Leadership Lessons – 6 Rules to get you started

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

~John Quincy Adams

During the 24 years I served in the Army I met colonels and generals who were not leaders. This would seem contradictory to those who have not served, but just think about people you have worked with at different companies. Have you met people who inspired you to become more than you felt you were capable? How about those who only inspired you to survive? That leads to my first rule of leadership…

RULE 1: You can learn leadership from everyone you work with!

Remember, learning what NOT to do is still learning. I was fortunate that early in my career I had the pleasure of working with some amazing people who really helped develop my leadership style. When I first entered the Army I was not someone who people would have predicted would become a battalion commander responsible for the lives of 625 Soldiers. However, I was fortunate to be around people who helped mentor me. They helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses and provide me direction for improvement. Sadly, I have also worked with people who mistreat those who report to them.  The productivity of those people declined over time.  These lessons have taught me a great deal about the leader I want to be.  That takes us to rule number two…

RULE 2: Leadership is not taught, but rather learned.

I’m not saying that there is no value in reading leadership books. I’ve read many. However, every person is different and it is learning from trying the things you read about that help you become a better leader. As a cadet I spent a summer with the 101st Airborne Division as part of a training program West Point runs. The battalion commander, Dave Ohle, who would go on to retire as a Lieutenant General (3 stars), told the leaders of the unit that I was assigned to that I was in charge of a platoon that was going through an evaluation. I was rather arrogant and during one evaluation I lost site of the squad in front of me as we moved through a heavily wooded area. I didn’t say anything and kept moving. The Platoon Sergeant, Ken Price, came up behind me and said “Hey LT, do you know where the lead squad is?” I admitted I did not and what had happened. He simply replied, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re walking point.” What the last statement meant was that I was at the head of the platoon and as a result would not be in a good position to lead the unit if it were attacked. I had read many times of the value of asking questions, but it was this experience that drove it home and made me the leader I am today. That said, I would not have had that experience if Dave had not given me the chance to learn by making mistakes. That leads to rule number three…

RULE 3: Leading by example is not about micromanagement.

Managers micromanage while leaders give direction and inspire others. If the end result of a project is not what you expected the first person to blame is you. Ask questions such as “Did I give proper guidance?” “Have I done all I can to help the team understand what I want?” “Have I trained and mentored the team?” As a Brigade Operations Officer I was responsible for developing a training program to support two of our artillery battalions deployment to the National Training Center (NTC). I worked for a great commander, Mark Blum, who gave me his vision for what he wanted the units to learn and be capable of doing but did not tell me how he wanted it done. He left that up to the staff to figure out. We laid out a plan that included use of computer simulations. At that time, most computer simulations were not very productive and Mark was very hesitant about our plan. I asked him to trust me because we were going to leverage new technology that I had used as an instructor. The training went great and his boss said that we needed to share what we had done because it was going to become a required part of training for all units going to NTC. Mark came to me later and said, “You made me look better than I deserved.” That leads the rule number four…

RULE 4: An empowered team with clear direction can achieve more than any individual.

As the size of your team grows you will not be able to be in all places at all times. As a battalion commander stationed in the Republic of Korea our unit was given the mission to support the deployment of an infantry brigade to Iraq. To accomplish this task the battalion would be spread out all across the country. In looking at the plan we determined two things. First, the plan to load trains did not maximize the space available. Second, the current plan would require us to still be downloading trains as we were beginning loading equipment on ships. The size of the port area made this a potential dangerous operation. As complicated as this mission was I gave only two pieces of guidance. First, no one but me could turn down a mission. I made it clear that I would be the person who would make the call to pull a Soldier out of training for going to war to do deployment related work. Second, no train would leave the station with an opening on a railcar. The Soldiers at the two railheads would rework the load plan on site to meet my guidance. As a result we finished the rail operations ahead of schedule and had a day break before we began loading the ship. The unit later received the Army Chief of Staff Deployment Excellence Award for best operational deployment in the Army. When I spoke to the award committee they told me that our unit had decisions being made that in other units required a general officer to approve. That leads to my fifth point…

RULE 5: There is always someone in the room who is smarter than you about something.

The leaders who I would classify as the best were the ones who were most humble. No idea was judged based on who submitted it but rather on the idea alone. As I talked about earlier, there is value in saying “I don’t know.” Even Einstein worked with others because he knew they had value. No matter who the person is and what their responsibilities are, if empowered and valued, they will make positive contributions to the team. Speaking of team, that leads to my final point…

RULE 6: If you focus on what is best for the individual you will build a stronger team.

In the Army and in other organizations I have seen individuals held back from going to school, moving to a better position, etc. because they were “too important to the team.” Focusing on what is best for the team actually has a negative impact. If others see that the best performers are not being taken care of then there is no motivation to do their best. On the other hand, if you focus on taking care of individuals are rewarding them for performance others will see benefit to doing their best work and in the end, build a stronger team. This applies to yourself. I used to say that if I could not take vacation because I was too valuable then I was not doing my job to train others. In the Army it only takes one bullet for a change in leaders. A real leaders legacy is the ability to walk away and for nothing to change because he or she has built and outstanding team.

What other leadership rules do you think are important?  What leaders inspired you the most and why?


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