Category: Leadership

16 Leadership Lessons from a Four Star General

“We like to equate leaders with values we admire, but the two can be separate and distinct.”

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Say what you want about General Stanley McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article that led to his premature retirement from the military he spent his life serving but I could hardly put down his memoir: My Share of the Task.

McChrystal’s life was “a series of unplanned detours, unanticipated challenges, and unexpected opportunities.” More by luck than design, he ended up being part of events that will loom large in history.

While the book was entirely fascinating, I was most interested in what McChrystal had to say about a lifetime spent in leadership roles in an evolving force. Through the stories, we see not only how he leads, but how changing circumstances led to him changing.

Here are some of the lessons in My Share of the Task.

1. Leadership is the single biggest reason for success or failure.

So, after a lifetime, what had I learned about leadership? Probably not enough. But I saw enough for me to believe it was the single biggest reason organizations succeeded or failed. It dwarfed numbers, technology, ideology, and historical forces in determining the outcome of events. I used to tell junior leaders that the nine otherwise identical parachute infantry battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division ranged widely in effectiveness, the disparity almost entirely a function of leadership.

“Switch just two people— the battalion commander and command sergeant major—from the best battalion with those of the worst, and within ninety days the relative effectiveness of the battalions will have switched as well,” I’d say. I still believe I was correct.

2. Leadership is difficult to measure.

Yet leadership is difficult to measure and often difficult even to adequately describe. I lack the academic bona fides to provide a scholarly analysis of leadership and human behavior. So I’ll simply relate what, after a lifetime of being led and learning to lead, I’ve concluded.

Leadership is the art of influencing others. It differs from giving a simple order or managing in that it shapes the longer-term attitudes and behavior of individuals and groups. George Washington’s tattered army persisted to ultimate victory. Those troops displayed the kind of effort that can never be ordered— only evoked. Effective leaders stir an intangible but very real desire inside people. That drive can be reflected in extraordinary courage, selfless sacrifice, and commitment.

3. Leadership is neither good nor evil.

We like to equate leaders with values we admire, but the two can be separate and distinct. Self-serving or evil intent motivated some of the most effective leaders I saw, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the end, leadership is a skill that can be used like any other, but with far greater effect.

4. Leaders take us to where we’d otherwise not go.

Although Englishmen rushing into the breach behind Henry V is a familiar image, leaders whose personal example or patient persuasion causes dramatic changes in otherwise inertia-bound organizations or societies are far more significant. The teacher who awakens and encourages in students a sense of possibility and responsibility is, to me, the ultimate leader.

5. Success is rarely the work of a single leader.

… leaders work best in partnership with other leaders. In Iraq in 2004, I received specific direction to track Zarqawi and bring him to justice. But it was the collaboration of leaders below me, inside TF 714, that built the teams, relentlessly hunted, and ultimately destroyed his lethal network.

6. Leaders are empathetic.

The best leaders I’ve seen have an uncanny ability to understand, empathize, and communicate with those they lead. They need not agree or share the same background or status in society as their followers, but they understand their hopes, fears, and passions. Great leaders intuitively sense, or simply ask, how people feel and what resonates with them. At their worst, demigods like Adolf Hitler manipulate the passions of frustrated populations into misguided forces. But empathy can be remarkably positive when a Nelson Mandela reshapes and redirects the energy of a movement away from violence and into constructive nation-building.

7. Leadership is not popularity.

For soldiers, the choice between popularity and effectiveness is ultimately no choice at all. Soldiers want to win; their survival depends upon it. They will accept, and even take pride in, the quirks and shortcomings of a leader if they believe he or she can produce success.

8. The best leaders are genuine.

I found soldiers would tolerate my being less of a leader than I hoped to be, but they would not forgive me being less than I claimed to be. Simple honesty matters.

9. Leaders can be found at any rank and at any age.

I often found myself led by soldiers many levels junior to me, and I was the better for it. Deferring to the expertise and skills of the leader best suited to any given situation requires enough self-confidence to subjugate one’s ego, but it signals a strong respect for the people with whom one serves.

10. Charisma is not leadership.

Personal gifts like intellect or charisma help. But neither are required nor enough to be a leader.

Physical appearance, poise, and outward self-confidence can be confused with leadership—for a time. I saw many new lieutenants arrive to battalions and fail to live up to the expectations their handsome, broad-shouldered look generated. Conversely, I saw others overcome the initial doubts created by small stature or a squeaky voice. It took time and enough interaction with followers, but performance usually became more important than the advantages of innate traits.

Later in my career, I encountered some figures who had learned to leverage superficial gifts so effectively that they appeared to be better leaders than they were. It took me some time and interaction —often under the pressure of difficult situations—before I could determine whether they possessed those bedrock skills and qualities that infantry platoons would seek to find and assess in young sergeants and lieutenants. Modern media exacerbate the challenge of sorting reality from orchestrated perception.

11. Leaders walk a fine line between self-confidence and humility.

Soldiers want leaders who are sure of their ability to lead the team to success but humble enough to recognize their limitations. I learned that it was better to admit ignorance or fear than to display false knowledge or bravado. And candidly admitting doubts or difficulties is key to building confidence in your honesty. But expressing doubts and confidence is a delicate balance. When things look their worst, followers look to the leader for reassurance that they can and will succeed.

12. People are born; leaders are made.

I was born the son of a leader with a clear path to a profession of leadership. But whatever leadership I later possessed, I learned from others. I grew up in a household of overt values, many of which hardened in me only as I matured. Although history fascinated me, and mentors surrounded me, the overall direction and key decisions of my life and career were rarely impacted by specific advice, or even a particularly relevant example I’d read or seen. I rarely wondered What would Nelson, Buford, Grant, or my father have done? But as I grew, I was increasingly aware of the guideposts and guardrails that leaders had set for me, often through their examples. The question became What kind of leader have I decided to be? Over time, decisions came easily against that standard, even when the consequences were grave.

13. Leaders are people, and people constantly change.

Even well into my career I was still figuring out what kind of leader I wanted to be. For many years I found myself bouncing between competing models of a hard-bitten taskmaster and a nurturing father figure— sometimes alternating within a relatively short time span. That could be tough on the people I led, and a bit unfair. They looked for and deserved steady, consistent leadership. When I failed to provide that, I gave conflicting messages that produced uncertainty and reduced the effectiveness of the team we were trying to create. As I got older, the swings between leadership styles were less pronounced and frequent as I learned the value of consistency. But even at the end I still wasn’t the leader I believed I should be.

14. Leaders are human.

They get tired, angry, and jealous and carry the same range of emotions and frailties common to mankind. Most leaders periodically display them. The leaders I most admired were totally human but constantly strove to be the best humans they could be.

15. Leaders make mistakes, and they are often costly.

The first reflex is normally to deny the failure to themselves; the second is to hide it from others, because most leaders covet a reputation for infallibility. But it’s a fool’s dream and is inherently dishonest.

16. Leadership is a choice.

Rank, authority, and even responsibility can be inherited or assigned, whether or not an individual desires or deserves them. Even the mantle of leadership occasionally falls to people who haven’t sought it. But actually leading is different. A leader decides to accept responsibility for others in a way that assumes stewardship of their hopes, their dreams, and sometimes their very lives. It can be a crushing burden, but I found it an indescribable honor.

In the end, “there are few secrets to leadership.”

It is mostly just hard work. More than anything else it requires self-discipline. Colorful, charismatic characters often fascinate people, even soldiers. But over time, effectiveness is what counts. Those who lead most successfully do so while looking out for their followers’ welfare. Self-discipline manifests itself in countless ways. In a leader I see it as doing those things that should be done, even when they are unpleasant, inconvenient, or dangerous; and refraining from those that shouldn’t, even when they are pleasant, easy, or safe.

McChrystal’s memoir is entirely worth reading.

Temperament is more important than IQ

During a recent interview Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger had some interesting comments on how to outsmart people who are smarter than you.

Munger: We’ve learned how to outsmart people who are clearly smarter [than we are.]

Buffett: Temperament is more important than IQ. You need reasonable intelligence, but you absolutely have to have the right temperament. Otherwise, something will snap you.

Munger: The other big secret is that we’re good at lifelong learning. Warren is better in his 70s and 80s, in many ways, than he was when he was younger. If you keep learning all the time, you have a wonderful advantage.

Buffett: And we have a wonderful group of friends, from whom we can learn a lot.

The Unwritten Rules of Management

William Swanson’s unwritten rules of management is full of pithy advice. Swanson is the former chairman and CEO of Raytheon Company.

Originally a part of a presentation to engineers and scientists at Raytheon, someone asked him to write his rules down.

Thankfully he listened, the result is Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management.

Not all of the rules are Swanson’s. Some of them were published in 1944 in The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King. (The book was updated in the early 2000’s by James G. Skakoon.)

In The Unwritten Rules of Management, Swanson elaborates on these rules with a paragraph or two.

  1. Learn to say, “I don’t know.” If used when appropriate, it will be often.
  2. It is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.
  3. If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.
  4. Look for what is missing. Many know how to improve what’s there, but few can see what isn’t there.
  5. Presentation rule: When something appears on a slide presentation, assume the world knows about it, and deal with it accordingly.
  6. Work for a boss to whom you can tell it like it is. Remember that you can’t pick your relatives, but you can pick your boss.
  7. Constantly review developments to make sure that the actual benefits are what they are supposed to be. Avoid Newton’s Law.
  8. However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.
  9. Persistence or tenacity is the disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement, or indifference. Don’t be known as a good starter but a poor finisher.
  10. In doing your project, don’t wait for others; go after them, and make sure it gets done.
  11. Confirm the instructions you give others, and their commitments, in writing. Don’t assume it will get done!
  12. Don’t be timid; speak up. Express yourself, and promote your ideas.
  13. Practice shows that those who speak the most knowingly and confidently often end up with the assignment to get the job done.
  14. Strive for brevity and clarity in oral and written reports.
  15. Be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.
  16. Don’t overlook the fact that you are working for a boss. Keep him or her informed. Whatever the boss wants, within the bounds of integrity, takes top priority.
  17. Promises, schedules, and estimates are important instruments in a well-ordered business. You must make promises — don’t lean on the often-used phrase, “I can’t estimate it because it depends upon many uncertain factors.”
  18. Never direct a complaint to the top. A serious offense is to “cc” a person’s boss on a copy of a complaint before the person has a chance to respond to the complaint.
  19. When dealing with outsiders, remember that you represent the company. Be especially careful of your commitments.
  20. Cultivate the habit of boiling matters down to the simplest terms. An elevator speech is the best way.
  21. Don’t get excited in engineering emergencies. Keep your feet on the ground.
  22. Cultivate the habit of making quick, clean-cut decisions.
  23. When making decisions, the “pros” are much easier to deal with than the “cons.” Your boss wants to see them both.
  24. Don’t ever lose your sense of humor.
  25. Have fun at what you do. It will reflect in your work. No one likes a grump except another grump!
  26. Treat the name of your company as if it were your own.
  27. Beg for the bad news.
  28. You remember 1/3 of what you read, 1/2 of what people tell you, but 100% of what you feel.
  29. You can’t polish a sneaker. (Don’t waste effort putting the finishing touches on something that has little substance to begin with.)
  30. When facing issues or problems that are becoming drawn-out, “short them to the ground.”
  31. When faced with decisions, try to look at them as if you were one level up in the organization. Your perspective will change quickly.
  32. A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter — or to others — is not a nice person. (This rule never fails.)

An Interview on Leadership with James March

Joel Podolny, who was at the time the vice president of HR at Apple, sat down with James March for an interview published in Academy of Management Learning and Education.

As always, March offers counter-intuitive thinking and fascinating insight.

On the importance of leadership:

I think, however, that the importance (or unimportance) of leadership for the unfolding of history is hard to establish conclusively from the historical record. Most claims of leadership importance to history rest on counterfactuals: What would the course of history have been without X? Counterfactuals are inventions. They are essential to the art of historical storytelling, but they have only modest standing as evidence.

On exaggerating the role of the leader:

I think it is prudent to suspect that history as it is told and believed almost certainly exaggerates the causal significance of leadership.

On extinguishing joy, passion, and beauty:

My experience with business school students is that those who possess an instinct for joy, passion, and beauty often learn to suppress their expression by virtue of a sense that such instincts are unwelcome both in business schools and in business, thereby making the sense self-confirming.

This doesn’t just happen in business schools. Any organization (including governments), with strong norms, containing people in close physical proximity, and having a lot of contact with one another, is at risk.

What can business schools do better?

(1) They could become better models themselves of organizations that put joy, passion, and beauty at the center of their self-conceptions. One obvious route is to bring fundamental research closer to the educational core. (2) They could consciously combat the notion that all that business is about is maximizing shareholder value (or any similar thing).

Great literature:

that even if a student fails to see the relevance of great literature for business, reading such literature will be more valuable than any other activity in which he or she engages during the term.

Why is it that great literature encourages students to talk about the various leadership dilemmas more intelligently?

Two reasons … One reason is that the writings we recognize as great literature have been winnowed from the universe of writings by a long process that has left only extraordinary pieces. … The second reason is … [g]reat literature generally illuminates human dilemmas without resolving them. It stimulates thought, rather than replaces it.

Source: A Conversation With James G. March on Learning About Leadership

Related posts on March:
Promoting People In Organizations
On Leadership
The Ambiguities of Experience

Poaching Stars is a Terrible Idea to Improve Performance

In an effort to improve performance we often turn to the simple answer of trying to hire a star from another organization. This sounds like a great idea, is hard to argue with, and offers the promise of an instant performance boost.

In practice, most of the benefits turn out to be illusory.

The question is why?

One reason is that we think of the person as an isolated system when in reality they are not. The surrounding team, culture, and environment can amplify their success.

In his wonderful book,  Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition,

Michael Mauboussin explains:

A star’s performance relied to some degress on the people, structure, and norms around him—the system. Analyzing results requires sorting the relative contributions of the individual versus the system, something we are not particularly good at. When we err, we tend to overstate the role of the individual.

This mistake is consequential because organizations routinely pay big bucks to lure high performers, only to be sorely disappointed. In one study, a trio of professors from Harvard Business School tracked more than one thousand acclaimed equity analysts over a decade and monitored how their performance changes as they switched firms. Their dour conclusion, “When a company hires a star, the star’s performance plunges, there is a sharp decline in the functioning of the group or team the person works with, and the company’s market value falls.” The hiring organization is let down because it failed to consider systems-based advantages that the prior employer supplied, including firm reputation and resources. Employers also underestimate the relationships that supported previous success, the quality of the other employees, and a familiarity with past processes.

What’s happening a common mistake — we’re focusing on an isolated part of a complex adaptive system without understanding how that part contributes to the overall system dynamics.

For more information read the Harvard Business Review article: The Risky Business of Hiring Stars.