Dear General McClellan, if you’re not going to use the army, may I borrow it for a while?
~ Abraham Lincoln
The squadron was broken and the commander was the reason. He empowered no one, made all the decisions himself, and insisted on controlling even the most minute details in everything we did. By any measure, the commander was what we call a “single point of failure.”
The result of this sort of leadership was predictable: people simply refused to take responsibility for anything. Knowing he would likely countermand their orders–or worse, berate them for making a decision in the first place–the commander’s direct reports pushed all their decisions to him. Mid-level and first line leaders couldn’t understand why their bosses wouldn’t make a decision. Eventually, the business of the squadron ground to a halt. Even the simplest decisions seemed impossible to make, no one took any initiative, and morale was very low. Finally, that commander was relieved of his command for misconduct, and that came as no surprise to anyone in the squadron. We all saw it coming.
The Principle of “Leaders Lead”
In my book, Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I outline my leadership principle of “Leaders Lead.” Unlike my wayward squadron commander, good leaders cultivate and grow leaders around them. When I meet my staff for the first time, I emphasize how important it is for everyone to exercise the authority I give them. There’s two practical reasons for this: efficiency and growth. First of all, senior leaders’ time is very valuable, and if it is consumed making decisions for others, then that colonel or CEO is not doing their job. We need our senior leaders focused on the strategy not tactics. Empowering our teams to make decisions opens the aperture so those senior leaders can see pitfalls and opportunities much sooner. The second reason to push decision making out and down is to grow new leaders. In the military, we’re always training someone else to do our job. Military people change jobs often–we get promoted and we move–so there’s also the need for redundancy should there be casualties. In business, people may be reluctant to train others to do what they do for fear of losing their job to their trainee. However, good leaders know even in business no one has a lifetime contract. Furthermore, people get sick or have to travel. Building redundancy into the organization ensures we can continue to operate when someone is away from their desk, and we can eventually grow new leaders. Many a professional network is expanded through developing leaders, even if they move on to other firms.
Networks Are More Agile Than Hierarchies
Perhaps there was a time in the past when leaders could afford the time to centralize all the decision making, but the 21st century requires far more agility than that. In the military, we expect our cohort of junior leaders to understand the commander’s intent and make dozens of parallel decisions aimed at achieving that mission. Business in the Information Age must operate with the same agility. Time to Market (TTM) cycles are shrinking as new technology and new sources enter the manufacturing sector. In the tech sector, TTM can be mere weeks or days from idea to offering. Companies who use networks like those described in Gen Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams will always be ahead of those that demand adherence to hierarchy. When the C-suite execs all the way to front line leaders empower their teams to make decisions and execute, the company can be very agile and has a much greater chance of success. This is exactly the way America’s military fights and the reason we’ve been so successful. Senior leaders give broad guidance, junior leaders dissect specified and implied tasks, then execute in concert with units around and supporting them. This system creates a network where we can rapidly respond to dynamic conditions and bring maximum force to bear at critical points. Centralized control is very slow and extremely unresponsive. From blitzkrieg during WWII to the destruction of the Iraqi Army in 1990 and 2003—highly centralized control is no match for a network operating in three dimensions. The lesson for all leaders in those military examples is if you demand centralized control you will never be able to respond fast enough to be first.
Grow Your Own and Be Agile
When leaders at all levels push out authority and empower others to make decisions, the entire organization benefits. In the military that means accomplishing our mission–in business that means a healthier bottom line.
Mickey 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 blogs.