cast yourself as the ideal exemplar of all that is best and most determined and most courageous in your people.

As expected, the same type of thing happens in modern politics, which is especially amplified during election time. Everyone is scrambling to seem like a leader of the people and to establish trust while still setting themselves apart from the crowd, convincing us that they are the only person fit for the job.

If you look closely, many of the rhetorical devices examined in Words Like Loaded Pistols are in high use today. Leith discusses a speechwriter for Reagan and one of his Champions of Rhetoric is Obama; these sections of the book are just as interesting as the piece on Churchill and Hitler.

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Still Interested? If you have a fascination with politics and/or Rhetoric (or just want someone to skillfully distill the considerable amounts of information from Ad Herennium and Aristotle’s Rhetoricthen we highly recommend you pick the book up.

There Are No Called Strikes and Other Lessons You Learn in Business School

Matthew Frederick teams up with Michael Preis to offer some important learnings from the world of business — which isn’t really a discipline in and of itself but rather, as they write in the introduction to 101 Things I Learned in Business School, “a broad field of endeavor encompassing such diverse disciplines as accounting, communications, economics, finance, leadership, management, marketing, operations, psychology, sociology, and strategy.” Here are some lessons gleaned from a trip to business school. (Some of them, at least.)

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A mission or vision statement driven by consensus is probably so watered down it becomes meaningless. Part of the reason this happens is that when you seek consensus you end up with something that no one at the table can disagree with so you don’t really end up saying anything important.

A mission statement describes the current central purpose and goal of an organization, to guide daily decision making and performance.  A vision statement describes what an organization seeks to become, or the ideal society to which the organization seeks to contribute.

When drafting and evaluating potential mission and vision statements, ask if the opposite of a proposed statement is obviously undesirable. If it is, the statement is obviously undesirable. For example, a university mission statement that says the institution “seeks to produce highly effective productive citizens” is unlikely to have any real influence on employees or students, since no university seeks to produce its opposite—ineffective, unproductive citizens. A more meaningful statement will assert that which is truly specific to the organization; it describes what the organization seeks to do that many or most of its peers do not.

This is reminiscent of the approach Ken Iverson took at Nucor: The company needs a specific call to a specific action. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time with a watered down message.

There are no called strikes.

Billy Beane, who offers compelling insight on making better decisions and avoiding biases,  is quoted in Moneyball to have said “You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You may never recover from the player you signed at the wrong price.” This is reminiscent of what Warren Buffett had to say on the same subject: “In investments, there’s no such thing as a called strike. You can stand there at the plate and the pitcher can throw the ball right down the middle, and if it’s General Motors at $47 and you don’t know enough to decide General Motors at $47, you let it go right on by and no one’s going to call a strike. The only way you can have a strike is to swing and miss.” Turns out we can learn a lot about decision making from baseball star Ted Williams and the fictional character Mr. Market, who was invented by Benjamin Graham.

Adding to our knowledge on Feedback Loops, Frederick and Preis distinguish the difference between positive and negative feedback loops.

In a negative feedback loop, the system responds in the opposite direction of a stimulus, thereby providing overall stability or equilibrium. The Law of Supply and Demand usually functions as a negative feedback loop: When the supply of a product, material, or service increases, its price tends to fall, which may lead to raising demand, which will drive the price back up.

In a positive feedback loop, the system responds in the same direction as the stimulus, decreasing equilibrium further and further. For example, a consumer who feels prosperous after making new purchases may end up making even more purchases and take on excessive debt. Eventually, the consumer (Ed. or Government) may face financial ruin and have to make a major correction by selling off assets or declaring bankruptcy (Ed. read A Parable About How One Nation Came To Financial Ruin). Because positive feedback loops restore equilibrium in their own, often dramatic way, it is sometimes suggested that positive feedback loops occur within a larger, if not directly visible, negative feedback loop.

Speaking of The Law of Supply and Demand: It doesn’t always apply.

The Law of Supply and Demand says that if the supply of a given product or service exceeds demand, its price will decrease; if demand exceeds supply, its price will increase. Rising and falling prices impact demand similarly. When supply and demand are exactly equal, the market is at an equilibrium point and acts most efficiently: Suppliers sell all the goods they produce and consumers get all the goods they demand.

Not all products have historically adhered to the Law. When the prices of some luxury or prestige items have been lowered, demand has fallen due to reduced cache. In other instances, rising demand for a product has led to improvements in technology, increases in production efficiency, and the perfection of distribution challenges, all of which have driven prices down. Electronic technologies have tended to follow this pattern.

Experts are not always the best people to solve problems – it’s more about combinatory play — A point not lost on SenecaSteve Jobs and James Webb Young.

Experts are expected to know a lot, but often it is better to know how to organize and structure knowledge than to simply have knowledge. Innovative thinkers don’t merely retain and recite information; they identify and create new patterns that reorganize known information.

When you don’t think about what you’re doing, you tend to promote the best performer to manager, which is often a mistake. Echoing James March, Preis writes:

Employees who excel in one area of business are often promoted to supervisory positions. But in management, one’s achievements are measured through the actions of others. A first-rate lab researcher promoted to lab supervisor, for example, has to coach, mentor, manage, and help other researchers make discoveries—something that may be beyond his or her abilities or interests. Compounding the problem for the organization is that the department no longer has its best researcher making discoveries on the bench.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the higher one rises in an organization the longer it takes to implement a decision. (The decisions are more consequential, though.)

Front-line managers can effect immediate changes by directly instructing workers. A sales manager can redirect the activities of sales people immediately, and an accounting manager can make immediate changes in bookkeeping practices. At higher levels of an organization, where employees are more concerned with strategic matters, decisions take more time to implement. If the vice president of marketing wishes to change the style of a product being produced, considerable time will be required to engage feasibility studies, explore design alternatives, investigate the technical methods required, and alter manufacturing practices.

Further to this, the higher one rises in an organization the more one must be a generalist. At the front-line level you often only need direct knowledge of specific activities. Managers need a broader understanding in addition to this knowledge, and they are often missing one or the other.

101 Things I Learned in Business School is a good read; however reading The Letters of Berkshire Hathaway (also freely available) is a better way to understand what an MBA should be teaching. This site, after all, wouldn’t exist without the failed education of an MBA.

Creating Effective Incentive Systems: Ken Iverson on the Principles that Unleash Human Potential

The issue of setting compensation seems to be struggled with in every organization. Most are pretty lazy about it — hiring someone else to take care of it and failing to think through the incentives they’re creating.

Some companies are different. Nucor, a steel company, under the leadership of Ken Iverson is one of them. Iverson details his thoughts in the masterful Plain Talk. (This isn’t the first time we’ve covered Iverson’s wisdom on running a company. His genius was exploiting unrecognized simplicities.)

Ken Iverson

Under Iverson, compensation at Nucor had two components: A small but meaningful base pay and a very simple weekly bonus based on production. Outside of benefits and a little profit sharing, that was it. Simple, straightforward, and powerful. No subjective criteria.

The real beauty of Nucor’s compensation system, in my opinion, is that there is nothing to discuss. Daily output and corresponding bonus earnings are posted, so employees know exactly what their bonus will be before they tear open their pay envelopes. No judgment. No negotiation. No surprises.

There are three beautiful aspects to the design of this program.

The first is that it’s eminently clear what you will be paid for: making more steel. It’s so simple. Your compensation is never at the hands of someone who may or may not like you. You have no reason to say it’s unfair: You signed up for it when you signed on. If you worked at Nucor under Iverson, the first thought you had every morning was how to make more steel.

Secondly, it offers immediate feedback. Human nature, and the nature of many other higher-thinking animals, is such that immediate rewards work better than delayed rewards. B.F. Skinner knew this, but some corporations haven’t figured it out yet. A year-end bonus isn’t nearly as effective as a weekly bonus. A year-end review isn’t nearly as useful as immediate feedback. It’s simple.

And lastly, this program gave Nucor’s employees tremendous skin in the game. Everyone was working towards the same goal. Rowing in the same direction. And that makes a tremendous difference.

Nucor’s great success in harnessing incentives reminds me of Charlie Munger’s discussion on Federal Express:

From all business, my favorite case on incentives is Federal Express. The heart and soul of their system—which creates the integrity of the product—is having all their airplanes come to one place in the middle of the night and shift all the packages from plane to plane. If there are delays, the whole operation can’t deliver a product full of integrity to Federal Express customers.

And it was always screwed up. They could never get it done on time. They tried everything—moral suasion, threats, you name it. And nothing worked.

Finally, somebody got the idea to pay all these people not so much an hour, but so much a shift—and when it’s all done, they can all go home. Well, their problems cleared up overnight.

So getting the incentives right is a very, very important lesson. It was not obvious to Federal Express what the solution was. But maybe now, it will hereafter more often be obvious to you.

Does this mean every company should model their compensation program after a steel company? Hell no. But you want to think about it. It’s easy to come up with a suboptimal incentive system — just look around corporate America. The difference between a suboptimal compensation system and an optimal one is huge.

The principles for an effective compensation system work at all companies. Let’s invert — think about the common reasons that compensation systems likely fail. First, most of them are hard to explain. They are overly complicated and wordy. (At Nucor everyone from the CEO to the newest employee could explain it.) Second, the rewards are small and untimely. Yearly bonuses anyone? Third, the program has to be designed in a way that the people in it (and the people running it) can’t game it. Finally, everyone is subject to the same plan.

Done poorly, compensation systems foster a culture of individualism and gaming. Done properly, however, they unleash the potential of all employees.

Why Micromanaging Kills Corporate Culture

“The more he kept sweating the details,
the less his people took ownership of their work.”

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The most important part of a company’s culture is trust. People don’t feel trusted when you micromanage and this has disastrous implications.

In It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Michael Abrashoff  writes:

The difference between thinking as a top performer and thinking like your boss is the difference between individual contribution and real leadership. Some people never make this jump; they keep doing what made them successful, which in a leadership role usually means micromanaging. My predecessor on Benfold (the ship Abrashoff commanded), for instance, was extremely smart—a nuclear engineer and one of the brightest guys in the Navy. He spent his entire career in engineering, and when he took command of Benfold, he became, in effect, the super chief engineer of the ship. According to those who worked for him, he never learned to delegate. The more he kept sweating the details, the less his people took ownership of their work and the ship.

This so often happens in organizations: Micromanagement (or picomanagement, if micro doesn’t quite describe it) kills ownership. And when employees don’t have ownership—skin in the game—everything starts to go to hell. This is one reason government organizations are considered to be dysfunctional — everything is someone else’s responsibility. The incentives are awful.

Consider this anecdote Abrashoff uses to illustrate his point.

A pharmaceutical company I was working with promoted its best salesman to be head of sales. Instead of leading the sales force, he became the super salesman of the company. He had to be in on every deal, large or small. The other salespeople lost interest and stopped feeling as if they were in charge of their own jobs because they knew they couldn’t make a deal without him there to close it. The super salesman would swoop in at the last minute, close the deal, claim all the glory, and the others were left feeling that they were just holding his bat.

This reminds me of something Marshall Goldsmith, author of the impressive What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, once relayed in a conference. He told the story of a typical person in a typical organization presenting an idea to the senior approval body. This person did all this work, it’s their idea, and they know it inside and out. Anyway, they present and the senior management team, keen to exercise their egos, start chiming in with things like “did you think of this …” or “but … ” or “however …”. The project gets better with these comments, after all most people don’t get to that level without being somewhat intelligent. However the commitment of the person who presented the idea goes down dramatically because it’s no longer their idea. They’ve lost some ownership (the degree to which is very dependent on the conversation). The end result is a better idea with less commitment. And you know what? The outcome is worse than if the management team just approved the project. Goldsmith was pointing out the obvious and the world has never looked the same to me since.

Abrashoff aptly concludes:

When people feel they own an organization, they perform with greater care and devotion. They want to do things right the first time, and they don’t have accidents by taking shortcuts for the sake of expedience.

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I am absolutely convinced that with good leadership, freedom does not weaken discipline— it strengthens it. Free people have a powerful incentive not to screw up.

Remember the wisdom of Joseph Trussman. Trust is one of the keys to getting the world to do most of the work for you. Call this an unrecognized simplicity — and one that Ken Iverson exploited to help show why culture eats strategy.

Lessons on Leadership: Michael Abrashoff on Turning the Worst Ship in the Navy into the Best

“Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything.”

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Michael Abrashoff was in his mid-thirties when he took command of the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer and one of the worst performing ships in the navy. Despite her potency, the “dysfunctional ship had a sullen crew that resented being there and could not wait to get out of the Navy.” By the time he left, less than three years later, Benfold had become the highest-performing ship and retention was amazing.

As he recounts in It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy the opportunity wasn’t without its irony.

Our military has spent a lot of time and money preparing for tomorrow’s battles with antiquated methods. We continue to invest in the latest technologies and systems, but, as we all know, technology is nothing but a facilitator. The people operating the equipment are who give us the fighting edge, and we seem to have lost our way when it comes to helping them grow.

Echoing Confucius who said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance,” Abrashoff believes the key to leadership is about understanding yourself first and then using that knowledge to shape the organization.

Leaders must free their subordinates to fulfill their talents to the utmost. However, most obstacles that limit people’s potential are set in motion by the leader and are rooted in his or her own fears, ego needs, and unproductive habits. When leaders explore deep within their thoughts and feelings in order to understand themselves, a transformation can take shape.

That understanding shifts the leader’s perspective on all of the interactions in life, and he or she approaches leadership from a completely different place. As a result, the leader’s choices are different from those he or she made when blinded by fear, ego, and habit. More important, others perceive the person as more authentic, which in turn reinforces the new behavior. This can vastly improve how people respond to their leaders and makes their loyalty to the source of gratification more likely: my ship, your company, their peers, the culture that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

To be sure, your organization has a pragmatic goal, and obviously, it isn’t to be a therapeutic shelter. My ship’s job was war; your company’s purpose is profit. But we will achieve neither by ordering people to perform as we wish. Even if doing so produces short-term benefits, the consequences can prove devastating.

Adding to this later and expanding on how so many people lead, he writes:

Leaders must be willing to put the ship’s performance ahead of their egos.

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The command-and-control approach is far from the most efficient way to tap people’s intelligence and skills.

[…]

Show me an organization in which employees take ownership, and I will show you one that beats its competitors.

Highlighting the divisiveness that so many organizations experience, he writes:

In business, as in the Navy, there is a general understanding that “they” don’t want rules to be questioned or challenged. For employees, the “they” is the managers; for managers, the “they” is the executive cadre. I worked hard at convincing my crew that I did want the rules to be questioned and challenged, and that “they” is “us.” One of the ways I demonstrated my commitment was to question and challenge rules to my bosses. In the end, both the bosses and my crew listened.

In a world that is always moving, staying still is near-certain death.

Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything. To me, that’s the key to keeping an organization young, vital, growing, and successful. Stasis is death to any organization. Evolve or die: It’s the law of life. Rules that made sense when they were written may well be obsolete. Make them extinct, too.

The primary reasons that people leave an organization have nothing to do with money.

However the economy is doing, a challenge for leaders in the twenty-first century is attracting and retaining not just employees, but the best employees— and more important, how to motivate them so that they work with passion, energy, and enthusiasm. But very few people with brains, skills, and initiative appear. The timeless challenge in the real world is to help less-talented people transcend their limitations.

Pondering all this in the context of my post as the new captain of Benfold, I read some exit surveys, interviews conducted by the military to find out why people are leaving. I assumed that low pay would be the first reason, but in fact it was fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility.

Thus Abrashoff came to the conclusion that the best thing he could do was see the ship through the eyes of the crew. This makes it much easier to find out what’s wrong and help people empower themselves to fix it. Most systems reward micromanagement which only disempowers subordinates and removes ownership and accountability.

Officers are told to delegate authority and empower subordinates, but in reality they are expected never to utter the words “I don’t know.” So they are on constant alert, riding herd on every detail. In short, the system rewards micromanagement by superiors— at the cost of disempowering those below.

Organizations commanded by a micromanager create a sub-culture of micromanagement. Individual initiative is the exception not the norm and the people who exhibit it get beaten down quickly and either quit or become cynical.

I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s. Accordingly, we spent several months analyzing every process on the ship. I asked everyone, “Is there a better way to do what you do?” Time after time, the answer was yes, and many of the answers were revelations to me.

My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out. To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs, but also to have fun as they did them. And sometimes— actually, a lot of times— I encouraged them to have fun for fun’s sake.

 

No one is capable of making every decision. While there are as many ways to approach this as there are organizations, most seem to create an ineffective system of rules and policies that attempt to prepare for every possible contingency. Over time, people working in these organizations have no ownership — they simply follow the rules. Great organizations, on the other hand, use principles and allow for exceptions. They train people to think and make judgments on their own.

It’s Your Ship goes on to detail the ideas and techniques that Abrashoff used to win trust, create an environment where people felt accountable, and gain commitment.