Coffee and Clausewitz: Building Organic Leadership Development Communities
By Dr Franklin Annis
One of the biggest challenges for leaders in both the military and industry is to establish a culture of learning within their organizations. There are packaged programs available and consultants that can be brought in; these approaches often fail to leave lasting results as they institute a too-formal process of leader development.
The question remains: how might a leader try to organically shape the culture of their organization? Much to the credit of the soldiers in my office, I stumbled on an organic approach to leader development that we eventually called ‘Coffee and Clausewitz’, named after the ‘dead Prussian’ himself.
So let me explain the approach that ended up getting almost every soldier in our office reading, listening to podcasts and researching useful leader development topics in their spare time.
Learn Like Ben Franklin
The format of our Coffee and Clausewitz group was simple. We would meet during the first 15 minutes of work while having our first cup of coffee for the day, hence the name. One of us would share a topic that they had recently found interesting and had some meaningful lesson that could be applied today. While we never formally timed these talks, an individual would talk for roughly 10 minutes and the group might discuss the information and ask questions for another 5 minutes. The next day, someone else would share another topic. We found that we returned to work with a new sense of creativity and a renewed drive for self-study for the betterment of the organization. This approach is very similar to another exceptional approach to peer-learning groups, the Ben Franklin Circle.
Ben Franklin gathered a group of diverse business owners from his community into what he called a ‘Junto’. They would talk about the successes and failures that they were seeing in their community. By closely examining the activities of their community, this group of men were able to crosspollinate successful business practice into different industries to drive innovation. They established public services for the betterment of society including a library, fire department and university.
What advice would I give you in starting your own Coffee and Clausewitz or Franklin Junto?
The Leader’s Role
The first job of a leader is to lead the way. Leadership development is no different in this regard. Your subordinates will notice if you are always quoting from books or lectures. It will be apparent if you are actively engaging in leadership and personal development and trying new approaches. If you want to see this behaviour in your organization, you must begin with yourself.
Spend some time studying which practices work best for you. Have a collection of short leadership stories you can keep in your ‘hip pocket’ (or, rather, your memory); stories that include lessons you believe will positively impact your organization and people.
When starting a learning group it is likely that you will have to lead the conversation a few times. Make sure you can provide a good example of what you would like to see.
While this may seem counterintuitive, I found that the best way to maximise the effectiveness of the group is to make it purely voluntary. No one wants to be forced into a ‘group project’ that they have little interest in. Ask for volunteers that would be interested in forming a group. Even if it is just one other person and just a single cup of coffee, it is a start. The value of the group will speak for itself and soon attract others.
You want to ensure that participants are invested, especially when first establishing this type of learning community. Avoiding compelling individuals with negative attitudes or no interest in the group. This will go a long way to ensure you successfully establish a positive learning culture.
Pay the Participants
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in the Army was, “if you want your soldiers to be professionals, you need to pay them for their time”. This means running these meetings during ‘paid time’.
A small investment of 15 minutes a morning, where work is already slow to get started, will pay dividends in the long run. The members of your community will be more reflective and more innovative. They will, ultimately, freely chose to invest more of their own free time on self-development activities.
Topics of Interest
We allowed members of the group to pick whatever topics they wished to research and discuss. We all have our own personal interests. It is far better to hear a passionate speaker talk about a topic that you would not have selected than to listen to someone talk dispassionately about a topic that you thought would be better for the group. You will be surprised by the depth and breadth of what your employees present to the group. Diverse perspectives help create innovation and new ideas.
In our group, topics included the Roman Legions, the Lewis and Clark Exploration and the Cold War, though to current topics in the media. At first, I never thought I would have any interest in some of the topics that were presented. I am now happy that I have been exposed to them. They have provided me valuable leadership development that I would have missed had I simply read or followed my personal topics of interest.
Some examples of meaningful leadership practices presented in our group:
“I intend to…”. Captain David Marquet, U.S. Navy, was selected to command the USS Olympia nuclear submarine. He studied this vessel for over a year in preparation of command. Unexpectantly, he was directed to take command of the USS Sante Fe, a different model of submarine.
Realizing that his sailors had more technical experience than him, the Captain flipped the leadership dynamic by asking his sailors to tell him what they “intended to” do instead of waiting for orders or asking permission. This empowered sailors at all levels; every sailor looked for ways to maximise performance. Their recommendation were only prevented if it didn’t fit with the larger plan. Essentially, this was a display of the ultimate trust and empowerment of sailors.
Because of this leadership style and confidence in the crew, the USS Sante Fe, a failing vessel, became an example of exceptional performance and produced a remarkable number of Captains from the junior officers under Captain Marquet. We discussed how applicable this way of leading would be to our teams. (You can find out more here and here)
The Hudson Bay Start. On the first day of their expeditions,The Hudson Bay Trading Company would purposely make camp close to their start point. This was done to ensure that they had all the required equipment for their voyage and nothing was forgotten. This camp was close enough that a runner could easily be sent to retrieve missing equipment if required. This technique would still be effective for modern military units to set up their equipment just outside their armouries before missions to gain experience establishing camp and ensuring all the equipment was appropriately packed. The group argued over whether or not this was a useful way to start an exercise period or deployment.
Constant Time and Place
Establishing a repetitive schedule and sticking to it emphasizes the importance of leadership development and protects the learning community. If you do not safeguard these activities, it is easy to allow other work priorities to override peer-learning. If we want to establish true peer-learning and create self-developing subordinates it is important that we see this time as a valuable investment.
My Coffee and Clausewitz group meets almost daily, convening during the first 15 minutes of the morning. Your organization might require a different approach. But whatever time and location you establish, try your best to maintain consistency to ensure success.
Peer Approach to Learning
Setting the right environment is key to promoting a learning culture. When establishing these types of groups within organizations with strong hierarchies (such as the military), try to create an environment where everyone can share their lessons and opinions.
It doesn’t matter the rank or position of the individual presenting information; everyone can benefit from their research. The goal is to create the sense of a community of peers willing to learn and teach each other how to be better in their profession and leadership skills.
Grab a Coffee and Clausewitz
In the end, I enjoyed great benefits through the establishment of our ‘Coffee and Clausewitz’ group. A few years have past and the members of our group have moved on to new assignments. Even so, when I run into former members of this group we almost always begin by asking each other if we had read ‘this’ book or listened to ‘that’ podcast. Each member of this group was enriched by the experience. Some members have gone on to study in doctoral programs and others were selected as instructors for the Non-Commission Officer academy.
Even the least of our group, having never studied a day in college, can now explain in detail the design of the US Republic and the philosophical foundations within the US Constitution. And the echoes of this group continue to ring as these individuals travel throughout the force and inspire others through their, insightful conversation and ability to recommend meaningful self-development resources.
If we truly want to see learning communities grow in our organizations, we need to invest in establishing these communities and providing the time for learning activities. We cannot expect to create innovative new leaders if we do not challenge them to engage in self-development and be willing to participate in peer-learning.
It is our jobs as leaders to engage in these activities and model that which we wish to see in our subordinates. We need to be open to learning from all members of our community. And most importantly, we need to protect and maintain the learning communities and activities that prove effective within our organizations. Now grab a cup of coffee and a few motivated learners and get to work!
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Media Credits: Images open source, author’s own collection and © IWM Non Commercial Licence