I learned the hard way that this approach to your strategy is the only route to effective leadership and profitability. Follow these five lessons, so you won’t make the same mistakes I did.
Generals don’t win battles.
No matter how peaceful your business is, your leadership style can grow when you think like a military general. A General provides the resources, trains the troops, chooses the battleground, and outlines the strategy. And then, if they are wise, having issued their orders, they step back behind the lines and empower their frontline team to do the work, only intervening when needed. It’s generally not wise of the general – or any leader in any industry – to lead from the front.
I wasn’t wise.
I learned these five lessons the hard way. I’m hoping you won’t have to.
For years I was one of those generals who tried to lead from the front.
1) You Can’t Lead From The Front
For years I was one of those generals who tried to lead from the front. Like many newly promoted leaders, I rose to a position of leadership because I had boundless energy, put in an inhumane number of hours per day and was good at looking after the many small details. These are valuable skills in the non-profit world, where there’s never enough staff, little in the way of extra funds for outside consultants and each person has to do the job of three or four people. When I worked for small theatre companies or lead artistic networks in Alberta and later in Canada, I was praised for this.
So I became addicted to the praise.
My sense of worth came from how many tasks I could personally cross off my to do list in a given day. Administrative activities were seductive to me because they’re urgent and gave me an immediate reward when accomplished. I got a hit of dopamine when I finished a task, ticked the box, hit save on a proposal.
I came to crave the reward signal and it drove my attention to the minutia day after day.
I recall beaming with pride when I heard through the grapevine that a national arts leader had commented that “Ken accomplishes so much with so little, he must be a cyborg”. This same leader was on the hiring committee when I interviewed to be the Artistic Director of Magnetic North, which at the time was billed as Canada’s National Theatre Festival. Because of my reputation as someone who could things done, I got the job.
But the person who is great at executing tactics isn’t necessarily the person you want drawing up your strategy. Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist and general wrote in The Art of War that “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
I had learned to be great at execution and I had a compelling national vision, but I struggled to build an effective strategy that tied both pieces together. I was working IN the business, I wasn’t working ON the business.
The person who is great at executing tactics isn’t necessarily the person you want drawing up your strategy.
2) You Must Lead From Behind
Leading from behind isn’t cowardice or laziness. It’s trusting your team to execute your strategy.
There’s a reason why the coach isn’t allowed on the field or why the general stays behind the lines.
A leader’s job is to step back, see the big picture, adjust tactics as needed. A leader can’t be both IN the business (day-to-day administrative tasks) and than ON the business (thinking strategically about the business) at the same time. I focused too much of my energy looking for things to DO and not enough time setting the vision, devising the strategy and making sure our team was inspired to do the work.
“In fact, the more you focus on the day to day, the less likely transformation becomes,” says my friend and consultant Chris McGoff, author of The Primes. “As long as IN keeps a leader’s attention, nothing changes. Anyone can work IN a business, but if leaders don’t work ON their business, neither will anyone else.”
I was like the General who is mired in the battle instead of looking at the war.
One of my colleagues is fascinated by military history, particularly of the Napoleonic era. Long before he became Emperor, Napoleon grew to prominence for his work as a junior general on the front lines. There are multiple stories from this era of his personal bravery. In one such story, Napoleon pushed a corpse off a canon and took his place loading and firing the weapon, making a decisive difference in the battle.
But when he became Emperor and Commander in Chief he stopped loading the canons himself.
There is no way, even then, for a leader to lead while doing. It’s difficult for a modern reader to truly understand the scope of these enormous battles. The battle of Austerlitz, arguably Napoleon’s greatest military victory for instance, when he fought against the combined might of Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1805, was fought with over 158,000 men. That’s the entire population of a mid-sized city like Syracuse New York, Pasadena California or Oakville Ontario. In these cases, the battlefield itself was often obscured by the smoke from musket and canon fire.
Generals don’t win battles on their own. They provide the resources, train the troops, choose the battleground and outline the strategy. And then, if they are wise, having issued their orders they step back behind the lines and empower the junior officers and frontline soldiers do the work, only intervening when needed. It’s generally not wise of the general to lead from the front.
3) You Must Empower Your Team To Execute The Strategy
Just like an old-fashioned General, you have to learn that delegating isn’t the same as abdicating.
In the heat of the moment, when employee meets customer, there are an infinite number of small decisions that have to be made by innumerable individuals. These are the moments akin to hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield.
No leader can be present for each and every skirmish.
No leader can be present for each and every skirmish. They must rely on the discretion of their lieutenants, colonels, marshals and generals to manage these engagements, while they focus on the overall strategy. Strategy is understanding the big picture, knowing the goals your company wants to achieve, and the best tactics to fulfill the vision.
4) Your Strategy Is The Most Valuable Use Of Your Attention
As a leader, careful attention to the strategy is the most valuable use of your attention.
High-performance leaders need to be keenly aware of the issues, trends and challenges within the wider world that the company is facing. You must be able to take that macro-view and relate it to the strategy of the company as a whole. Then you must apply that understanding to the individual business unit/department/division that you are responsible for. Finally, you must translate all of this to your team and the work at hand so that every action is directed strategically to deliver benefit to your customers, audiences, end-users and the company as a whole.
Your job as a high-performance leader is to communicate its complexities simply and to keep everyone focused and on task.
Strategy is inherently complex, and part of your job as a high-performance leader is to communicate its complexities simply and to keep everyone focused and on task. It requires constant re-alignment to ensure that you are not drifting and to ensure that everyone remains results-oriented and accountable for its success.
When teams are not thinking “big picture” and working mindfully, little decisions can lead to failure. Whether it is a product that doesn’t work, a service that isn’t used, a program that isn’t booked, or a company that doesn’t survive, without strategy missteps and breakdowns are more frequent. Without learning from those missteps, and developing a new strategy, the breakdowns will continue.
5) You Must Learn that Your Flexibility is Your Resilience
The Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke wrote that a great leader must be prepared to abandon their strategy when circumstances on the ground change. “No plan,” he said, “survives first contact with the enemy.” Your plan – the strategy – will meet a similar fate if you try to implement without measuring its impact and constantly re-aligning as you proceed.
Strategy does not mean being overly rigid in what you’ve said you’ll do or the commitments you’ve made in the face of changing realities. Strategy is something you live, not something stored away in a document. It requires constant re-alignment to ensure that everyone remains accountable for the organization’s success.
No plan survives first contact with the enemy
Most businesses have existing channels to communicate strategy to their employees. They email a document, complete with a Gantt chart, and expect everyone to read understand and act accordingly. It doesn’t work this way. And the number of times that organizations lament about their team drifting off course and not adhering to the strategy is evidence of that. Just as common, is the number of times that employees lament about leaders who approve initiatives that are not aligned with strategy just because they are pet projects or a flavour of the moment.
A Strategy Is Just As Hard To Communicate As A Purposeful Vision.
In an earlier article, I wrote about how to inspire and engage your team by effectively communicating your purposeful vision. But purpose is pointless without strategy. And, just like purpose, you can’t describe your strategy once and expect everyone to follow it without error. You must repeat it until you feel like a broken record. And then, just when you’re tired of hearing yourself speak, you have to pull yourself together and repeat it one more time.
Strategy is about working towards your purpose with intent.
Strategy is about working towards your purpose with intent. It keeps everyone on your team mindful of all decisions. It ensures each of their actions contributes to the strength of the organization.
Pay close attention to the subtle distinction in that paragraph. It’s your purposeful vision. But it’s the team that’s going to get you there.
There’s a reason why the coach isn’t allowed on the field or why the general stays behind the lines.
This article is adapted from my upcoming book, How To Be A SHIFT Disturber: Creating a High-Performance Culture in 9 Not-So-Simple-But-Totally-Necessary Steps. I’ve committed to publishing one article a week for 9 weeks. Stay tuned!