We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. This officer wanted our team of mentor-Marines to patrol the route that held the record for greatest number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ever found in our area of operations. On foot. At night. With Afghan military partners we had just met, and who we didn’t fully trust yet.
Our previous set of partners had attacked us, their own mentor team, inflicting 25 percent casualties. Two were killed, including the lieutenant colonel leading the team. HQ sent me as a replacement, along with a major whom the deceased lieutenant colonel had intentionally reassigned away from the team. Now we were commanded by him, an officer none of us liked, respected, or trusted. And I was his second-in-command.
“Great!” quipped one of our lieutenants. “We’ll find the IEDs a way none of the Taliban would ever expect… with our legs!”
Luckily for everyone, this major was soon recalled to be investigated for misconduct. His last significant act before departing? Promoting me to Captain, the senior officer on the team. Super.
That “leader” failed. I’ve seen others fail, too, and have done some failing of my own. I’ve also witnessed some leaders succeed beyond any reasonable expectation. This is true for both of my main areas of professional experience: the military and technology products. However, the leadership training we’re offered as Marine Officers is among the best in the world, and the fire of experience in which we temper that training is hotter than most.
I spent the first eight years of my professional life leading operations and intelligence in the U.S. Marine Corps. Since then, I’ve led product management teams. Some of the techniques from one context can apply well to the other, and below I outline when and how they can transfer, because the core elements of leadership are universal.
Leaders are essential to the success of any goal. These individuals are the ones who outline
the vision, guide and mentor teams, and demonstrate how to accomplish
lofty goals. Leadership is not an option— it’s a necessity.
There are four main facets of leadership that can and should be practiced in any context:
1. Lead by example. You must always set a proper example for your people to mirror. This is the best way to set your team up for success earlier on and prevent ambiguity.
2. Share the mission. You must articulate the mission, prioritize it, and explain the who, what, when, where, and (most crucially) the why.
3. Tend to your team. You must take care of your people. You must employ your people in accordance with their strengths, help them to learn and develop, and look out for their welfare.
4. Be an authority. Be visible as a leader. If it isn’t apparent who is leading, things can become chaotic. But this is a deceptive and difficult element, you’ll have to be careful with it.
We all know that leader. The one that goes above and beyond.
This person is the one who’s in before anyone else every morning and
stays until the last person leaves. They seem to know a little bit of
every person’s job and pitches in on any task when needed. They understand what motivates the people they lead and
communicate with them clearly, in the ways they need. They know when a
teammate needs a break or vacation and asks them to take it. This leader
isn’t afraid to take one themselves.
We all feel compelled to follow this person whether they’re in a position of formal authority or not. He or she may not do everything, but they would never ask someone to do something that they would not do themselves. This person is leading by example.
If someone is leading and people are following, then there must be
something that needs to get done. This element of leadership empowers
those in charge to share the “why” of
any effort. The military inculcates leaders with the “5Ws”—who, what,
when, where, and, most importantly, why. We’re trained to formally
convey the why at least two levels up in organizational structure.
Every member of the team understands the intent behind the mission and how it fits into the mission of the next level up, the adjacent teams, and even the level above that (e.g. a squad knows the platoon’s mission and the company’s too). This way, if communication becomes untenable and subordinate leaders (or anyone) needs to make a decision, they can. They are empowered to decide in a meaningful way because they understand the whole of the mission.
A vital element of leadership involves fully knowing the people on your team and looking out for their well-being.
A leader must employ a team in accordance with their abilities, and
must understand their motivations and needs, and communicate with them
clearly. A leader recognizes the importance of leading people only by
their consent. If a leader can’t outline a mission worth achieving and
demonstrate that they truly care about the team, trust will be lost.
Employees know when a leader cares about them deeply and when a manager
views them merely as a resource. Leaders must invest in their teams,
constantly develop their skills,
and establish a connection. A leader must love their team. When the
time comes that a leader must ask for sacrifices, it is knowing that the
leader loves them that allows teams to persevere.
One of the most successful recent technology-related turnaround stories
relates directly to mission and teams. When Satya Nadella took the reins
at Microsoft, he stepped into an organization where the mission as
written arguably no longer applied. Team welfare was so neglected that
cartoonists depicted the company as at war with itself.
Many authors have written about the turn-around Nadella led by resetting
Microsoft’s mission to “empower every person and every organization on
the planet to achieve more.” He did so because the former mission of
“[a] PC in every home” had become obsolete. As he led the company into the cloud-based future with Azure, he simultaneously took care of his team.
Nadella required executives to read “Non-Violent Communication,” which helped remedy a culture of negativity and infighting. By changing Microsoft’s mission and taking care of his team, he lived up to his highly visible position.
It’s important for people to know who is in charge so there aren’t competing missions. But the issue with being visible is that if you haven’t taken care of the previous three elements of leadership, you will lose your status as a trusted leader rapidly. The worst “leaders” are those with status and titles, but without competence in the mission, team, or example.
Some people mistakenly believe that having visibility and being seen as in charge will have a self-reinforcing effect.
Sometimes, as my team experienced, someone will be handed a position
without fully deserving it. This can happen in the product world just as
in the military. When it does, it can put the success of the mission
and the team at risk.
Leaders can mitigate this risk by working to overcome gaps and relying on already-experienced leaders for assistance. This requires dedication, authenticity, and the humility to work to improve yourself.
All in all, you must take care of your people, protect them, and employ them in accordance with their abilities. Give your team a purpose to work towards to make it all worth it. Be visible, noticeable, and seen so your people can follow your example, take care of each other, and accomplish the mission. And finally, you must set the standard for excellence through example.
The original version of this post appeared on the ProductCraft blog
Richard Porter is an Offering (Product) Manager at IBM based in Raleigh, NC, and veteran Marine. The above article represents his personal thoughts and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions, nor those of the U.S. Marine Corps or government of the United States. He also writes about Product Management and the Art of War.