At a prior assignment, I had the pleasure of putting together a leadership course for the medical group’s company grade officers.
The focus was to help our young officers improve their leadership abilities and work on areas that needed improving, which we can all benefit from to some degree. In preparation of this course, I studied material about how to become a better leader, no matter what stage of your leadership journey.
I want to suggest a book that’s a good reference for today’s military leaders. This book has concise “pearls” that you may find both practical and useful. The book is Leading Others, Managing Yourself by Peter McGinn.
McGinn is a former clinical psychologist, who, following consulting engagements with United Health Services, eventually became a vice president for human resources and chief executive officer with that same organization. He distills over 25 years of leadership experience into 10 “laws.” I’ve listed a brief overview of these laws that relate to the challenges associated with what we face as leaders today.
Law #1: Do the right thing
Perhaps the most important trait of any leader is the desire to serve and to lead. In this tension lies a moral dilemma: Who should a leader serve when self-interest and constituents’ interests are at odds? When push comes to shove, constituents’ needs come first. This is painful because it means overcoming our natural instinct for self-preservation, however, it is enriching because it can help us to grow in ways we never thought possible.
Law #2: There is no right way
Sometimes as leaders your suggestions for improvement are not being welcomed by your people. When bringing new ideas into a new work environment that worked at your previous base, the leader needs to assess the situation thoroughly before proceeding. When initiating any new process the leader should always look for ways to improve it. Sometimes you have to walk a few feet down the unbeaten path in order to find a better way.
Law #3: Leadership is an action, not a title
Our legacy as leaders is determined not by what we think or say, but rather by what we do. No one will remember our intentions. Instead, we leave behind the result of our actions and what those actions mean to others.
Law #4: Ready…aim…fire
As leaders, we often spend so much time putting out fires others have started that we seldom give ourselves the luxury of making change happen in a thoughtful and reflective manner. Instead of reacting to threats surrounding a problem, how about creating a proactive plan to address the problem in a well thought out way, before it becomes a hot political issue? It is far more fun to create the future our way than to get burned in someone else’s fire.
Law #5: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it
You may have heard the saying, “If you can’t define it, you can’t measure it. If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. And if you can’t manage it, you can’t improve it.” As leaders, we expect our colleagues to adhere to our performance expectations, but we fail to adequately define these expectations or provide feedback. This is neither fair nor practical. Provide people with carefully crafted, defined, and measurable goals, and you’ll see marked improvement.
Law #6: If you and I are always in agreement, one of us is not necessary
It’s nice to have everyone agree with your point of view. The problem is, nothing will happen! As military leaders, we struggle with the notion that an “army of one” works well when a decisive action is required in critical situations. However, when dealing with complex, chronic leadership issues, teams of diverse individuals with contradictory points of view will often get us where we want to go faster and with far less conflict.
Law #7: If you are coasting, you are going downhill
So many leaders feel that they have worked hard to get to the top and want to coast for the rest of their career. Unfortunately, this comes with a price. I have known several medical officers who decided to “coast out” their careers by not taking on new challenges. They became increasingly less influential in their colleagues eyes. If we want to stay a vital part of a leadership team, we need to commit to personal and professional growth.
Law #8: One-dimensional thinking is always superficial
Which is more important, cost or quality? The clinical diagnosis or the service diagnosis? Our long term or short term goals? There is no one correct answer. When pondering complex issues, it is helpful to see the issue from multiple perspectives to arrive not at a solution, but at a balance that can be monitored and modified over time.
Law #9: If everyone is doing it, either it is the wrong thing or it is too late
Sometimes the majority doesn’t know what’s right; only what is popular. Leadership requires a vision to create a future that is unique, important, and relevant to others. Trust your instincts as a leader; you have all of the raw ingredients you need to succeed. Your job is to refine and strengthen them over time.
Law #10: Stop and smell the roses
Leadership is a marathon, not a short term sprint. It takes years to reach our potential as leaders. Between intense efforts to enact change, we must recharge ourselves so we are prepared for the long journey. Most of what you learn as a leader comes from times of reflection, putting together the pieces that you could not perceive in the heat of the race.
Lastly, take time to reflect and get away to your quiet place. This provides not only the energy, but also the motivation to continue on the journey. These “pearls” are useful and they serve as reminders to make us all better leaders in the end.