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Lessons From The Battlefield

Leadership insights that don't pull any punches.
November 12, 2009
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For the past four years, we have been infantry officers in the Marine Corps. We've each done two tours in Iraq. Nick was a platoon commander for one tour to Iraq and an executive officer for his second tour; Tim was a platoon commander on both tours and in between worked on the battalion staff.

Neither of us would claim to be the best lieutenants in the Marine Corps. We've made our share of mistakes and had our successes. We also learned a lot about leadership and management that we wish someone had told us as boot lieutenants reporting to the fleet. What bearing does this have on business? A lot.

True, there are some leadership rules in the Marine Corps that don't apply to the civilian world. For instance, if you can't do at least 15 pullups you are a terrible lieutenant and you'd better hit the gym; most CEOs don't need to worry about this.

But many of the most important lessons we've learned are simply about leadership and how people respond to it. These should be as useful in the office as they were in Iraq.

Also, as everyone knows, the keys to success are hard work, singleminded focus, intelligence, creativity and passion. This article is not about those things. We assume you have them, and instead offer some simple, practical rules you can follow to do a better job leading other people to follow your vision.

Respect is the surrency of success
If all you know about the military comes from movies, you might think that Marine Corps leadership is all snarling abuse and and harsh punishments. Nonsense. Few leaders, and even fewer young leaders, can succeed unless they treat the people around them with genuine respect.

It's true that people want desperately to be respected. A person who feels respected will perform better, more loyally, and with more initiative than a person who does not. And yet so often we see bosses and leaders who degrade their people. It's counterproductive.

The idea of respect is not new to many people, but actually being respectful is. Don't just go through the motions--that's not good enough. Have genuine respect for people, and demonstrate that respect in your actions.

Now, that's not easy. To do it, you have to reflect on your own leadership style and how you can change it to make those around you feel respected. During endless busy days it can be hard to focus on something so broad, but do it. It will make you a better leader.

Some ways to ensure your subordinates know you respect them:

Honor performance
No one in the Marine Corps ever gets a bonus, so positive reinforcement--the foundation of good leadership--has to come in the form of honors. You must recognize good performance. You must give your star performers special honors. Your people have to feel good about working with you.

Listen to your subordinates, and take their suggestions wherever possible
When a subordinate comes to you with an idea, bias your judgment, particularly if he is suggesting a change to a plan you made. Here's a good bias: If your subordinate's way is 60 percent as good as your way, and the person who has to execute it is the subordinate, let him have his way. He will execute his plan twice as well as yours simply because it is his. Second, whether his plan works or fails you usually win--if it works, you look good because you listened to a subordinate and changed your plan to a better one based on his advice; if it fails, the subordinate knows it was his plan and his mistake and so will work twice as hard to get things back on track.

Listen aggressively. You cannot listen with subordinates the way you do with your family and friends. Subordinates are naturally more timid and less likely to fight for their ideas; this is truer the more hierarchical your organization is. If you try to back and forth with subordinates the way you do with friends, you will be perceived as an arrogant know-it-all who doesn't listen, not as a master conversationalist. You have to aggressively pump your guys for their ideas.

When someone has an idea, your first thought should not be "Is this a good idea?" It should be "How can we make this work?"

Bend as much as you can on nonessential questions so you can be firm on the essential ones.

Listen up front so you don't have to change your plan later. If you announce a new plan without consulting your subordinates, you will have a miniature crisis as the consulation happens in real time in front of everyone.

Ask before you reprimand
If something is wrong, you should almost always ask why it's wrong before you begin reprimanding.

About a third of the time, there will be a good explanation or mitigating circumstance, and by asking first you will have saved yourself the pain of looking like an idiot, chewing someone out while they patiently wait for the chance to tell you you're overreacting.

The other two thirds of the time you can just go ahead and make the correction you need to make. It won't hurt you to have asked

Know how to give an order
No matter how collaborative your business, sometimes you have to tell other people what to do. But lots of people can't do it, even in the Marine Corps. Some are too timid to give an order despite the advantages of rank. Others can give the order but sound like condescending jerks.

The worst are like the nightmare boss from 'Office Space' who manage somehow to be weak, passive-aggressive and condescending all at the same time. Here's how to avoid being like him:

Don't be afraid to lead
We see people who are afraid to lead all the time--obviously, physically afraid. I don't mean afraid to leave the wire or lead a patrol--I mean afraid to insist on a standard, afraid to tell people what to do, afraid to demand quality. This fear manifests itself in several ways. Here are the most common:

There is some genetic, physical effect that makes it scary to lead. Everyone suffers from this fear, but very few admit it. Identify it in yourself and delete it.

Inspect what you expect
It means exactly what it looks like it does: If you expect your team to do something, inspect their work. This ensures that they did what you wanted them to do, demonstrates that you care about their output, and keeps them from becoming lazy and complacent. We like to say that the good ones like being inspected and the bad ones need it. This has to be true everywhere.

This is especially true of the least glamorous tasks. If your subordinates have to do the corporate equivalent of scrubbing toilets, go inspect their work when it's done--not because you doubt their ability to do the work, but because inspecting it demonstrates you care even about the unglamorous stuff. It shows that you're not above it either.

Make your expectations crystal clear
Almost no one does this well. The keys to getting it right:

If you can hire and fire people, you are in a great position. Because you can fire people, you can coach them to change; if they don't, get rid of them. If you can't hire and fire people, you've got to coach the ones you've got. Some guys can't be coached; those guys you have to task in a way that fits their strengths. The ones that can be coached, coach them.

Get over yourself, especially if you are a young leader
You have an MBA? Great. From Harvard? Wow, you must be a genius. We have news for you, kid: nobody gives a crap about your MBA or anything else you've done.

You're just like a million new lieutenants who have stood in front of a battle-hardened platoon. While you were in B-school, the people on your team have been doing actual work. Have some humility at any new job. Pay your dues. Take a few months to learn the business. Establish a reputation for competence, common sense, and listening before you try to get one for being a brilliant innovator and bold reformer.

Stand by the changes you implement
Once you've made a decision and put your name behind it, ride it hard. Particularly if a new plan or policy is unpopular or a major change to the status quo, people will be testing your will: is this going to be like the last 15 initiatives that died after a month, or is it going to stick around?

Be quick to reinforce a new plan with small, firm corrections, so that you don't have to freak out later. If you coolly reject all work that doesn't conform to your new standards, you will start getting what you want. If you let it slide for two weeks and then blow up about it at a meeting, you will look like a fool, and a weak one to boot.

Help subordinate leaders learn these lessons
The results that leaders underneath you get are important but how they get those results matters too.

If you have a stress artist, micromanaging martinet for a subordinate, he may make great things happen for you over the short term. Then when he leaves his current job, his team will collapse. Not so good for you after all.

Fix these problems up front.