7 Leadership Lessons From the Battlefield To the Boardroom

The demands of business leadership are changing as globalization and a growing flood of information make the jobs of leadership teams more complex. Can the old hierarchical style of leadership keep up? What should take its place?

A recent WSJ article interviewed retired Generals Stan McChrystal and Mike Flynn about their experiences on the battlefield and how to apply those lessons towards business. While the meaning of competition may be different for business versus the military, the principles of defeating the competition through a focused strategy and great execution are the same. Here are their seven leadership takeaways from the battlefield for the boardroom.

1. Location is everything.
Our customers, staff, vendors and other people we interact with daily help increase idea flow (or completely block it). Silos often divide businesses physically and culturally, and communication becomes stifled and trust deteriorates because interaction is less frequent. Sitting at the same desk every day and interacting with the same people inhibits new perspective and innovative sparks. Einstein explains this concept well: “no problem can be solved from the same thinking that created it.” So, constancy and habit can cancel the potential for any opportunity to evolve, and location is a major determinant of this. Peter Drucker calls this “managing by walking around.” Location is everything.

2. Decisions, decisions.
Your success is the sum total of all the decisions you make. Decisions are becoming more complex in today’s competitive environment as the amount of information grows exponentially hour-by-hour. As a result, combing through mounds of data can consume large amounts of time. One solution when you need more time to make decisions is to commit time in your calendar to decide. Block a specific constant time weekly (such as every Thursday at 2pm) for moving the needle on critical decisions.

3. Clarity Drives Everything!
Focused, clear and concise language is critical to decision-making. It leaves little room for ambiguity. In my experience as a business consultant on growth and team development, a company’s strategy often lacks clarity. For example: Being the “Number One Marketer of [name your product or service] In the World” isn’t a clear strategy. The term “number one” can be interpreted as revenue, or profit, or market share. Jack Welch states “strategy is not a lengthy action plan. It is the evolution of a central idea …” Therefore, if you cannot clearly state your strategy in a sentence – you probably don’t have one.

4. What got you here won’t get you there.
A new employee out of college has a limited view of business simply because he or she does not have practical experience. Moving up the chain into management, your business lens or perspective widens with more exposure and more insight gained. Moving into a position of leadership develops the broadest view of your business landscape. Your responsibility is greater arranging the pieces of the puzzle so they “fit” while also being in sync with your company’s purpose.

Here is the Leadership Challenge: the tendency to depend on the same methods that made you a successful manager and apply that know-how to leadership. It worked well before and got you promoted. Right? What makes a good manager is different from what makes a good leader. It takes feedback and self-awareness to bring this realization to light.

5. Speed and agility.
Information travels faster today than ever before. The speed and inter-connectivity of global partnerships today creates the need for a new a new capability – businesses must adopt and adapt if they want to remain competitive. This new capability is agility.

Agility is a company’s skill to detect and act upon new opportunities before their competition does. The ability to move at a moment’s notice requires clear and consistent communication from above (Boardroom C-Suite) and reinforced from the bottom (Battlefield managers).

6. Linking strategy to execution.
Cited in the WSJ article, the inability to link strategy to execution is one of the largest problems company leaders face. They often lack the context of what the problem looks like and how to deal with it effectively. The understanding a soldier has on the battlefield is much different than that of the theater commander. Yet both ultimately aim towards the same purpose. The challenge is maintaining clarity on that purpose.

7. Fuse it all together.
During his tenure as commander of Joint Special Operations Command, General (Ret.) Stan McChrystal created fusion cells. Fusion cells are designed to bring together intelligence expertise from multiple agencies forcing a culture of transparency. They serve as a central location to communicate and collaborate towards a common goal that every agency shared: winning. The results were impressive: a 94 percent increase in monthly raids between 2004 and 2006.

Regardless of what sector or industry you work in, a leader’s job isn’t just to make decisions that benefit your company. Nobody can do this alone. No single person can possibly have all the right information all the time. Instead, a leader’s job is to create a culture where employees can make decisions independently because they understand the long and short-term objectives of the company and implications of those decisions.

Being under fire in the battlefield just helps speeds up the process!

Contact me to discuss how these leadership lessons can apply to you and your company.

© 2015-2020 David Paul Carter.

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