“People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two mistakes a year.”
Peter F. Drucker
It has become a cliché that true heroes are reluctant to take credit for their actions. They claim they were just doing their job, or that anybody would have done the same heroic thing. The rest of us listen, nod, and silently disagree. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, defying comic book stereotypes. A heroic act can also be missed or overlooked if small, despite the positive impact. We all need heroes, but occasionally, heroism can be a problem. Being nimble is not a heroic deed. In fact, this article is all about discouraging you from aspiring to become a hero. Why do I take this position? It’s simple, I define heroics differently when it comes to business leadership.
There is a downside to acting the part of a hero when leading people and that downside, in practice, can be debilitating or it could prevent you from creating and developing the types of ideas and initiatives found in this book. Navy SEALs are heroic by nature, that is if heroism is defined as abnormal physical courage and conviction in the face of danger. SEALs don’t believe the hype. They believe, you guessed it, they are just doing their job. I know from my experiences that SEALs have an edge few military units have and that makes a huge difference in confidence and certainty as they go into battle. As a unit, SEALs think, plan, and fight as a coordinated team. They don’t have one-man missions and won’t ever send one man out as a scout.
The minimum size of an operational SEAL unit is a two-man pair. This configuration works thirty percent of the time, the rest of the time a four-man fire team or an eight man set of two fire teams can accomplish most mission tasks. SEALs are not looking for heroes when they screen applicants for their programs, and they don’t score individual heroics in training as highly sought-after attributes; especially in leaders such as officers. SEALs only work well when the team executes together. Are there examples of SEALs who became heroes? Of course, there are. If you had the privilege to speak with one, they would explain, almost to a man, that the circumstances that required heroics occurred because the team broke down, due to overwhelming enemy action, poor planning, or just dumb luck.
Most SEAL combat veterans would point out if their team had executed all aspects of the mission precisely as planned and envisioned, the adverse conditions would never had materialized, and they would not have been required to do anything extraordinary. In business, a good plan executed by a strong team, should not require leadership heroics. Building a strong team is one of the critical elements of any leader’s job description. It is easier to lead a strong team, and a strong team can handle most, if not all, of the challenges it faces. Let’s talk about heroism and leadership and why you should be wary of the inclination to be a hero, in yourself, or your subordinate leaders.
The Junior Officer Paradigm
War movies depict young officers as weak, confused, and generally a burden the enlisted men carry into combat. This isn’t necessarily the case, especially in elite military units. What I’ve observed is different and just as problematic. Young leaders trying to gain the respect of their direct reports not by befriending them or ignoring their mistakes, but by trying to prove they are just as capable operationally and professionally as their men. Why is this an issue? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple explanation is no young leader is going to know everything, or be able to perform every task, as well as his or her direct reports. Officers have one distinct function, to lead. Leadership is not about competition with your subordinate leaders or your team of seasoned experts. This behavior is a manifestation of a leader’s lack of confidence and does not demonstrate they are capable of leading well.
In the SEAL teams, I witnessed young officers vigorously compete to win. They wanted to be the fastest runner and swimmer, the best shot with any weapon, and even the best drinker. It took me a few years of maturation before I began to realize this behavior didn’t count for much and actually represented psychological weakness. Eventually, I became senior enough to become responsible for training young leaders. Trying to get these leaders to realize leadership isn’t the same as trying to get a varsity letter in high school was quite a challenge. Interestingly, I saw the same paradigm in operation in business when I retired from the service.
While most organizations do not have the rigid rules for leadership tenure and advancement found in the military, they do have rules, and these rules are often a part of the problem. The military slows the ascent of a leader down to a pace dictated by tradition and common sense. Military leadership theory holds that young leaders, given time and mentoring by their bosses and the senior enlisted leadership, will grow eventually into steady, reliable officers. Even though it works to a degree, I hated this system because for lower tier leaders it wasn’t based on merit or performance, but on tenure, specifically time served in each progressive rank. The business world doesn’t always reward merit with advancement, but it does happen, thrusting the lucky and the competent up the leadership ladder.
Without the time to mature, many business leaders are thrust into positions they aren’t ready to handle. A middle ground between pure tenure focus advancement and merit based advancement is probably the best choice. In the commercial world, the junior officer paradigm tends to manifest itself in leaders younger than thirty-five years old. Youth drives a desire for acceptance and respect. A need to show everybody they are not only good leaders, but great leaders. That is a lot of self-imposed stress and in almost every case, an unreasonable expectation. Unfortunately, leadership requires some modicum of wisdom, wisdom gained through experience and failure.
There are no shortcuts. Nimble leadership requires poise and reflection. It requires leaders to be comfortable with some level of failure on the way to success. It requires training the entire company, so each person knows their job and performs that job in a manner that ensures collective success. If you are happily acting heroic, take a breath and reread your job description. Young SEAL officers were there to plan, direct, and lead, not garner applause. Military leadership for officers is all about using their brains and often a radio instead of a gun. To solve problems while the team executes the plan and when needed, fight side by side with their team. As an old SEAL Senior Chief once told a young officer struggling with this issue, “Sir, when the crap hits the fan who’s going to be doing your job if you’re face down in the dirt firing your weapon?”
Cause and Effect Analysis
Heroic leaders usually fall into two broad categories, true heroes, and arsonists. Setting aside true heroes for the moment, let me explain this second characterization for you. I’m a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, a designation given to those who complete a long process of training and education in quality control, quality assurance, and quality management. It was Lean Six Sigma and its process driven, causal effect analysis methodology, that revealed to me there are arsonists posing as leaders among us. Why would I label any leader in such a disparaging manner? Well, I don’t mean to imply some leaders are burning things down using real fire. I’m simply saying many leaders are the actual cause of the crisis they eventually jump in to solve.
Self-inflicted wounds and injuries to the organization created by leaders who do not know how, or do not care, to build a true organizational team or thoughtful, functioning processes are the cause of many ailments in business. One example of this arsonist behavior I discovered several years ago actually involved a true military hero. A leader in combat and then again in business after serving his country. He was sharp, driven, and always ready to answer the call when disasters, large and small occurred. After I observed several of these heroic interventions, I asked him why he was experiencing so many. He wasn’t sure at first but then chalked it up to the chaotic nature of our business, our customers, and just dumb luck.
At first, I accepted that answer and moved on. Then it happened again. Symptoms that drive intervening actions by leaders can pop up anywhere along the process but most often they are recognized where leaders are looking, the end state of the process, outcome failure. A supply chain process that threatens to miss a delivery deadline must be corrected by a frantic fix. Rental trucks, late night loading of materials, and emergency drivers is the result of this logistical misstep. It works and everyone sighs with relief. The leader who intervened watches the sun come up and knows he or she has led the team through the crisis. Oddly, most leaders in this position tend to smile and walk away from what just transpired. They don’t expect it to happen again and don’t consider looking deeper for a root cause.
A driver failed to appear at the loading dock on time equals driver is the cause. Admonish the driver and the problem will not reoccur. A Lean Six Sigma approach might reveal the dispatch and scheduling software that sends the drivers their schedule for the day has a glitch. If that is the case our hero is only a few days away from once again putting on the superhero costume and saving the day. Why do many leaders do this? I believe it’s a hangover from their early days as leaders, the junior officer syndrome mentioned earlier in this chapter. The old desire to be perceived as a strong leader is served by acting like a strong leader in crisis. Another reason is a lack of training and education in the art of organizational design and development. And lastly, many leaders do not develop subordinate leaders to holistically evaluate their people, processes, and systems on a regular basis. That means from one end of the process to the other, preferably before crisis strikes.
If best practice elements are in place, fewer issues evolve into crisis and if they do, the team has the skills and the tools to fix the issue, without the senior leader leaping to the rescue. Better to proudly observe the team and system you built resolve the issue. Cause and Effect Analysis At first glance the body of knowledge comprising Lean Six Sigma is daunting, but I encourage all leaders to give the program a try. Any solid quality assurance program is big on policy and checklists, and well-defined and detailed standards of performance. Six Sigma is taught with all of that in mind and adds a methodology to diagnose processes and systems to find the root cause of failure.
Casual analysis provides you with the tools to investigate thoroughly, starting at the beginning and tracing the progress of product or service delivery or business process effectiveness. In a nutshell, you observe the linear progression of an activity, and study each connection, resource use, and human engagement for efficiency and effectiveness. You document as you go and once finished, you develop corrective action plans to make things right. Even if you discover the cause of the problem during your walk down the path to an end state, don’t stop. Keep going, observe, record, keep investigating until the very end. Not doing so robs you of full process understanding.
Running down processes in this manner can be performed proactively. You don’t have to wait for a performance glitch to conduct a quality review. Causal analysis and holistic, proactive evaluation of your processes and systems will force you to come face to face with how things and people interact with workflow at a level of engagement that matters. It provides you with early warning and in doing so, you are given the opportunity to correct or improve performance steps before a failure develops. There is no need for heroics if you embrace this preventive approach. Make this a regular exercise and you will reap the rewards.
A few years back I was observing reoccurring problems with the way finance and accounting processes were operating. I’m definitely not an accounting or finance guy. When I asked why our financial processes appeared to be were flailing, my inhouse experts couldn’t tell me why, the root causes, or core issues. As a result, I decided to conduct a process review of all accounting and finance functions, processes, and supporting systems. I forensically interviewed each finance employee who touched accounts receivable followed by those who touched accounts payable, payroll, general ledgers, and so on. I drew out the steps and procedures (each step or phase loaded with dollars, time or notes identifying critical equipment, systems, and information technology platforms).
As these experts spoke, I documented it all on a white board. I acted like a detective cross examining each employee by plotting human, machine, and human to machine interactions. After running through each specialty area, I brought the individuals in each subset of accounting and finance together to examine the composite sketch I’d created depicting everyone’s perception of what was happening. As you may guess, there was a disagreement in detail among the participants, but the exercise identified subtle flaws in the way accounting and finance was flowing, or not flowing. We found that the information systems were used exclusively by some, but not so much by others who preferred using old school spreadsheets and calculators. In the end, my facilitation helped my senior finance leaders tighten things up, leverage the expensive information system platforms we were paying for, and helped to evaluate wasteful practices and inefficiencies.
The Price of Trust
I’ve found that people working as a team to complete repetitive tasks, never have the time to achieve perfection or even the inclination to do so. This is where leaders who believe perfection is a valid objective, step in. After failing to motivate, cajole, and pressure employees to care about perfection, they step in and try to make it happen all by themselves. A form of leader heroics that is doomed to failure. To relieve yourself of the burden of perfection and heroic obligation you simply need to trust those doing the work. You must allow your well-designed company, systems, processes, and communication feedback loop to inform you of how things are progressing.
A Lean Six Sigma diagnostic evaluation of critical processes and systems, key employees, and subordinate leaders will keep you plenty busy and be preventative in nature, reducing the need for heroic intervention. Trust but verify through quality assurance oversight. I still have difficulty watching my leaders struggle and by extension, their employees. I feel my frustration rising, frustration that can only be assuaged by my personal intervention, then I exhale and walk away. Sure, in most cases I could have stepped in and bridged the talent or knowledge gap, but in doing so I make my team weaker not stronger. If I did intervene, my leaders and their employees might stop trying to figure it out. They might fall into the habit of asking the boss to solve the problem, what’s the downside if he or she screws it all up? Not much. It’s a logical human behavior to seek relief from accountability, an insurance policy provided by the over involved boss.
So, I suggest you walk away. Is this advice tantamount to abandoning your sacred duty to lead? Of course not. I didn’t say forget about the scenario you witnessed, maybe a process review is in order? Let that meticulous evaluation of the associated processes drive the right leader or technical expert to discover the root cause of the problem themselves, and in so doing, your organization becomes stronger. Trust can be gut wrenching, especially if you’ve been placed in the spotlight by your boss. Maybe the most heroic thing you can do is to face your fear of failure and your urge to over manage. Instead force yourself to relax. There’s no way you can be a nimble and creative leader unless you relax. As a leader your job isn’t to be heroic until it’s time to be heroic. Think about it. Your mission is to lead and do so creatively. Your day to be heroic will come and when it does, you will realize in that moment that true heroic leadership is required only when everything is falling apart. I’m here to tell you that moment is not fun. In combat or in business.
Marty Strong is a CEO, Chief Strategy Officer, and the author of Be Nimble – How the Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business –www.martystrongbenimble.com