"I don't want any problems." I remember that line distinctly as he repeated it more than once and made it clear that was how he envisioned his role as the team leader. Sadly, that was the first speech to our group from a supervisor I once worked for in law enforcement.
It was not lost on me, nor on my co-workers, that this supervisor-I cannot refer to him in any manner as a leader-made no mention of doing all he could to support us in our mission or to aid in our development. We did not believe he was fostering a culture of openness or honesty. We did not trust that he cared about anything other than how he was perceived by his supervisor(s).
Trust, a driving component of effective leadership, is gained when the led believe their leader has their best interests at heart and wants to do everything possible to ensure that they are able to effectively carry out their responsibilities. As a leader, have you earned that type of trust from your subordinates? If so, it is more likely your team will put forth their best efforts and will also inform you of potential pitfalls affecting organizational success. If you have not earned the trust of your team, you are setting yourself up for the possibility of being blindsided by a larger crisis which may have been avoided or mitigated had your team trusted you enough to highlight shortcomings.
“Take care of your Marines, and they will take care of you,” was a leadership principle drilled into me while training to be an Infantry Platoon Commander in the early 1990s. It is timeless advice which carries over to any organization, military or otherwise. It boiled down to the Marines wanting to put forth their best efforts to ensure mission success when they trusted their leaders cared about their development, both personal and professional.
It is the same sentiment expressed by the late Colin Powell when he said “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
By creating an atmosphere of trust and honesty amongst your team members, it is more likely that you will be able to handle smaller issues before they become bigger problems. It is incumbent on you, as the leader, to foster a culture in which you are able to gain the trust of those you’re privileged to lead.
- Dan Mehdi, Eagle 6 Training
Years ago, I spoke to a few thousand people. I can still remember standing on that stage. Nervous does not describe how I felt. I was terrified.
Edward R. Murrow, a broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience, said, “the best speakers know enough to be scared…the only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation.”
He was right, but it is easier said than done. I got through that speech for one reason. I practiced. I practiced a lot. I practiced so much that the words came to me. Very naturally and seemingly unrehearsed.
I have given a lot of speeches since that day and now teach a class called Platform Skills to help people with public speaking. What is the theme of this class? You guessed it: plan, prepare, and… practice. Practice is key.
Nervous or terrified like I was? Practice.
Say ah and um a lot? Practice.
There are some basic rules for public speaking, such as knowing your audience. While important, what separates good speakers from everyone else is their ability to train the butterflies. To take the rules and important lessons and make it all look effortless. This is done through practice. Lots of practice.
I can think of a lot of stories to illustrate this point but one of my favorites is that of Usain Bolt. Usain Bolt was an Olympic sprinter from Jamaica who won eight gold medals in three Olympic games. In the Olympic finals, he ran 114 seconds. That is less than 2 minutes to win eight gold medals and the millions of dollars that resulted from it.
For those 2 minutes, he practiced for 20 years.
Public speaking, sports, everything, is about the time you put into it. Success does not happen because of one day or one event; it happens because of the time you put into it to make it successful.
Consider these suggestions:
Your audience took their time to listen to you so give them what they deserve: your best. Will you still be scared? Probably. I know I was. But practice got me through it and practice can help you train your butterflies.
- Brian Townsend, Eagle 6 Training
I worked in a chain of command years ago that required weekly meetings. We started every Monday morning this way. We sometimes spent all morning in these meetings. While the concept was well-intentioned, I would have few takeaways each week.
We wasted a lot of time and time is too valuable to waste. If your organization is like mine was, we were continually being asked to do more with less.
It was because of this experience that I focused on how I would efficiently utilize meetings when I was in charge.
The first thing I would consider is why I needed a meeting. As much as I appreciate face-to-face communication, email was quicker, more efficient, and most of the time, just made more sense for most of the information I needed to share. Because of this, when I did hold meetings, it held more importance.
At times however, it was the delivery that was important. I wrote about this recently in a blog called “conduit of information.” The same advice I offered there goes for meetings: You can influence whether priorities and initiatives are accepted and implemented during in person meetings and sometimes the importance of the information can get “lost” if communicated during a phone call or in an email.
When COVID happened, in-person meetings shifted entirely. As a result of COVID restrictions, face-to-face no longer necessarily meant “in the same room.” Now, video calls or conference calls were all that many of us had available for meetings.
In 2023, we appear to be moving away from COVID protocols and meeting colleagues in person is back. Even if your company has continued remote-work options, we still need to rethink each meeting and how important meetings are to achieve our goals.
Consider these suggestions for more productive meetings:
It is important to control the meeting. If things go offtrack, get them back on. If people are conducting business that does not involve the meeting, have them continue elsewhere. Take control of the meetings and make them productive. You must control the meeting.
And finally, decide who needs to be in the meeting. This sounds simple, but I could not count the number of times people were required to attend meetings that had no reason to be there. In the previously mentioned weekly meetings, everyone had to speak. Whether or not you had anything to say did not matter. Forcing someone to speak, especially when they had nothing to contribute, is a waste of time.
If you are expected to manage people and resources, be good at it. Be intentional in all that you do. Your time is your responsibility. As a manager, your ability to make time meaningful for your team is your responsibility, too. In 2023, try to be deliberate, be thoughtful about why and how you will conduct meetings.
- Brian Townsend, Eagle 6 Training
You have to pretend that you know everything, that you have all the answers; you have to appear “stoic;” in command and never show your fear, uncertainty, and doubts to those you lead. Have you ever heard similar sentiments, especially when you’ve been new to a leadership role? I certainly encountered that mentality from some peers and positional leaders while serving as a young Marine Infantry Officer during the run-up to the First Persian Gulf War. I quickly learned that seldom do such extremes work if one wants to be an effective leader.
It is true that being the leader often means being in a seemingly dichotomous position, in that you must find the right balance between two sides of the same coin which appear diametrically opposed. During my training in the Marines we called it being “on the horns of a dilemma.”
One such dichotomy centers around the issue of vulnerability, or the ability to put ourselves out there for others to see; not the masked, idealized version of ourselves, but our true selves. The one willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers; that we are initially unsure of the correct course of action, and the one unafraid to acknowledge our fears and ask for help.
Often leaders, especially those with less experience, are not willing to show any chinks in their armor for fear of appearing vulnerable and/or less competent to those they lead. Thoughts and fears of being mocked, chastised and/or demoted or relieved of command for showing one’s humanity can prevent us from connecting more effectively with those we have the privilege to lead.
Am I saying it is alright for the leader to always express their fears, doubts, and other vulnerabilities? Or, to show them to an exaggerated degree? No, I am not. It is a delicate balancing act to express such feelings at the proper time and place, and level, to connect with someone to indicate you empathize with what they’re experiencing, and that their response is legitimate.
This fact was driven home to me twice during the first evening of the air war during the First Persian Gulf War. Up until that point, we had been training for months in the northern part of Saudi Arabia preparing to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was two weeks after my 24th birthday and I had only been with my platoon for roughly two weeks in Hawaii prior to deploying to the Persian Gulf. Reporting into Kaneohe Bay to become a Rifle Platoon Commander a week after Saddam invaded Kuwait, never did I imagine I would be in this circumstance half-way around the world so soon after leaving officer training in Quantico.
That evening, we watched sortie after sortie of U.S. aircraft racing north to bomb Iraqi positions. Not long after, we raced into our bunkers after Iraqi rockets began to land. It took us some time to realize that the bombs were landing several kilometers from our positions and posed no real danger to us at the time. I sat in a bunker with my Marines, one of whom was a young lance corporal who was crying. He told me he was scared. I told him I was also scared, but we were well-trained and were ready to handle any upcoming missions.
Our Company Commander then directed my platoon to deploy to a pier near the Saudi/Kuwait border. We would be leaving the relative safety of the company/battalion area to protect a special forces contingent operating from that pier. We received intelligence that a contingent of Iraqi forces was moving south to attack the pier.
As we were loading onto the trucks to leave our perimeter, it came to my attention that another of my Marines, a Private First Class, was claiming to be a Conscientious Objector and did not want to leave the battalion area. Under the chaos of these unfolding events, taking place in complete darkness, I went over to this young Marine who was previously viewed as one of the toughest in the platoon. I sat next to him in the dark and listened to him as he cried and told me that he wanted to be designated as a Conscientious Objector and to be sent home. “I can’t do this Sir,” are words forever burned into my memory.
Of all the exemplary tactical and leadership training I received in Quantico for the past year or so before the war, I was not prepared for this circumstance. I had no frame of reference or example to fall back on to guide me. I simply relied on my humanity, and told him I understood his fear as it was totally normal to feel frightened in the moment, as did I. However, we had a job to do, and I and his fellow Marines needed him to do his part now, as they were expecting me to do my job. He nodded his head and reluctantly boarded that truck shortly thereafter.
Upon reflection, not once did I feel like me admitting to my men that I too was scared in the moment that my leadership would be diminished in their eyes. I hoped seeing me go about my duties gave them the feeling that yes, the lieutenant is human; he isn’t pretending to not be scared when he is; he is not a robot who will recklessly throw our lives away. By admitting my own fears/vulnerabilities in a measured way, I believe that my Marines saw that if their leader was able to carry on under such circumstances, they too would be able to weather the storm. The power of example would not be diminished by acknowledging the reality of the situation.
I also did not look at the two Marines referenced here as anything other than human beings, expressing normal emotions in very trying circumstances. Just as a father would not look down on his son for expressing uncertainty in fearful times, neither did I to my men. They were both good Marines and continued to be so; they simply needed some reassurance during a period of incredible stress. I am glad that they felt comfortable enough to express their true feelings and vulnerabilities to me.
Peel back the belief that you, as the leader, always need to appear impervious to difficulties, and doubts. When you express the appropriate level of vulnerability at the appropriate time, you will appear stronger, not weaker, to those entrusted to your care.
- Dan Mehdi, Eagle 6 Training