understanding leadership

My introduction to leadership came fairly early, as I was in Army Cadets and took my first leadership course at age fourteen. Every Summer through high school I would go to Cadet camp, with other boys who looked, acted, and sounded like me. I finished school and joined the Army thinking I had leadership potential. The Army thought so, as I was accepted into military college to become an officer.

College was a bit like Cadet camp, with drill and military stuff that I was used to. There were no women until my last year, when the first female officer cadets entered RMC. So I had no female peers, and on graduation went to an Infantry unit, which was only men at the time. The introduction of women to an all-male military school was not without its challenges. Many years later one of the first-year students for whom I was ‘responsible’ — more like I was responsible for making their lives difficult — told me that she appreciated that I had treated the men and women equally in our section. Several of my colleagues had not. I’m not sure why I had this moral compass, but it’s likely from my mother who has lived a life of many challenges and raised us in a disciplined way. She had grown up in what could be called the Prussian military tradition.

Infantry Officer Training, CFB Gagetown 1980

Anyway, off I went to my first Infantry unit, quite certain that I had leadership ability because I was an officer. My time passed well and I learned how to work under challenging conditions, but still only with fit, motivated, and mostly young men. After seven years as a Cold Warrior, I decided I needed a real world challenge and transferred to the medical services. My previous post on work is personal covers some of these years in more detail. My time in the medical branch only lasted five years and then I re-skilled as a training specialist where I developed helicopter training until I left the services in 1998.

In hindsight I believe that one advantage that my lateral military career of 21 years gave me was the ability to see the system from where it mattered — the bottom. My rank of Captain for fourteen years was the working rank for a junior officer. I was a journeyman officer, good to go anywhere, but usually not placed in charge. The only way I could get things done was through influence, not direction. One thing I learned early was to get to know all the ranks below you. They can make your life a lot easier and help get things done, often outside the chain of command. I also found many of the junior ranks easier to talk to, as we were not competing with each other. While in the medical services I learned how to work with a wider variety of people, and now more women, as well as specialists in fields I barely understood. Later in the Air Force I worked with other types of specialists and had to constantly learn to keep up, especially as we were introducing new technologies like flight simulation.

I worked for a lot of officers over those 21 years. Some were very good, most were average, and a few were quite bad. Many lacked a broad perspective of the outside world. The ones who were progressing fast up the ranks had little time for reflection, and their command tours were usually only two years. I once had a chat with a senior officer whom I had known a bit while in the military. We were on a plane and had lots of time to talk. The one thing I noticed, which I have seen frequently elsewhere with career officers, was the lack of curiosity. There is such a sense of certainty of purpose and mission among senior officers in general that it seems that curiosity has been pushed to the side. Neo-generalists do not make good career officers.

I am reflecting on what I have learned about leadership over several decades as I continue to write more about the subject. I co-wrote an article with my friend Kenneth Mikkelsen saying that the best leaders are constant learners, and I firmly believe that. I also see that leadership in a network is different than in a hierarchy where positional power is clear. In networks, leadership is helping make the connections stronger and smarter.

I do not have the answers, though I have a few ideas. But collectively we need to formulate better ways of looking at leadership. For example, tools such as performance management systems are proven to be broken. Many organizations still spend vast resources on annual individual performance reviews.

For example, performance management systems cause:

1. Gaming 81% of the time
2. Information manipulation 74% of the time
3. Selective short-termism 55% of the time
4. Give an illusion of control
5. Negatively affect social relationships 81% of the time

Source: Helen Sanderson on LinkedIn

In 2018, let’s see if we can do better.

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