On Leading and Adaptability

Leading is hard. I don't know many people who have had responsibility and accountability for coordinating and achieving important things who would question that "duh" statement. I've spent a lot of years following and learning to lead. 

I've had a series of pretty challenging weeks and months in my current professional life. My role and my understanding of it has continued to evolve and when I take a step back and think about what I am doing versus what I should be doing I find a gap. Transitioning from the "smart guy who knows things" to the "smart guy who leads" is not an easy transition for me. I've spent a lot of time doing a pretty good job motivating others to help achieve some outcome or another.. but I know that I've got a lot of room to grow as a leader. I'm also failing far too often at detachment. The trait of leadership that allows us to get above the fray, see the facts absent of our emotional bias and response. In crisis, I detach easily for others. I find myself struggling to do it right now as a leader and in my present leadership roles.

"Know yourself and seek self improvement" is one of the Marine Corps primary leadership principals. While many people I speak to will either immediately kowtow to anything around military with real or faux respect, discounting it as thing we hard chargers are reprogrammed to emulate - this very simple concept is key to any leader. How can you lead if you don't take realistic appraisal of your personal qualities as both a leader and a follower? How can you better enable success if you are not humble enough to make changes? 

I want to dive into a bit of the Marine warrior-ethos for a second (our cult of commonality as I call it) and say that of all the leadership training, all the education on management and inspiration I've sought out over the years I always come back to my training as a Marine NCO. That philosophy begins by breaking things down with a question focused on "How do you lead people into and through combat to achieve the best outcome with the least impact or cost to the organization/unit/company?" 

Marines (or soldiers, sailors, or people in general) are not just numbers on a map. They are living, breathing, pissing and individual people with independent concerns and capabilities. Leading individuals means understanding how to focus all those independent needs and concerns on the outcome you have to accomplish. Often inexperienced leaders overlook one person in that assessment - they focus on the idea, or the objective, or the members of the team without considering themselves among them.

Before we can effectively lead, we need to identify those traits and qualities within ourselves that enable us to lead and hinder or deflate the wins we achieve.

We begin that exercise by taking inventory of the traits within ourselves that define us as leaders. In the Marine Corps, those traits are summarized by 14 categories - "leadership traits" and we train Marines to memorize the acronym "J.J.D.I.D.T.I.E.B.U.C.K.L.E" as a mnemonic tool.

True self-assessment is hard to do. We lie to ourselves all the time, and sometimes we lie so convincingly we don't recognize that lie. I know I'm a surprisingly good liar when it comes to self-reflection.

I lie to myself that I have to step in and help solve. I lie to myself that I have to provide direction. I lie to myself that others see this as helping. I lie to myself that my involvement at this level is not intimidating to some of the members of my team, who respect my opinions and experience. I lie to myself in believing others understand I'm just sharing an idea without the expectation of explicit or implicit support. I don't always maintain enough distance from the people, the problems or the battles going on around me when I need to maintain a strategic view. I give in to frustration, and unconsciously undermine others when they are looking for consistent bearing from their leadership. I don't take time to win or celebrate and that impacts my team.

I don't trust in the process enough. I shortcut the process of empowerment for my leadership team by getting into the weeds and not being the last to speak, or holding my tongue to allow them to find their own paths and build consensus. I hate deterministic, directive command. I want to foster the idea that we all make the plan work together without understanding how sometimes my presence is unconsciously putting the thumb on the scale.

In acknowledging these weaknesses, I also have to recognize my strengths. 

I have the capacity to excite and inspire others. I communicate and adapt my language and approach to most situations quickly and well. I am pretty tireless in driving the the outcome. I operate with honesty and transparency with my peers, my subordinates and the leaders I work with. I am not afraid to share - glory, credit, success. I intuitively or explicitly know a lot about people and the subject matter we work within and I learn and adapt rapidly to new information with minimal delay or indecision.

Identification and overcoming the lies we sell ourselves on is only the first part and it's hard, but by far not the hardest. Habit and Decision Bias among other factors make adaptability and change hard for us. We're wired to do things that we convince ourselves are "right" or that "work." Even when that perception is in fact a self-delusion because of our perceived risk versus comfort or payout. 

Entire industries exist to assist people and organizations with handling change. Evolving and building or deconstructing habits to improve adaptability. Professionally, I adapt well because that's a skill necessary in incident response and crisis management - activities I've trained on, been conditioned to and feel comfortable within. Adapting myself however - is a challenge.

Once we've taken those internal inventories, and we've identified where we thrive and where we struggle, we have to move beyond and plan to change. Simply putting together visual reminders, or notes to help us recognize our sliding into tendencies can help reshape our thoughts and actions. Reading, and journaling for ourself - performing detached analysis and conducting after action reviews of our day or our week - and avoiding analysis paralysis with at predisposition to quick burst action, with immediate redirection is key to rewiring our default state. 

I know I've struggled adapting as a leader. I continue to work at growing and developing further into someone who empowers his peers and subordinates and I challenge any of you to take that same inventory for yourself. 

When was the last time you were the last leader to speak? When was the last time you started the discussion by engaging the thoughts of your most junior team and not clouding the discussion by weighing in until the natural point at the end of the discussion? When was the last time you actually did more talking than listening when you thought you needed to lead? 

If it wasn't yesterday or today, I'd recommend making sure it happens tomorrow.


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