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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Brennan

Leadership Lessons from the U.S. Army

It’s all about culture,” says retired U.S. Army Major General John F. Batiste. “If you don’t build your structure around values, it’s not going to work.” I heard this highly capable leader, who served in the first Gulf War and in Kosovo, speak in Dec. 2017 to a group of senior business executives. Here are some of his lessons for leaders.

Build a Learning Organization. “In any business there are some things that need to be executed perfectly. The other 95% of what you do is a grey area. You should allow for mistakes and learn from them.” How? Do what the military and crisis responders do, and conduct an After Action Report, debriefing with your team to identify what worked well and what needs to improve next time.

Create psychological safety. This requires leaders to model fallibility, ask a lot of questions and emphasize learning from mistakes. “People need to see you make mistakes. Ask a lot of questions to model curiosity. Ask what went right, what went wrong and what we need to do to fix it. People remain silent where there’s no psychological safety.”

Communicate about your organization’s values, culture and intent. “Leader’s intent” is a concept the Army uses to help everybody understand the mission. “Intent means desired end state, key requirements to achieve it, and the purpose. Keep it clear and brief, and repeat it frequently.”

Check for understanding. Batiste’s superiors taught him to do a “back brief” – a quick conversation to gauge how people on the team understand the leader’s intent. “Spend 10 or 15 minutes asking your junior leaders how they understand the mission and intend to accomplish it. And go 3 or 4 levels down. If you only listen to your direct reports you’ll be fooled every time.”

Encourage and expect initiative. “Judgement is learned, and the only way to develop it is to put people in situations where they have to exercise it.” When somebody takes initiative and succeeds, stand them up in front of their peers and recognize them. “Medals matter. Doing this makes it clear to everybody what you expect.”

I recognized that I already use some of these practices and want to do a better job with others. What do you think? How many of these leadership lessons do you use?

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