Make Your Guiding Principles Useful
By The Army Leader
Early in my first tour in the Army I received a copy of an unusual document I’d never come across before. Two sides of A4, typed and headed; it was the Commanding Officer’s Command Philosophy. ‘His philosophy?’, I thought. ‘Does he think he’s Plato?’
Since then I’ve wised up. I’ve seen many more command philosophies, company directives and regimental ethoses. Some have been good enough that I’ve saved copies ready to perhaps use myself one day. The reality is that when you reach a certain level of leadership you need to communicate in writing how you want the team to work and what you want the team to value.
Clarity of Execution
One of the things these command philosophies and company directives do is create clarity of execution. That is to say, after you’ve explained where you want to take the organisation (clarity of intent), your command philosophy will articulate the guiding principles by which your team will get there (clarity of execution).
However you name them, guiding principles are key to effective empowerment and mission command. Guiding principles make sure your subordinates understand what you and the organisation value, and then help them act in line with them. The principles have to result action. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE, often argued, ‘values mean behaviours – or they mean nothing.’
A good command philosophy or set of guiding principles articulates a couple of subtly different things to the reader:
- ‘This is what we value here’ (if you do these things, you will be rewarded)
- ‘If you follow these rules, you will not go wrong’ (as long as you do them, you will not be punished)
Of these, I think that ‘If you follow these rules, you will not go wrong’ is the most important. An empowered organisation, one where trust flourishes and people’s initiative is unlocked, is one where people feel able to make decisions and accept responsibility for them because they are clear that they are safe to do so. Because they are playing within the organisation’s guiding principles.
Put another way, if you want empowered and trusted people operating through mission command, your command philosophy needs to give your subordinates your intent and the boundaries in which they can operate.
Why? People are only happy to take risks, innovate, improvise and take the initiative if they feel psychologically safe to do so. One important way to do this is to be crystal clear about what is within boundaries.
Six principles for guiding principles
If you have to write a command philosophy, directive or ethos you need to make sure what you write provides that clarity. Frame it as a set of guiding principles for your organisation.
- Make them short. To stay in the reader’s brain, the headline for each principle should take less than three seconds to say. And keep the number small. The mind is poor at remembering many more than seven principles (or perhaps I should say seven, plus or minus two)
- Make them usable decision making criteria. Fluffy, bumper-sticker principles help no one. Phrase them so they can be used a decision making criteria. If a soldier is looking at two courses of action, would your guiding principles help them decide which one to choose? If so, you’ve given them clarity.
- Make them freedoms, not constraints. Remember that boundaries should be thought of as defining where you have freedom of action, rather than where you do not. Guiding principles should say ‘as long as you follow these rules, you will not go wrong’ rather than ‘if you do these things, you will be punished’.
- Make them lived. If a subordinate fails or chooses a course of action you are unhappy with, but they have followed the guiding principles, don’t punish them. If a subordinate succeeds, but moves outside the boundaries, make it clear they failed. Ensure you live by them.
- Make them matter. Make them enter the language of your organisation. Use them in citations. Write about them in SJARs and MPARs. Use them as criteria for ranking your subordinates in grading boards. Use them as an informal framework for your backbriefs or AARs.
- Make sure they are right. Most importantly, make sure you mean them. If you describe something as a principle of your unit but it doesn’t actually align with your unit’s goal you will do nothing but create misalignment, confusion and dissatisfaction.
In his book Turn The Ship Around, David Marquet describes how his submarine, the USS Santa Fe, had a set of guiding principles written by his Chiefs (Warrant Officers) and officers. His intent for the sub often changed, but his guiding principles made it clear how he wanted that intent executed.
They were worded as behaviours to make them easy to visualise and easy to use as decision making criteria.
Here are a few to illustrate the point:
Initiative. Initiative means we take action without direction from above to improve our knowledge, prepare the [submarine] for its mission and come up with solutions to problems. With each member of the command taking initiative the leverage is immense… Initiative places an obligation on the chain of command not to stifle initiative in subordinates.
Empowerment. We encourage those below us to take action and support them when they make mistakes. We employ stewardship delegation, explaining what we want accomplished and allow flexibility in how it is accomplished
Integrity. Integrity means we tell the truth to each other and to ourselves. It means we have a grounded base of reality and see things as they are, not as we want them to be. Integrity means we participate fully in debriefs, allowing improvements based on facts.
In Turn The Ship Around, Marquet describes how he sometimes struggled to live by the guiding principles himself. But because they were written as behaviours and decision-making criteria he was able to adjust the way he acted. “When the guiding principles were helping me” he says “they were likely helping others”.
You Can Train Competence. You Can’t Train Clarity
It’s been said that management is about ‘doing things right’, and leadership is about ‘doing the right things’.
For Marquet, his guiding principles were about creating clarity of execution. If someone acted on their initiative and followed these rules they would be ‘doing the right thing’. If they failed? Well, that was because they ‘did things wrong’. Doing things wrong is about competence, skill and judgement. These attributes can be improved through training and experience. And people can learn.
If your team train hard and learn from mistakes they will get better at ‘doing things right’. But only you can define what ‘doing the right thing’ is. And your team will only understand that definition if you give them clarity of execution.
Do that by having short, simple guiding principles that are useful for decision-making, define freedoms not constraints, are real and lived, and actually have impact on your subordinates’ lives.
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