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Dynamic Dozen: Give Clear Direction, Then Follow Through

The ballplayer who loses his head, who can’t keep his cool, is worse than no ballplayer at all.  – Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig, NY Yankee great - Give Clear Direction, Then Follow ThroughIt’s baseball season again, and so we begin the annual Rite of the Green Grass and White Lines. Each year, baseball coaches struggle to give clear direction to help their teams make good decisions on the field and follow through with good execution. It’s rare to see major leaguers allow a ball to hit the ground between them, but it’s bound to happen at any given Little League game. How many times have you heard, I thought you had it?! The teams that win, the ones who don’t let those fly balls hit the ground, are well-led, coached, and drilled. Winning requires leadership from the players and the coaches alike. Off the field, to keep our “baseballs” from hitting the ground, then we have to master the art of giving clear direction, then following through.

After taking care of the people in our charge, leaders have to be concerned with getting the mission done. That requires us to give direction clearly, supervise it appropriately, and then follow through. This basic formula–task, supervise, follow through–is the same at every level of leadership, but the methods change as leaders rise in rank and responsibility. This skill is a crucial leadership skill for leaders at all levels to get their teams to the championship.

First Line Leaders Use “HandCon”

For first line leaders, “HandCon” is the way they operate. “HandCon” is military shorthand for direct, personal leadership–“hand control.” The time and distance between issuing orders (“direction”) and carrying out those orders (“execution”) is short. First line leaders personally issue orders, explain or even demonstrate tasks, and supervise execution. Success depends on checking things personally and seeing the comprehension of their instructions in the faces of their team. They learn quickly how to communicate, and occasionally demonstrate, the task they want their teams to perform. They can make on-the-spot corrections when things go awry, and they can see immediately when their team member’s motivation or training is deficient. In military parlance, these types of orders are usually called “fragmentary orders” if they’re simple or “field orders” if they’re more complex.

Senior Leaders Give Mission Orders

As leaders rise in rank and responsibility, the distance between “direction” and “execution” grows. A consequence of that distance means leaders have to practice the art of giving clear direction, and then following through in different ways since their teams will necessarily function without the leader’s personal supervision. As my Leadership Course instructors taught me at the Eisenhower School, “What got you here won’t make you successful here.” Leaders have to master new skills to effectively give direction, ensure their teams understand their instructions, and then follow up to be sure it’s done.

Senior leaders are leading other leaders, so they will give instructions to outline the desired end-state, boundaries, and overall intent. The military calls this type of leadership “Mission Command,” and so the orders are “mission orders.” Mission orders give the team boundaries, or rules, for getting to the desired end-state. Senior leaders have to define what they’re after and allow their teams to get to the finish line their own way. That doesn’t mean style or cost isn’t important, it just means leaders cannot rely on “HandCon” to ensure a task is well understood all the way to execution. Allowing for sufficient initiative and creativity while clearly explaining boundaries and end-state will get us much better solutions than if we had simply micro-managed the task. It also has the virtue of growing the next generation of leaders.

Call the Ball

A well led and practiced baseball team will communicate well, and execute on the field what they learned in drills. Just like that baseball team manager, leaders at all levels must learn how to communicate with their teams in ways that allow them to be successful when it’s time to go to work. If led effectively, your teams will call the ball and enjoy the game, too.  

Originally posted on GeneralLeadership.com


Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.

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