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Civilian or military, leadership rests on the same basics

A good leader doesn’t have to bark orders to get good work from their team

There was a time when most business executives had previous service in the military. Broadly speaking, that was good news for their companies. A study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that firms run by CEOs with military experience
 perform better than those run by CEOs without military experience.

But with the switch to an all-volunteer service in 1973 that kind of experience has become less and less prevalent. The same Kellogg study found that fewer than 10 percent of the CEOs of large publicly-held firms have spent time in uniform.

The result is that when the Daedalus Group talks about using some of the leadership principals of the armed services, all too many people turn to Hollywood instead of personal experience to envision military leadership.  How many scenes have you watched where a superior officer dresses down a subordinate in order to spur him into action? It might make for good drama, but it doesn’t have much to do with reality. Gen. Colin Powell, looking back on a military career that took him all the way to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he doesn’t remember ever having to use the phrase, “That’s an order” while in uniform. Good leaders know how to clearly communicate their vision to the troops: the stakeholders, partners, colleagues and employees. It’s the key to creating a motivational climate where everyone is “on board” and passionately rowing in the same direction.

Individual attention

Cracking the whip yields only short-term results and even children often get resentful when the only reason for doing something is, “Because I said so.”  The days of command-and-control leadership are over!

To achieve long-term sustainable growth, your organization needs a different style of leadership. Today’s global economy requires additional skills like good communication, creativity, collaboration and the ability to create motivational climate.  No one knows more about leadership, strategy, discipline and creative thinking than the U.S. military’s top commanding officers. The armed forces make a point of providing solid leadership training that starts very early in the lives of each Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine.

Any flight instructor can tell you that not everyone learns the same way. Some people may need a kick in the rear end now and then, but for other people that tactic will do more harm than good. You have to know your people well enough to know what’s going to work for each person. For some people it’s a direct approach. For others it’s the latitude to think through a decision to their own conclusion.

All the way back in 1879, Gen. John Schofield told the graduating class at West Point that, “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself. While he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect towards others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.

Unfortunately, some executives still think that leadership means barking orders, and many a frontline supervisor is fond of fear, sarcasm and ridicule as the motivational tools of choice. Maybe that’s the environment they saw as they came up through the ranks and they are emulating the only models they know. But if you want your organization to sustain peak performance, you must break that cycle.


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