Leadership always matters, especially in the Military


In the Navy I worked for a variety of commanding officers. All of them career officers and all of them wanted to have successful commands. But what was striking were the differences of leadership in how they sought to achieve that success.

In the military, unlike in the civilian world, the commanding officer doesn’t have to worry about whether people will follow orders when they are given. Even when a bonehead order is given, no one questions it, everyone snaps to and makes it happen. There’s no audible grumbling and any thoughts about the location of the commanding officer’s head are kept to yourself. This insulation from questioning or criticism can create a blind spot for leaders. Depending on the company this still happens in the civilian world but thankfully not as much as it used to. And we are all better off for it.

Taking the Subway to work has a completely different meaning in the Navy.

Taking the Subway to work has a completely different meaning in the Navy.

Back to the Navy world. The approach for success and style of leadership that one commander I worked for took was the approach that nothing but the command mattered – personal life, family, school, and religious duties all took a back seat, every time. We were sailors after all, our duty always came first and labor was a fixed sunk cost. But while we complied with the letter of the orders we weren’t inspired to do more than what was required. Mainly because our efforts weren’t recognized or acknowledged and were taken for granted. In fact it often seemed that much of what we did was make-work designed to keep us busy on-board ship without any valid reason for the work. Needless to say morale was low, retention declined and everyone – officer and enlisted alike – fled that command as quickly as feasible.

This stood in marked contrast to another command where I had the privilege of being stationed. People working extra hours, coming in on weekends and going above and beyond the call of duty were all normal occurrences.  This commander’s leadership style was the polar opposite. A conscious effort was made to recognize and show appreciation to a division or duty section when the effort was warranted. When given a choice this commander would try to avoid scheduling activities over weekends – recognizing that we all worked hard and time on shore with families was a rare and precious commodity. Now that doesn’t mean we didn’t work long hours or work weekends – it just meant that we knew when we were working, there was a reason for it and it was needed. As you might expect morale was high, retention remained high and people – officer and enlisted – relished their time at this command.

As it turns out the needs of both commands and the work load were roughly the same. But part of the difference between the two was the level of communication – and not just from the very top. The “good” command’s middle management effectively communicated and prepared their divisions for what was needed whenever possible. This meant that the number of all-hands fire drills were kept to a minimum. After all as Chicken Little learned you can only yell that the sky is falling so many times before people stop believing you.

The other reason for the marked differences in working conditions was a noticeable lack of foresight and planning at the “bad” command. This meant things were always coming up at the last minute preventing good communication and ruining people’s plans: “No liberty this weekend we have to do a parts inventory” or “I know it’s 6pm on a Friday but we have to repaint the deck we just finished painting because the captain wants sand in the paint. And we have to do it now.”  Those two examples, and many more like them, occurred because the Captain wasn’t a good communicator or planner preventing people from taking ownership.

Only Command Master Chiefs can speak truth to power in the Navy.

Only Command Master Chiefs can speak truth to power in the Navy.

Now don’t get me wrong – emergencies do and always will occur but if your organization has an emergency every day or week that requires everyone to scramble and prevents them from getting their regular job done, maybe it’s time to reassess what’s going on. Even in an emergency room where the entire day is nothing but emergencies things run pretty smoothly most of the time because the staff is usually prepared for what comes their way day in and day out – and they have procedures for the unusual things.

Unlike the military, your people work for your company voluntarily. Even with contracts people are free to leave whenever they want.  How you manage your team can make a real difference to the kind of people your company will recruit and retain. If your management thinks everyone has to work 60, 70 or 80+  hours a week, 52 weeks a year you probably aren’t going to retain the best personnel even if your compensation is the best in the business. Sure people will sign on for the short-haul but they’ll bail as soon as they can. What you gain in short-term productivity will be lost as your turnover increases and you have critical personnel shortages. Every business has weeks or months which are really intense requiring significant sacrifices to meet client or project deadlines but those intense periods shouldn’t be the daily norm if you want your people to have a reasonable work/life balance. Especially if you want your staff to stick around for more than a year or two. 

Of course during a recession it’s harder for your best employees to move on to new opportunities but rest assured even this recession, no matter how severe it becomes, will end and the economy will start growing once again. When those new opportunities open up, what will happen with the best and the brightest at your company? Will they be sticking around or will they moving on to greener pastures? -t

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