Guns and Roses – Leadership in the armed forces

No, this is not about the American hard rock band with the numerous internal fights and frictions, normally spelled “Guns N’ Roses”. It is instead about the quite surprising fact, for me, of finding so much enlightened insight into modern, involving leadership in the military.

In the same way as you normally don’t see any connection between guns and roses, so I didn’t really expect to find nuggets of leadership lessons learned in an institution normally perceived as devoted to harsh discipline and dehumanizing its inhabitants. So I present a bouquet of roses to these forward thinkers wearing guns as well.

I grew up at a time where it was an expected sign of coolness to be bashing the military. I didn’t serve in the military, so my actual credibility regarding the facts is pretty low. And in our “soft” Scandinavian societies it is normally not considered a sign of good taste to take input from the armed forces, Mother Teresa is more like it!

However, in the quest for understanding the development of leadership I dived into a lot of material from notable military personalities, and was positively surprised. In the last article I wrote about Stanley McChrystal’s book “Team of Teams”; this time I will be stepping through an overview of a few others who have contributed.

At the same time, I would like to encourage everybody to also take these inputs with a pinch of salt. The military is a very, very special domain by all accounts. People are risking their lives, you could say motivation is pretty extreme. The whole concept of warfare is to win and make the other party loose. Although many neo-Taylorists view business the same way, as a null-sum-game, it is not all there is. There is a common good in society and between countries that has to be kept clear in the picture, at least in my view. So take all the good input, but be aware of the filters that these good people see the world through.

David Marquet

Recently one of my good colleagues pointed me in the direction of David Marquet, former captain of the American nuclear submarine Santa Fe.

There are several video clips of Marquet’s presentation, here is a good one one given at a talk at google, that is a perfect start. He has also written a book called Turn the Ship Around, definitely to be recommended.

The essence of Marquet’s message is that the top down leadership style does not work optimally in complex scenarios. The prevailing leadership style is one of the leader commanding the details and the subordinates obeying. This style was developed for the industrial age where all we wanted was the hands of people, not their heads. Now, however, complex situations require every little grey cell of everybody involved to find good solutions.

Marquet’s epiphany came a few weeks after being assigned as captain of the Santa Fe, instead of a ship in the class of submarines that he had trained for in more than a year. During a routine exercise running on batteries, he gave a command to go “ahead two-thirds”, the commanding officer in the control room repeated the order and nothing happened. Marquet asked “What is going on? ” and the operator said “this submarine does not have a two thirds setting!”.

Marquet realized that here they had a crew that was trained in compliance and a captain that was trained for the wrong submarine. His conclusion was: “We are going to die!”, and he decided to change his leadership style.

There is no need to re-tell the whole story, listen to it or read it for yourself. The end result was that the Santa Fe from being the worst ship in the navy became the best and most highly rated by its peers. It also was the ship that had highest re-enlisting rate of the crew and the one that produced the most leaders out of its crew.

From the classic fear-based environment, taken directly from the navy’s handbook:


Marquet and his crew managed to escape this paradigm and go from 1 thinker and 134 doers to 135 active leaders. He concludes that “fear” is the single greatest inhibitor of people actively participating and instead remaining locked into a corner of “what do you want me to do?”.

They also coined the phrase: “There is no more ‘they’ on the Santa Fe”, there is only “we”. The group of people shifted from a blaming culture (“they did it”) to one of accepting responsibility together (“we did it!”). Marquet says that when coaching organizations he always looks for the “we-they boundary”, that’s where people’s concept of the team ends. It is the leader’s responsibility to expand that boundary so that the free flowing of ideas and correction can expand. In his view great leaders don’t tell people what to do, he gradually builds teams that don’t need to be told.

Norman Schwarzkopf

Stormin’ Norman as he was frequently called in the media rose to fame during the first Gulf War, operation Desert Storm. He was in many ways a more traditional military man, who could be very harsh on subordinates or fellow generals if helt they lacked decisiveness. He was brusque and hot tempered, and had little tolerance for low standards or stale conditions, as can be seen from the following quote:

Particularly when you’re dealing with very high ranking people, you know, you have to get their attention, they are used to, by their rank, of having their own way and doing their own thing and when it’s necessary for all to work together on something, sometimes you have to hit the mule between the eyes with a two by four to get its attention. Norman Schwarzkopf
Schwarzkopf like the others already mentioned also wrote a book (It Doesn’t Take a Hero) and went on the speaking circuit. Several people have quoted and commented on his 14 points of leadership:

  1. Leaders lead people, not systems or processes. This seems quite obvious and simple, however it’s stunning to see how often leaders can lose sight of this. I’ve seen it over and over again. When the focus becomes the process, nothing gets accomplished and everyone seems to lose.
  2. Character. People pick the character (ethics, sense of morality) to follow during times of crisis. People want to follow someone who has the strength of character to do the right thing. A person with character quickly earns respect, which is another essential of a great leader.
  3. Don’t tell them how to do the job! Allocate resources, set standards, and the results will exceed expectations. Leaders do not deal with how to get the job done, they surround themselves with talent, allocate resources, remove roadblocks and allow the talent to excel.
  4. Leadership must be respected, even though not loved. Make it happen and take responsibility. You can delegate authority and still take responsibility. It is more important to be respected than to be loved. Leaders do not seek to be pleasing first.
  5. The true rewards of leadership come from leadership itself – not the next promotion or tangible reward. Do not seek rewards; leadership is its own reward.
    No organization will get better until leadership admits that something is broken. The prevalent can do attitude must be willing to accept you can’t do before you know something has to change.
  6. The climate must allow people to speak up.
  7. Leaders establish goals for an organization. They must be understood and know their role in reaching the goal. FOCUS is the number #1 goal in the military. The greater the number of goals, the more confusion you get. Creating focus is the number #1 priority for a leader. Excellent leaders instill focus by creating shared goals that are clear and understood; everyone understands their roles in achieving the shared goals.
  8. Leaders set high standards; they don’t accept low standards. They set expectations. People go to work to succeed, not to fail.
  9. Leaders set high standards and clarify their expectations. They then expect that people will go to work on achieving these standards.
  10. Recognize and reward success – it is infectious. Failure is contagious. Leaders recognize and reward success. They understand deeply that both successes, as well as failure, are contagious.
  11. Accept a few mistakes. Provide the latitude to learn. Leaders accept a few mistakes but also, create the latitude and atmosphere to learn.
  12. When placed in command, take charge. Even if the decision is bad, you have set change in motion. It is better than being stagnant. When placed in command, take charge.
  13. Do what is right. It is a sign of character. Have the strength of character – a prerequisite to having the courage to do the right thing. Do the right thing – have the moral courage to do the right thing.
  14. I would probably not make the list like that, but it impresses me that Schwarzkopf has so much focus on people and not the process, he was clearly not a bureaucrat, see his point 3. It is also clear that he left people to decide how to do things instead of micromanagíng. He also understood that learning requires safety so that mistakes are accepted for the sake of learning. He is also very vocal about character and doing the right thing.

He also added elsewhere his concern for the people under his command:

Leaders love their “troops” (teams) and let them know in many ways. Another aspect of leadership I’ve seen hold true. When the people we lead truly know that we care, it can make all the difference.

Colin Powell

Colin Powell was born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, New York. His parents were Jamaican immigrants. In his own words, he was a street kid. He didn’t have a particularly easy time in school, and struggled to graduate. Nevertheless he managed to rise through the ranks of the military and became the first African American to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993 and later United States Secretary of State, serving under U.S. President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005,

Powell has written several books, and has been very popular as a speaker. Not surprisingly, his main thrust has always been that more or less everything is possible as long as you maintain integrity and hard work.

For the purpose of this discussion the message about leadership that rings loudest is Powell’s persistent insisting on trust in an organization being the most important ingredient. Powell does not seem to have elaborate models of organization or communication. Instead he had nose for whom he could trust at all levels and how to build trust also across cultures and political dogma; this carried many of his solutions through.

Trust is the glue that an organization together and the lubricant that keeps it moving forward.

Another characteristic in Powell’s view was that the leader was there for those under him, not the other way around. For years we have used one of his quotes to characterize the recommended attitude of a scrum master:

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

In fact this was what he did during Operation Desert Storm. Powell clearly acted as a buffer, a filter and a psychiatrist for Schwarzkopf, who had severe difficulties dealing with the Washington establishment meddling with battleground decisions.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower was in charge of the landing in Normandy as Supreme Chief Commander of all the allied forces. He was the opposite of the other flamboyant WWII generals (Patton, Montgomery and McArthur), meticulously working on plans to reduce uncertainty, but he knew the limitations of plans as seen in one of his famous quotes:

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.

He is also credited (probably not correctly) for creating the famous sentence:

“Every battle plan only lasts until the first contact with the enemy”

He was a collaborator, not just giving orders. He tried to learn: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you”. Although he knew that often the the final decision was his, he relied very much the advice of others. He wasn’t afraid to let people express different opinions, he knew how to create an atmosphere of psychological safety. This process, he used both in the army and in the White House.

He did want to be labelled a hero. Years later as the president, people criticized him for not being decisive and forceful. Instead he generously let people around him take credit for ideas or results; this resulted in loyalty and top performance from people around him.

Eisenhower never criticized people personally, or attacked their character. He once said,

“A man will respect you and perhaps even like you if you differ with him on issues and on principles. But if you ever challenge his motives, he will never forgive you. Nor should he.”

During the war Eisenhower visited the troops, he spent hours with the paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division before they took off for Normandy, he said:.

“I did my best to meet everyone from the general to private with a smile, a pat on the back, and definite interest in his problems,”

This was not a one-sided thing. He wanted to inspire the troops to fight. But he also visited them because they inspired him to go on. Eisenhower believed that it was the strength, courage and wisdom displayed by the troops that allowed him to lead. This is a sure sign not only of his humility – an attribute of great leaders – but also of his pragmatism. He held the view that the best way to get others to perform to the best of their ability is to believe in them.

Eisenhower’s relationship with subordinates was quite advanced at the time and can serve as inspiration.

John Boyd

Now here is something completely different. John Boyd was a fighter pilot and as flamboyant and boisterous as they come. He participated in the Korean war and went on to become a trainer of fighter pilots. He earned himself nicknames like “The Mad Major” for the intensity of his passions, and “Genghis John” for his confrontational style. In this context, the important thing is his creation of the Energy-Maneuverability theory, or E-M theory of air combat together with Thomas Christie, a mathematician. Although not generally well known, a part of his theory, known as the OODA loop, has been quoted in several connections. Some people have used it to describe business tactics and competitive maneuvers. His theory went on to become the backbone of the US Marines’ strategy of maneuver warfare.


At first view, the OODA loop looks like an expanded version of Deming’s PDSA loop, but there is a lot more to it. It will receive its own article, where we will try to formulate the application of the Boyd’s work in the context of leadership.

True to his controversial persona Boyd also studied the reasons for the success of the German Blitzkrieg, something nobody really had dared to do, as the Nazis were considered evil. An aspect of the classic confirmation bias, where we predominantly seek input from those we know we agree with.

For now it will have to suffice to point to the centrality of the centerpiece of “Orient”. Boyd is very specific on, that in fast-moving environments with lots of unexpected things happening, the most important thing is to be constantly orienting ourselves to best understand the present. This comes pretty close to Dave Snowden’s insistence on constant sense-making in the complex domain.

Boyd is also very clear on that our view of the present is not only incomplete, as we can never manage to get the full picture before the situation has changed, but our orientation is also deeply influenced by our grand heritage of experiences, cultural background etc. A major effort during orientation is to fight falling into cognitive biases and basing decisions on seeing the world through distorting filters.

Conclusion

There is a lot to learn from all these people with one or the other military background, and we will try to extract this learning in subsequent articles and chapters.

I want to finish off by re-issuing a warning against just falling in mindless and blind admiration of these “heroes”. The military context is very different from our daily lives in organizations, if you don’t get it right in the military, you die; that is one extreme form of motivation. In combat goals are hands-on in the extreme, no-one is in doubt. The personalities that thrive in a military context are also quite different from many of those we meet in everyday life.

However, the lessons about creating trust, psychological safety and confidence that enables fast learning and fast reaction to changing circumstances are valid. These insights have existed for a long time in the military as the battlefield is the ultimate complex domain. Our organizations have lately been thrown into similar complexity. That is why we can learn from these people.