Leadership Dec 1, 2014

Don’t Run in the Pentagon

Lead­er­ship lessons from a career in the military.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

Michael Musso

Over the course of my 25 years of mil­i­tary ser­vice, I have acquired valu­able lessons in lead­er­ship, time man­age­ment, and orga­ni­za­tion­al oper­a­tions. Since sol­diers are short on time, shar­ing these lessons with them as suc­cinct­ly as pos­si­ble com­mu­ni­cates both the idea I want to get across and the val­ue I place on their time. While the mil­i­tary is not the board­room or the exec­u­tive suite, fun­da­men­tal ideas like these should be applic­a­ble to your own work as an executive.

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Every step you take shows your lead­er­ship, so don’t run in the Pen­ta­gon.

You are stand­ing in line for cof­fee at your company’s cafe­te­ria one morn­ing when a direc­tor darts by with a print­ed Pow­er­Point slide in his hand. You may start to spec­u­late: What could pos­si­bly be wrong? Has some­thing dras­tic hap­pened that we don’t know about? Is that one piece of paper going to save the com­pa­ny from immi­nent demise?

Now imag­ine a Colonel or Navy Cap­tain run­ning past you in the halls of the Pen­ta­gon. Has World War III start­ed? Should we all be run­ning? Keep­ing a cool head projects an aware­ness of the larg­er sit­u­a­tion and the ways your actions may be inter­pret­ed by those around you.

Rec­og­nize the impor­tance of flex­i­bil­i­ty in time man­age­ment because your best-laid plans may not sur­vive first con­tact with the ris­ing sun.

In the mil­i­tary, as in many orga­ni­za­tions, the demands of the day can shift sud­den­ly. With this in mind, man­agers and exec­u­tives should empha­size the cre­ation of flex­i­ble, proac­tive plans with a focus on achiev­ing goals instead of sim­ply react­ing to the per­ceived cri­sis du jour. Fail­ure to com­mu­ni­cate pri­or­i­ties leaves every­one in sus­pense and may have team mem­bers wrong­ly assum­ing the newest request super­sedes oth­er work priorities.

Flex­i­bil­i­ty is also required to under­stand and react to the nuances of your orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture. I remind my Sol­diers nev­er to try to turn in ammu­ni­tion at the ammu­ni­tion hold­ing area on Fri­day after­noons. Why? Hold­ing areas are staffed by work­ers who are very eager to close up shop for the week­end. If the hold­ing area clos­es before you get through the line to check in your ammu­ni­tion, you are going to be babysit­ting it until Mon­day morn­ing. Sched­ule accordingly.

Prac­tice tac­ti­cal patience, or think before mov­ing toward the sound of the guns.

Most peo­ple would instinc­tive­ly recoil from the sound of gun­fire in the dis­tance. In the mil­i­tary, we are con­di­tioned in many cas­es to do the oppo­site. But if young pla­toon lead­ers move too quick­ly, based on incom­plete or gar­bled infor­ma­tion, they may dis­cov­er that they have placed the pla­toon deep­er into the enemy’s line of fire.

Lead­ers and man­agers are respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing a cul­ture where tac­ti­cal patience is prioritized.

As the pri­ma­ry con­duit of crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion, pla­toon lead­ers need to keep a clear head and an eye on the entire field at crit­i­cal points in a bat­tle. This requires tac­ti­cal patience, or allow­ing a sit­u­a­tion to devel­op before react­ing. Lead­ers are then pre­pared to syn­chro­nize the infor­ma­tion flow­ing into and out of the unit com­mand post, pro­vide time­ly and incre­men­tal­ly coher­ent infor­ma­tion, and react decisively.

Oth­er orga­ni­za­tions expe­ri­ence sim­i­lar con­di­tions when faced with a cri­sis. Lead­ers and man­agers are respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing a cul­ture where tac­ti­cal patience is pri­or­i­tized. This can be done by stress­ing that report­ing pro­ce­dures include strict adher­ence to report­ing chan­nels, there­by min­i­miz­ing the chance for incom­plete answers or missed reports. Demon­strat­ing con­fi­dence and intesti­nal for­ti­tude relax­es both sub­or­di­nates and superiors.

Cir­cu­late the bat­tle­field with­out giv­ing orders.

As a leader, one of the most impor­tant tools for under­stand­ing the cli­mate of your orga­ni­za­tion is through con­ver­sa­tion with your teams. In flat­tened orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures, this kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is often encour­aged. But the military’s hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture can inhib­it low­er-rank­ing sol­diers from speak­ing up to their superiors. 

A recep­tive bat­tle­field cir­cu­la­tion, where I essen­tial­ly go around to the troops and speak to them with­out giv­ing them any orders, puts them at ease and makes them more like­ly to tell me what they see, what they need, and what they think will help them be effec­tive. I ask them about their fam­i­lies, about the con­di­tions around them, and about whether they have the resources to do what is being asked of them.

As an exec­u­tive, you may be hard-pressed to sense every­thing that is hap­pen­ing through­out your orga­ni­za­tion, and sub­or­di­nates may not engage you in con­ver­sa­tion for fear of being hand­ed addi­tion­al work. Rou­tine­ly cir­cu­lat­ing among staff in their envi­ron­ment helps to shape your knowl­edge, pro­vides sit­u­a­tion­al under­stand­ing of the cor­po­rate cli­mate, and ensures sub­or­di­nates under­stand cor­po­rate pri­or­i­ties. Shar­ing what you have learned in these walk­a­bouts,” with­out attri­bu­tion, gen­er­ates buy-in from your direct reports and encour­ages oth­ers to be more open about what is hap­pen­ing at all lev­els of the company.

Col. Michael Mus­so is U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fel­low at the Kel­logg School of Management.

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