Think About Leadership – Or Drop Behind
By The Army Leader
I was struck recently by an article at www.themilitaryleader.com about consuming and producing leadership. It made me think… about thinking. I’ve had the honour over the years of serving with some great leaders. Some were ‘formally intellectual’ – had Masters degrees, were thoughtful, wrote articles – others were not. They were both consumers and producers of leadership. But most importantly, all of them were thinkers. Even the hairy-arsed, hero-sleeve-wearing, hard-drinking RSM. Perhaps him most of all.
I don’t think the link is coincidental. Some were officers, some were NCOs. Whichever they were, they were on their way to being warrant officers, LEs or senior officers.
I’ve come to the conclusion that leadership comes not only through practise, but also through reflection and thinking. That doesn’t have to mean essays, research and degrees (although it can). It means a good leader reflects on their experiences, learns (and consumes lessons) from other leaders and then brings their reflections, learning and experience together to change the way they lead.
The balance is important between thinking and practising is important. If leadership was only about education you’d find the greatest leaders in university MBA, psychology or leadership departments. Hang out with some academics some time – the lack of leadership and management skills can be scary. Too much thinking and too little practise is a recipe for disaster.
For soldiers and officers, on the other hand, practising leadership is natural but thinking about it isn’t. Thinking is considered an officers’ sport. Thinking about leadership is seen as too fluffy – in spite of what the Leadership Code suggests about encouraging thinking.
Get out there and start thinking
Let me give you two examples. This year I’ve met two former Army officers and discussed leadership with them. One left as a Captain to join a major international bank. He hated it. He then left to run a leadership development programme with
young offenders in London prisons. While the bedrock of his leadership came from the Army, his time reflecting in his new jobs matured his view of leadership and opened his eyes. He feels a far better leader for it. The second has now rejoined the Army as an FTRS officer. His time spent working with civilian NGOs let him reflect on leading and influence without authority – invaluable now he’s a junior staff officer in a 2* HQ passing on often-unwelcome direction to officers senior to him. Both had the opportunity to think, to reflect and so to improve. Both agreed it wasn’t just the different experience. Although that helped, it was the chance to think about the differences that mattered.
So the best Leaders stand out because they are thinkers too. By why are they so much better?
Testing your thinking improves it. When you have to think about something, question it and perhaps even explain it to others, you learn from yourself. Even better if you can test your thinking against other ideas. Put another way, you analyse (break down your thoughts) compare (consider other thoughts) and synthesise (bring the two together). And that means you can develop your leadership faster than using experience alone.
Richard Hamming, an American scientist who died in 1998, wrote
“I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into [my boss] Bode’s office and said, ‘How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?’ He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said ‘You would be surprised, Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.’ I simply slunk out of the office!
What Bode was saying was this: Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice out-produce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate.
Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to think a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done.”
Recently I met someone in the REME who spent time seconded to a major London infrastructure project. She was asked to present to the company about leadership. It forced her to think hard about her view of leadership. She learnt a great deal from it because she had to think about her Army experience, her work-placement experience and combine the two in civilian language.
Do, but don’t forget to think
‘Doing’ creates steady progress but thinking and reflecting creates compound interest: year on year, improvement on improvement. Given that leadership is about thinking and practise, this is important. If you ‘do’ leadership but don’t ‘think’ leadership you are holding yourself back.
I once thought it was pretentious when people spoke of having a ‘command philosophy’, but leadership development is both education and practise. The fact you are reading his probably means you agree, but remember this when you run leadership development activities for your new leaders. Don’t ignore the education. In a profession that values practise and training highly, do more leadership thinking. It isn’t hard – grab a leadership insight or blog post, watch a video and read some questions, discuss leadership topics with your junior leaders, give them time to think, then resume the discussion. Find examples from outside the Army environment (perhaps business) and take them apart as a group. Sometimes you’ll create a spark that jumps from another leadership field into their Army one.
Make it a constant process. Your team will reap the compound interest over the years.