Lessons in Leadership

In honing leadership skills, it pays to take advice and inspiration wherever you can find it. That includes looking to the military.

Most of us know the term “oxymoron.” It’s essentially a phrase that seems self-contradictory. One common example is “military intelligence.”

This month’s “Human Side” column gives lie to that characterization. It describes a format the military uses for giving complete and crystal clear orders. When it comes to leading a team and directing projects, what is more important than communicating to all the right people exactly what must be done?


When leaders struggle

The plain fact is that the military, all criticism aside, has developed excellent methods for training and developing leaders — officers. Leadership is, to say the least, important for an organization whose job is to put warfighters and high-dollar equipment on the line in battles with incredibly high stakes.

Now, hierarchy and command-control approach that is essential in the military doesn’t translate very well to civilian workplaces. The streets are littered with the bleached bones of managers who tried the “my way or the highway” style of leadership. But that doesn’t mean civilian organizations can’t learn anything from the military.

Look at the five-part order format described in the column and ask yourself if following it, or something similar, could be helpful for a manager in almost any setting.

I know from experience how hard it can be to lead effectively. Many of us get promoted into leadership by virtue of being excellent performers. But we soon discover that being a leader takes entirely different skills than being a technician. And without proper training, we’ll flounder. And the result is that our department’s performance — and probably our service to customers, will suffer.


On the front lines

For an example, look to almost any retail setting you can think of. The fast-food restaurant that served you a chicken sandwich still raw on the inside, the excessive lines at the grocery store checkout, the hardware clerk who sold you exactly the wrong part to fix your kitchen faucet — all these are as likely to be failures of leadership and training as mistakes or negligence by the front-line people.

Many aspects of leadership are challenging — dealing with individual workers’ peculiarities, knowing how to inspire people to unite behind an initiative, giving feedback, fostering teamwork, determining compensation. But one of the most essential requirements of leadership is giving orders or, to put it more delicately, direction.


Finding the line

There’s often a fine line between giving too much direction (being a control freak or a micro-manager) and giving too little. One of my failings as a manager was buying a little too deeply into the idea that a leader should simply tell what must be done and let the subordinate decide how. That works fine when the subordinates are well experienced, but in my case they were not, and they needed more direction than I was giving.

Something like the five-part order format might have been useful for me to know. In all likelihood it would not be appropriate to follow in certain situations, but it could be a useful tool for a manager to have in his or her kit.

The point here is that where leadership skills are concerned, it pays to look for advice and help in multiple places, and the military easily can be one of them. Consider giving the “Human Side” article a good read, and giving the military order format a test spin on a project. It looks like a clear and simple way to get and keep a project on track, especially one — like many municipal and utility projects — that has a lot of moving parts. F

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Ted J. Rulseh, 877/953-3301; editor@mswmag.com.


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