Would you pass the 10-Day Leadership Challenge?

There isn’t much point in running your own business unless you take advantage of some of the freedom that it gives you. You’re not a full-time employee so you can choose what you spend your time working on.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to the British Army’s Recruitment and Training Division, Warrant Officer and RSMs conference. I was asked to present some thoughts on Empowerment and its role in building a high performing culture. I then went onto RMAS Sandhurst to talk to Officer Cadets about the OODA Loop and its role in self-development.

As I reflect on the week, it was a real privilege to be invited back to an organisation that truly understands the value and need for great leadership.

When I finished my speech to the Warrant Officers and RSMs, I made it clear that in this organisation they were ‘tinkering with the F1 race car’ whilst the majority of other organisations were ‘learning to drive’.

The maturity of the conversation about leadership is far more advanced in the military than it is in any other environment where leadership usually falls under the remit of HR or even Learning and Development.

This is illustrated by the fact that the Army doesn’t delegate leadership because it knows that it can’t. The Generals at the very top set the example for people to follow. It’s not what they say that matters – it is how they behave that counts; they understand this and take this responsibility seriously.

I think that this is best characterised by the CGS’s ‘Leadership Test’ that was displayed on walls around the conference centre. It is a simple list of ten reflective questions designed to get leaders at all levels to consider their own behaviour. It’s the mirror that everyone from Private Soldier to General holds up and uses to reflect on how they are leading their men.

Leadership is the foundation of high performance. Toxic leaders create toxic cultures. Toxic cultures create more toxic leaders which kill organisations in the long-term.

These reflective questions are a practical approach to leadership by example.

Take a question, write it down and spend some time reflecting on it. Take some notes, create some actions around what you could do to improve your own performance. In ten weeks, if you’ve implemented the actions, I guarantee you will be a better leader without having spent a penny on leadership development.

How well do you know your soldiers?

Because if you don’t know them, you can’t lead them. How can you motivate and develop someone if you don’t know what they want out of the job? How can you align their personal aims to that of your organisation if you don’t know what they want out of life? If they don’t know the answers to these questions, it is your job as a leader to help them find them. This is a practical approach for how to do that.

Do you listen, do you encourage learning, and do you set sensible constraints and then allow your soldiers to learn from honest mistakes?

This was one of the key questions from the conference on empowerment. Gary Pierce, the Command Sergeant Major challenged the audience with the question, ‘when was the last time you delegated to the point of discomfort?’

Delegating to the point of discomfort means that you are giving your subordinates real responsibility, not just delegating the tasks that you don’t want to do. Over the long-term, this is how you develop them so that they’re able to step into your shoes and do your job. If you don’t delegate to the point of discomfort, you are robbing your people of the opportunity to develop.

This article might be helpful in understanding what you can/can’t delegate. The key is to delegate the right task to the right individual. Get either of these wrong and you will demotivate or stress your team member.

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Do you require them to respect on another?

A lack of respect for other people undermines team cohesion. It cannot and should not be tolerated. Leaders must demand that people respect each other and create consequences for those that don’t. When Roy Keane publicly criticised his team mates on MUTV, Sir Alex Ferguson packed him off to Celtic. When Kevin Pieterson criticised his team mates to the opposition, he was dropped. These were tough calls to make but were the right ones. No one is bigger than the team.

Do you ask yourself – what have I done for my soldiers today?

The crux of this question comes down to ‘Who you serve?’ The Army believe in the concept of servant leadership, ‘you serve to lead’. It is a contradiction in terms but is understood as a leadership philosophy in the military. In the majority of organisations I have worked with, the culture dictates that the people work for their leaders. This is the biggest challenge that organisations face – getting their leaders to understand that they serve their people not the other way round. This doesn’t mean that the leaders are there to make life easy for people. It requires them to tread the fine line between challenging and supporting the individual. Too much challenge and they’ll wilt under the pressure. Too much support and they’ll drift into the comfort zone.

Do you provide clarity of purpose, do you make decisions?

Why are we here? Why are we doing this? I’ve written extensively about providing a clarity of purpose. Daniel Pink explains that three things motivate people, mastery autonomy and a sense of purpose. Victor Frankl discovered this during the holocaust, his book ‘Mans Search for Meaning’ is amongst the most important ever written. It makes the point that there is no meaning of life, you have to discover what life means to you. Simon Sinek built on this with his famous TEDx talk, on the reason why. Leaders provide a clarity of purpose. This is how you do it.

Making decisions is difficult. It is always easier to push a decision into the future and wait for more information. This tends to be the default approach in many organisations. But pushing a decision into the future is a form of decision-making. You are making the choice to burn time – whether it is conscious or not is irrelevant. Organisations that have an issue with slow decision-making get less done. They have a slower pace of execution and they lack agility. They are usually ripe for disruption as they cannot keep up with the pace of change. See OODA Loop for more information.

Have you ever wondered what your soldiers think of you? Do you care?

Leadership isn’t a popularity contest but at the same time, how many leaders have you worked for that you’ve respected and hated at the same time? The line that the contestants keep using in The Apprentice, ‘I am not hear to make friends, I am here to lead and get the job done’ indicates a spectacular lack of understanding of how to lead people.

If your people hate you because you’re toxic, they won’t respect you – and you certainly won’t be getting the best out of them. I use the word hate deliberately because I believe that in many cases the strength of the emotion justifies it.

Do you set an example that you are proud of?

You lead by example. It is up to you whether it is a good one or not. It’s what you do that counts, not what you say. Talk is irrelevant unless it is backed up by your behaviour.

For example, if safety is critical to what your organisation does. How often do you talk about it? At Urenco, every meeting used to start with a safety moment which reconnected us with the importance of it. It brought safety to the forefront of our minds time and time again.

What culture do you want to create in your organisation? What are the themes that are important and how often do you talk about them?

Do you enjoy accepting responsibility?

If you don’t want the responsibility that comes with leadership, you shouldn’t be a leader. Leading is about accepting responsibility for making things happen. It is easy when things are going well. It is a different matter when they’re not.

When things go wrong, leaders accept responsibility. They don’t seek to blame their team because the buck stops with them. When things go right though, they resist the temptation to take the credit passing that downwards to their people.

It’s like a bank account. If you keep adding credit to it by serving your team, you’ll have credit which you can use for a rainy day. Your team will happily go the extra mile for you. If you don’t put anything in, you’ll have nothing to withdraw when you need it and you’ll find yourself pulling the all-nighter to get the job done on your own.

What do you do to improve yourself as a leader?

If you are not actively taking responsibility for improving your own performance, you are drifting in a reactive state. What do you need to be good at in order to get the very best out of your people? How do you improve your own performance? What are you doing today to make you better tomorrow?

I have written extensively about this as I believe that this is the process of orientation which is a principle of the OODA Loop. Ben Franklin understood this and came up with the five hour rule. Spend one hour per day making yourself better for tomorrow. The long-term impact will be a ‘compound interest effect’ that improves your judgement and decision-making exponentially. Like Elon Musk, Franklin was an ‘expert-generalist’. He was a successful businessman, writer, scientist and diplomat achieving more in those fields than some who regarded themselves as experts in them.

It sounds like a cliche because it is. Many people will talk about the key to life-long learning as being the principle that dictates an individuals success. But when you ask them how they apply the principle – they can rarely answer the question.

Do you live by the values and standards that you expect your soldiers to live by?

A similar question to the one about leading by example but I believe the challenge around values goes a little deeper. For example, do you value integrity? Does it drive decision-making in all aspects of your behaviour or just in your professional life?

Improving your leadership ability requires periods of reflection. You have to be able to look at your own performance with brutal honesty and challenge yourself to be better.

These ten questions are a simple handrail to help you do that.

Good Luck.

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