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Lead as if You Won't Survive the Engagement
Lessons in Leadership from the Army
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is a philosophical approach to leadership that rethinks where we put the value in our output. It’s an ego killer in some ways but I think it’s more about an ego focus. This time from the leader to the team they are empowering.
One of the first things you have to accept when you take a leadership role in the military is that, when called to war, there’s a strong chance you won’t survive the engagement. In fact, you should plan on that.
This is why the cults of personality around a ‘hero’ leader look great in training or in corporate America, but when it hits the reality of humanity’s greatest leadership crucible, war, the best leader is someone different. It’s someone who doesn’t have to survive the engagement for the mission to still be successful.
One of the most humbling aspects I found being in the Army was something I captured in my forthcoming Novel on advanced AI where one character is caught in a situation with no way out:
The rockets didn’t care how good of a soldier you were, how much you could bench-press or squat, how good of a marksman you were, what sort of a diet you had, how sweet your gear was— When a warhead of that size locked onto your position with pinpoint accuracy, you couldn’t duck and dodge out of the way. No courage could deflect its trajectory. No moral or religious affiliation provided an aegis of protection.
It doesn’t matter how good of a leader you were. In fact, some of the best leaders were the ones heading a charge and were the first shot. My grandfather told a story of the D-Day Invasion of WWII where the officer and sergeant he loved the most stepped off their landing craft and one was cut down by gunfire and the other never resurfaced after stepping in the too-deep water.
Literally seconds into their attack the platoon was leaderless. Yet they rallied and executed and were successful in spite of it.
My grandfather said it was because the officer had held them to a high standard, delegated responsibility, and empowered the platoon to execute in challenging situations. When the officer died, his leadership didn’t. It carried on in the training, discipline, and memories of his platoon.
Lead as if You Won't Survive
When I was a production manager at Honeywell, I had a peer who loved coming back from a weeklong vacation to hear, “Oh! It’s so great you’re back! Everything is a mess!” Even more frustrating it was seen as something that made the leader valuable and irreplaceable.
I loved coming back from two weeks off and hearing, “It’s been two weeks already? It’s all been running smoothly.”
This was because I’d put in procedures, accountability, expectations, standard work, and other Lean Six Sigma and Leadership tools that allowed someone to fall into my role and keep the wheels rolling smoothly. I didn’t expect that they’d improve the performance, but I anticipated it wouldn’t fall apart while I was gone.
Yet this is a counter-intuitive success. When I first joined Honeywell, I was handed a production section and told by my manager “Welcome to Honeywell, you’ve now got the hardest section on the site. Go look at how Sensors is running to see good execution.” It was true. It was chaos. Deliveries were either 100% or 0% and averaged under 50%. We had racks of rework and a line of circuit cards that no one could ever find. The material was released in lumps and surges and staffing was not consistent.
A year later we had improved to a 95% on-time delivery and never dropped below 90%. Our rework was the lowest on site and we balanced the entire section to work smoothly. Those circuit cards no one could find? I mapped the value flow, found the issues, and smoothed it out till it became the cornerstone holding our performance up.
During one review of performance, I was bragging about what we had done. I was proud of the team. That same manager said, “Mike, come on, you’ve got the easiest section on the site! Go look at Sensors if you want a challenge.” How on earth did Sensors go from good to hard and mine go from hard to easy in 12 months?
It’s because the leader who took over for Sensors did the exact opposite of me. He was the one people greeted with “Thank goodness you’re back.” He’d created a cult of leadership that relied on him, not him empowering his team. He wasn’t a Lazy Leader (which is a shame), he was industrious, and he needed to have chaos to show his value.
He was also successfully unsuccessful. Every section he took over always ended in worse condition than it started. Yet in all the noise and conflagration, he got all the kudos for putting in the effort to keep everything afloat. He was rewarded for firefighting, so he just burned the place to the ground.
It’s why we have functional stupidity in organizations and feel like we keep doing the same thing over and over with no benefit.
But there is a solution, and it means we stop playing by the same rules of ‘success.’ The best leaders provide Direction, Energy, and Accountability It involves stabilizing processes, understanding where the value flows, and empowering the team to achieve.
In the Military (and civilian roles), it’s about always answering the Why, because when the What or How fails, or you aren’t there to help, the team will get it done anyway. It’s about delegating and holding proactive accountability, and about listening to and integrating your teams’ ideas so they have skin in the game.
It’s not about losing your ego. It’s about putting your ego on what really matters for long-term success. I was and am proud of my teams who hardly notice I’m gone on vacation and yet are excited when I return so we can move the needle to a higher performance yet again. I’m proud that I can leave an organization and it takes months before the chaos starts to show again. I’m proud that I can hand a detailed continuity book to my replacement, and it has all the tips and tricks to be successful.
I try to lead as if I won’t survive the engagement because my legacy as a leader is then something much more than myself.
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