Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Do Marines Have to Learn about Leadership and Management?

Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward) take notes during
the Lance Corporals Seminar at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, Jan. 26, 2011.
The 3-day seminar aimed to teach the junior Marines the fundamentals of
Marine Corps leadership in preparation for when they become
noncommissioned officers. (Photo by 1st Marine Logistics Group.)
It has been a while since I posted my two missives on leadership and management in the military.

Overall, they were well received, but could use some refinement.  I'll lay out some caveats, then talk about what I've learned from a cursory dive into the literature, then discuss how this impacts my recent commentary about the institution, the budget battle, and Goldwater-Nichols.  I'll break this up into two posts, the first covering the background, the second talking about the application.

First, some caveats.  This message is targeted at the battalion-level and above, though some of its lessons could be used at lower levels.  Overall, I think we do a decent job of leadership at the small unit level and real management is not required for the most part in smaller formations.  Second, my background is from aviation, which brings significant requirements for management at the squadron/battalion level.  We have our own maintenance in the Marine Corps, a significant budget/flight hour program to manage, plus the detailed training and qualification of hundreds of aircrew, for a C-130 squadron.  This perspective is different than a ground-based battalion, however I still think that the unit sizes require management and leadership.

Unsurprisingly, I could not find any one prevailing "doctrinal" definition of leadership or management.  There are different interpretations, but the most useful dichotomy I found was managing stasis versus leading change.  Some did make the distinction between managing things and leading people, but this was not universal and I find it unhelpful.  The best summary I found was from John Kotter in a Harvard Business Review article titled "What Leaders Really Do."  The summary was particularly helpful in making a dichotomy between managers (first) and leaders (second).  When you read this, I implore you to realize that both are absolutely critical to success.
  • "Planning and budgeting versus setting direction."
  • "Organizing and staffing versus aligning people."
  • "Controlling activities and solving problems versus motivating and inspiring."

In this dichotomy, managers run the trains, leaders map out new plans and align people and their aspirations to attain those plans.  Realize that in most organizations, these functions are conducted by the same people.  In the military, I think that we have a massive problem with all of the activities in the management "column."  We really don't care for them and often don't give them the attention they deserve.  In the leadership column, we institutionally ignore the first two major bullets, and focus on the third with little to guide what we're motivating and inspiring about.  Of course, we write up service visions and commander's philosophies, but these are far too often lofty and vapid statements with little real meat.  Our leaders, at various levels, do not take the time to get with their middle management to pass their vision, their direction, the important communications from the institution, etc.  In 15 years, I cannot think of a time when a leader of the rank of colonel or above ever called his career officers together to express vision, to explain policy, or to define a way ahead, except for officers who had just taken command or were on their way out, or for safety standdowns.  Perhaps this is unique to the air wing.  I know that some high performing outside institutions make it a point to ensure that senior leaders regularly pass such vision and guidance to their key middle management to ensure that the institutional culture is properly conveyed and that the institution's vision remains fresh and updated in this critical sector's minds.

Returning to the management column, this is the bread and butter of "stasis."  If we are not instituting new processes, management is what must be done in order to ensure the trains run.  If we don't properly plan, budget, staff, and control activities, chaos ensues.  Continuous crisis mode.  Sound familiar?  Budget deficiency letters?  Who are we going to send to that next class?  That next IA?  Have we submitted the budget?  Our TEEP?  Document x, y, or z?  That was due last month?  That's due tomorrow?  This is all a failure of management.

Sometimes we are in crisis mode because our processes are broken or because we need to overhaul our way of doing things.  Change requires leadership.  But in keeping with the stop-doing approach of Matthew May, which I've referenced previously, we have to decide what really needs changing and doing and to stop doing and changing what doesn't.  So, leaders must set priorities and be honest about what can really be done.  The literature says that an effective leader-manager only focuses on one task at a time.  I don't buy that, as some tasks take quite some time and must be run concurrently with others.  I believe this is more of a recommendation to delegate.  The boss can't be laser focused on everything all the time, so if he wants his organization to do multiple tasks concurrently, he needs to properly delegate so that a principal can focus sufficiently on the one or two tasks that the boss has prioritized for him and delegate others to his subordinates.  Note, if you only focus on one or two tasks at a time, you can't micromanage!!

Avoiding micromanagement and promoting effective management and leadership goes beyond that.  Another HBR article by Torbert and Rooke lays out the "Seven Transformations of Leadership." In this they lay out seven types of "action logic" and their strengths and weaknesses and suggest means to transform from the weaker types to the stronger types. The military personnel system tends to produce mostly the weaker and few of the former through its rewards and metrics.  The sort-term nature of assignments and our grading scale mean that there is a bias for short-term outlooks, immediate results, and little long-range thinking. These are characteristics of their opportunist category. The system rewards those who make no errors and do not rock the boat:  their diplomat.  The system rewards experts through its focus on MOS proficiency and the touchstone of "experience" and tactical proficiency. They warn that the expert action type often lacks emotional intelligence and "lacks respect for those with less experience." Familiar?  The system rewards achievers that meet strategic goals.  The authors warn that these sorts lend themselves to managerial work, but are unable to think outside the box.  hile we might not think that their individualist type is rewarded in our system (ignores rules, irritates colleagues by ignoring process and people), this is the type where people shake their heads and how s/he advanced and others say, "Well, he gets things done."

Their ideal types are the strategist and the alchemist. The other types can be transformed into these types, but the focus on long-term vision and change, sometimes at the expense of short-term results, militates against these transformations. Additionally, the constant reshuffling of personnel works against leaders settling into a role for long enough to really develop these characteristics.  Here, I'm certainly not arguing for longer promotion timelines. I'm arguing for being more honest about who might develop these skills and to plop them down into key positions for longer, rather than lacking the moral courage to break people out and running everyone through a seat to get their "check in the box." What is more, the short term focus of our assignments, commands, and fitreps means that no one is going to follow the "stop doing" approach. Every assignment is a 6-18 month dead spring of creating new initiatives for fitrep bullets, meaning that the ship is listing all over the place as we continually change tack, shift priorities, drop initiatives of our predecessors, and start new ones.  This has to stop.

There is much more literature out there and if you want a deeper, less rambling education, I encourage you to search on the titles I've referenced and branch out from there.  I'll include a few "actionable items" drawn from the above, brief intro.
  • Leading for change requires SETTING PRIORITIES.  Set your priorities and remind your people what they are.
  • Leaders focus only on one or two key projects.  Other projects should be truly delegated or set aside.  Again, PRIORITIES.  For real.
  • True delegation means you let someone else deal with the issue and report back.  Don't micromanage.
  • Management is not a dirty word.  Management is the planning, budgeting, staffing, control, and other functions that keep a situation in stasis.  Manage stasis, lead change.
  • The short-term nature of our assignments militates against the long view.  Commanders, have moral courage, identify your real performers, and put them in the seat for as long as possible.  We don't need more incompetent majors, lieutenant colonels, and above.  We're good on those.
  • Stop doing.  Follows from prioritization.  Instead of a whole bunch of fitrep bullet programs that your successor will drop, focus on a few long-term projects that will truly be enduring and beneficial.  If nothing needs or can be changed, manage stasis.  It is ok.
  • Even if we do not institutionalize 360-reviews for fitness reporting, we should have a periodic "gut check" to inform leaders.  I had to do one of these for a boss who went to NDU.  Maybe this should be a requirement for each level of PME?
  • For each level of PME, we must add some management literature.  We are managers/leaders during much of our career.  We don't know anything about it.  We need education.
  • Senior leaders must do a better job of communicating, truly, with their middle management.  There is a huge disconnect.  We never see you guys (not that any of you are reading this).  A periodic email to majors and above?  Captains and above? would be nice.
    What are your priorities?  The services?  The latest feedback from the theater, the Pentagon, etc?  What should we expect in the coming year? How do you want us to develop as officers?

    A brief, personal note would go a long way, even just in an email.  Find time to address your career officers periodically in person.  Institutional leaders, you could do the same.  Even a video, and not a flashy, vapid address, but an honest talk about your vision to professional peers, to be broadcast for all PME students, tailored to level, in their seminars around the country would be worthwhile.  Don't bother if you are not going to be truly frank.  Or, send your local senior leadership to these seminars once a year.
  • Revise the fitness reporting system, once again, to focus more on management skills, specifics of leadership, and the action logic of officers.  Stop the forced inflation (a whole other topic) by purporting that my statement "Capt X is an average officer" is adverse.  By definition, most of our officers are average.  We have to be able to say so.  Include a required comment on the officer's key weakness.  This would help see through the smoke.  "Maj Y consistently produces superior results, but his drive for results sometimes comes at a cost to readiness/his Marines/his family/his fitness/his health."  If we force officers to provide one comment for constructive criticism, it both provides a basis for improvement and gives the board a more developed picture.
  • Select and assign fewer, better key billet holders who sit for longer.

1 comment:

  1. Maj Munson,

    I like where you are going with this post. I feel there is a deficit in certain areas of our leadership/management development philosophy as well as our approach to education. I have alluded to this in a couple of other comments, but it is clear to me now what I want to put on the table for everyone.

    First, I like your point that the short term nature of our assignments stifles long term vision. It seems to me that commanders (battalion level) take charge with the light already appearing at the end of the tunnel. The mad sprint to accomplish as much as possible in a short amount of time suppresses the will to make major personnel changes to critical line numbers, especially when there may not be a possible replacement for months, if at all. The commander is essentially held hostage by mediocrity for the duration of his/her tour and I do not subscribe to the idea that it is always a "leadership failure" on their part.

    I'll save most of my thoughts on the performance evaluation system for another, more robust post. I would like to just publicly acknowledge that I agree with your allusion to the fact that we have somehow managed to make our scarlett letter "A" (adverse) worse and more despicable than Nathaniel Hawthorne's - so much that commanders are afraid to mention the "career killer" in casual conversation. The alternative is a "B" which basically states the Marine comes to work and does what he/she is supposed to do. What if they don't? What if they are sub-par and you and your subordinate leaders have not done that great of a job creating the requisite mile long CYA paper trail of counselings? Should that still be adverse? ("Blasphemy!") Again, there are many, many nuances to this, and it is just as much a part of the art of leadership as a part of the science, so I will table this until further posts...

    What I really want to get at is your comment about using management literature at the different PME levels. As a newly invited blogger in this forum, I am going to start a series on how we can enhance our 'field of view' with respect to leadership and management practices through corporate literature.

    Thanks for the post sir; it was a good read.