Fog of Business War Turns to the Skills Sets of Generals as Leaders

With so much emphasis on how to reach millennials and the superiority of sitting around cross-legged on the floor of an open office design, it might seem odd that high-level military experience is sought after for leadership, but should it? From the Wall Street Journal, Generals Bring Battlefield Expertise to the Business World:

In the fog of war, and in peacetime, generals are trained to anticipate unknown risks, build high-functioning teams and make quick, strategic decisions in high-pressure situations. “They are the same traits necessary in the fog of business,” says Henry Stoever, a captain in the Marine Corps who is now chief marketing officer of the National Association of Corporate Directors.

…Companies, especially those in crisis, covet the reputational boost that comes from seeking the counsel of a former military leader, says Wendy Monsen, president of executive recruiter Korn/Ferry ’s federal-government practice. Whereas more than three-quarters of Americans trust the military to act in the public’s interest, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, only 41% feel the same way about business leaders.

What is surprising to learn is that the leadership styles do not reflect the command and control caricature that we might think, “Rather than barking orders and enforcing hierarchy, military leaders who succeed in the corporate world know how to coax different groups into collaborating, says retired Army Maj. Gen. Michael J. Diamond, an organizational leadership consultant.”

In other words, these backgrounds not only bring the strength of strategic vision and experience but character and leadership traits that are associated with the most effective and successful leaders, such as emotional intelligence, the ability to collaborate and getting others to cooperate. Not to mention a keen understanding of risk assessment. See the full article here.

The Distinctive Skill Set of a Leader

What could you learn (or benefit) from a Harvard Business Review article from nearly twenty years ago? Quite a bit. Emotion Intelligence, according to its great champion Daniel Goleman is remarkable in terms of impact among effective leaders:

To create some of the competency models, psychologists asked senior managers at the companies to identify the capabilities that typified the organization’s most outstanding leaders…When I analyzed all this data, I found dramatic results. To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels. (From Goleman, What Makes a Leader? in The Harvard Business Review, 1998).

EI is arguably the skill set above many, if not all others that distinguish a leader who is able to move things forward because she or he is good with others, being first and foremost, at ease with themselves, mature, experienced and in command of themselves. Goleman identified five distinctive elements that identify leaders who possess emotional intelligence in action, shown in the table below:

Goleman Emotional Intelligence Five Characteristics

See an overview below from the HBR blog and re-issue of the 1998 article, What Makes a Leader.




Silos in City Hall: We were not meant to live this way

A look around any number at city hall buildings in the greater Los Angeles area or the bay area of northern California will reveal some remarkable similarities. For example, if you are a Baby Boomer or on the older side of Generation X, what springs to mind when you remember the interior of public school buildings? Beige walls, embedded lockers, barbaric bathroom facilities, etc., and a general layout that was strangely familiar (when visiting) from one school to the next. Some of these layouts may have come from educational theory at the time and likely, that so many of the buildings were built about the same time.

Similarly, many city halls were constructed at about the same time, during infrastructure ramp ups in the height of the industrial era. But the configuration and layout of these buildings reflected management theory from that era as well – those rooted in an authoritarian construct. If you look at the average city hall layout, it would almost appear as though it was set up in order to create silos preventing communication and collaboration. These floorpans almost seem to connote organizational disfunction that was by design.

This reminds me of the excellent story of the Omnibus Series Wool. In this post-apocalyptic story, you have what is left of humanity living in a massive subterranean silo with various levels that were responsible for functions that kept the silo going: mechanical and power, healthcare, food, IT, administration, etc. But these levels of the silo, while interdependent on one another, did not generally cross pollinate in the social sense, and they certainly did not communicate well. As the story unfolds, you discover the intentional impediment to both communication and cooperation among the various communities. And they certainly struggled at real problem solving, such as how to eventually live outside the silo. Something within the protagonist kept telling her, “we weren’t supposed to live like this.” (By the way, if Hugh Howey saw his great story being used to illustrate this point, he might recommend that I be ‘sent out to cleaning’.)

Back to city hall layouts. My guess is that the contribution to disfunction was not by design, and that the layouts may have worked well in an era that was highly stable and very slow to implement changes reflected in advancements in business and society. But that brings us to this present time. 2016-04-03_22-01-29Irrespective of what may have worked in the past, why do such physical and organizational silos still exist? I think the root of the problem was captured well in Government Finance Review:

Many local government managers have long appreciated the potential benefits of breaking down silos – the barriers that exist between specialized functions – within government. However, for just as long (and usually successfully), silos have resisted integration. There is a good reason why silos persist: Different tribes of government workers, such as police, fire, building inspectors, and even public finance, benefit from having distinct languages, cultures, and work processes, which help organize the complexity of highly specialized professional endeavors.

This problem is not easily remedied, and there are as many organizational and physical challenges are there are people within these work spaces. The article goes on, “Why, then, despite the impressive gains that can be achieved, don’t silos cooperate more often? It is because the human brain makes sense of complexity by storing information in categories.”

So what strategies will begin to change this culture? It begins with leadership and vision. What worked in a different era may have little relevance today. Where a system, framework, guideline, rule or even workspace only exists because it always has, is probably in need of significant evaluation and assessment. This is especially true given that the largest working group (sub-cohort) in the prime working age bracket of the workplace is now between the ages of 25-29. The age of memos and silos has long past, it’s high time we acknowledged it.

Leadership and Developing Cooperative Participants

Team building is about leadership and discernment. Different strengths are needed at different times in a given context. This is why fit, among other qualifications is so important. But within any type of organization, there is the need for leadership who does not simply lead or direct, but develops cooperative participants. It is well established (and pretty much common sense) that a leader is going to build a team by outlining and inspiring vision, direction, and a cumulative goal. But what tools are effective for constructing and leading such a team, and what are the positive outcomes?  Many a strong personality can cajole people into action, with dictatorial command from behind, or at the other extreme, running roughshod over people so far in front that team members are discouraged from participating. This of course is not team building at all. And the real loss is missing out on all the distinctive strengths and perspectives that each member of a creative and critical thinking team can produce together.

One author has suggested three skills to correct this error where the contributions of team members are not being taken advantage of: inviting genuine critical assessment and input without fear of retribution, receiving input while suspending judgment of it, and acting in a responsive manner to questions. Pretty simple, but requiring a great deal of confidence to implement. Leaders who do this though, will draw out ideas and creativity that people may not realize they had and find that motivation becomes less of an issue to try and generate and more of one to steer in the right direction.

The Lesson of ‘Good Enough’

Comparing and contrasting the birds-eye view with the worms-eye view

The higher a person ascends the ranks of financial operations, the more imperative it becomes to discern between certain levels of detail, and the need to push work products forward to completion. This is especially true in the budgeting aspects of financial operations versus compliance issues in accounting and auditing which can become exceedingly nitpick at times. Closely related to this is the need to learn to communicate financial information to other business professionals who are not financial specialists. This can proved to be exceedingly difficult for a highly competent analyst who frankly, loves “getting their hands dirty.” In other words, this is not meant in any way to trivialize the value of a highly detail oriented analyst. But it is meant to serve as a cautionary note to those who wish to exercise leadership that is built upon their years of financial expertise. Two quick thoughts may serve to illustrate this: the worm’s eye view and the bird’s eye view, each with its strengths and limitations.

The worm’s eye view will assist with a great deal of detail, but sometimes distorts reality due to its limitations of vision. This is not to in any way demean or devalue the benefits or the work of highly detail oriented people. It is simply to say, sometimes in order to complete certain types of work in a timely manner, decisions of priority must take precedence over the desire to continue with hedgehog-like determination and the quest for perfection that is sometimes not practical.

The bird’s eye view on the other hand, enables a panoramic vision of the whole while simply limiting detail. Both have their function in analytical work. But here is the takeaway. Leaders communicating financial information need to be able to deliver highly summarized, accurate information. Then in an instant, zoom into detail in response to a question, request for clarification, etc. Then zoom back out to high level – smoothly and reassuringly. Listen to a few quarterly earnings conference calls for effective and ineffective examples. For the executive leader, a careful distinction between the two approaches and the timing of the each is essential.

Shared Credit for Hard Work

The way to get things done, is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them – Benjamin Jowett

Credit for hard work is not something we should seek to avoid. But at the same time, should we not be overly preoccupied with acknowledgement if our goal is truly to produce our very best work product [as possible] with what is required of us right now.  Self-aggrandizement, overbearing personalities, and the inability to actively and empathetically listen, short circuit the team building process and the natural outworking of progress.

This disproportionate concern with acknowledgment runs contra to the concept of a team, and its accomplishments.  Goals and objectives can still be accomplished by an organization with leadership who tends to be in it for themselves, but who wants to live “one man’s dream” when you could experience all the benefits of healthy team effort? It goes without saying that at best, it is generally not pleasant for those who have to constantly to one person’s ideas to the exclusion of all others. But at worst, over the long haul, an organization will have to deal with the wreckage of only one person being heard. When contributors are heard, included and acknowledged, I think it will encourage not only being truly on board with an organization and its mission, but these same people can become the greatest advocates for changes needed in response to challenges.

Procrastination: An Overwhelming Sense of Dread

Sometimes when I procrastinate, I find it is out of a sheer overwhelming sense of dread.  This dread is knowing what needs to be done, and for whatever reason, perhaps outside pressure, truncated schedule, the mental or physical output of energy needed, or maybe all contribute to coming up with any and every rationale for not concentrating on the most important thing to be doing right now. An article that appeared in the Journal of Psychology from a decade ago asserts that this “self-regulatory avoidance reaction” or our inability to exercise the willpower or self-control needed to concentrate or direct our energies to the right task, is “core central to procrastination.” It is suggested that part of the resolution to procrastination is associated with understanding the behavior and then avoiding it. In other words, admit it with the intention of quitting it.  

In my early college years, the need for self-control in time management was self-obviating, and I regularly admitted it.  And the discovery of the to do list was nothing short of revelatory.  This was first suggested to me by a professor my very first finals week when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed.  The reasoning was, “get all these items you are thinking about ‘out of your head’ so you can concentrate on the most important task right now, then, move on to the next one and so on.”  The very practical (and in some ways original work in modern time management), How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, outlines various tests and exercises for coming up with goals, objectives, and prioritization, and listing them out in different groupings, with each group having a special purpose, a similar method. Followed by the addition of monitoring safeguards similar to those set forth in the Journal of Psychology. 

For everyone within the organization from the admin to executive leadership and everyone in between, these principals are important. But for the executive leader, self-control in one’s use of time has tremendous implications. And this is our leverage: prioritization, improvement and innovation for the purpose of actually working smarter, rather than longer and longer. It’s one or the other. I have observed many over the years who put in excessive hours and sadly, this does not automatically translate into a great team builder, great leader, or someone who really takes advantage of the of the resources available to them, just someone who seems to be defined by long hours. I have also worked in these environments and have put in excessive hours myself because the whole culture and system required it, and I really do not think it has benefited me at all, besides reinforcing my work ethic. Learning to leverage available resources (the most significant by far being people) is critical to success. Time has it’s limitations – 168 hours per week – leverage is potentially limitless. As Alan Lakein encouraged his readers forty or so years ago to answer, “what is the most important thing to be doing right now?” Stop procrastinating and do it now.

Innovation Is Not Invention

“Above all, innovation is not invention. It is a term of economics rather than of technology. Non-technological innovations – social or economic innovations – are at least as important as technological ones.” Peter Drucker

Based on Drucker’s definition of innovation, when we as an organization, identify community needs and convert them into real-life solutions that affect the health, well being and happiness of a community, that is organizational innovation. This is what is particularly satisfying about working in the public or the non-profit sectors of business. These areas of work lend to mission oriented, values driven activity. But it does not have to be limited to there. With a different application of course, private sector (while a little less public mission oriented), can  be just as values driven and possibly contribute even more in certain contexts. This is the very positive side of understanding how we used to describe commercial activity years ago: business and society.

The Future of Problem Solving

In our time, there is a new requisite skill set: being a futurist. A futurist was once only an avocation among the best of thinkers, and somewhat of a novelty and a subset of sociological and economic studies. It is very interesting to read authors like Alvin Toffler or Peter Drucker (along with a number of others) and observe how they saw things sometimes dimly, but often very clearly that were seemingly hidden to others. But it has been decades now since the advent of the information age and the decline of the industrial era. What this has created is an environment where it is no longer an option but to take charge of one’s future, in terms of actively, deliberately and even aggressively engaging in activity that is inherently future in its benefits. To a certain degree, success means understanding the future is simply not an option.

Problem solving has always been a core skill of leadership, but increasingly, this skill as a requirement has migrated to the average employee. To make this even more complex, the motif we hear regarding the next generation of leaders is the ability to solve problems that do not yet exist. Just to name a few, an article from from several years ago cites:

Alternative Currency Bankers – According to Javelin Strategies, 20% of all online trades are already being done with alternative currencies. The stage is being set for next-gen alt-currency banks.

Waste Data Managers – To insure data integrity in today’s fast evolving information storage industry, multiple redundancies have been built into the system. Achieving more streamline data storage in the future will require de-duplication specialists who can rid our data centers of needless copies and frivolous clutter.

Privacy Managers – If you think you have lost most of your privacy already, we’ve only scratched the surface. We are all terminally human, and as such, we do not always make good decisions. Striking the perfect privacy-transparency balance will require far more than amateur insights. It will require a privacy professional.

Government Agency Dismantlers

See the full post from 2011 here. Some of these ideas might have seemed absurd a few years ago, but have already come began to be put into practice. Years ago Alvin Toffler warned,

Perhaps the greatest cost of wave conflict in America will be paid by the millions of children currently compulsorily enrolled in schools that are attempting to prepare them – and not very successfully at that – for jobs that won’t exist. Call that stealing the future.

The takeaway? Try something new as an antidote to paralysis or as Toffler also warned,“if you don’t develop a strategy of your own, you become a part of someone else’s.”

Purpose and Vision Will Keep Us On Target

I was reading through (and writing about) the BIS 84th Annual Report recently and was struck by the tone of the introductory remarks,

The global economy continues to face serious challenges. Despite a pickup in growth, it has not shaken off its dependence on monetary stimulus. Monetary policy is still struggling to normalise after so many years of extraordinary accommodation. Despite the euphoria in financial markets, investment remains weak. Instead of adding to productive capacity, large firms prefer to buy back shares or engage in mergers and acquisitions. And despite lacklustre long-term growth prospects, debt continues to rise. There is even talk of secular stagnation.

What also struck me was that this section was titled, “In search of a new compass.” The repeated occurrence of “despite,” followed by some good news, that is ultimately eclipsed by bad news underscores the point that in spite of five years of economic recovery, this time is indeed different. Most importantly, the above statements speak of policymakers in search of direction.

The context of such headwinds puts extraordinary pressure on those who are trying to navigate their own career through such challenges. This is particularly felt among those who are either searching for employment, or simply searching for direction. In an age where we are bombarded with more information than can ever be processed or analyzed, this highlights the importance of principles and guidelines that are timeless in nature. I thought about that as I recently came across this excellent quote from Daniel Webster:

If we work upon marble, it will perish. If we work upon brass, time will efface it. But if we work upon immortal minds, and instill into them just principles, we are then engraving upon tablets which no time will efface but will brighten and brighten to all eternity.

Purpose and vision will keep us moving the right direction, whatever the challenge. And when we get off track, that same statement of values and mission, will point us back in the right direction.

The Shelf Life of Innovation

For a visionary, a perfectionist, an idealist or someone who is driven by simply tying to get things right organizationally, there is a great deal of satisfaction in driving innovation whether it be product, process or service. But just about everything we work with was once an innovation. Everything was new once. It is not enough to fix something, and then create a monument to it in the form of a process that soon becomes dated and ineffective. Or worse, protect that monument rather than allow the present order to be disrupted with ideas that we may not quite understand. What needs to happen is outlined in The Case for Institutional Innovation,

In today’s environment of exponential technology change and market uncertainty, institutions that can drive accelerated learning will be more likely to create significant economic value on a sustainable basis… As institutions are rearchitected to take advantage of rapidly evolving technology infrastructures to scale learning, they can become more adept at generating richer innovations at other levels, including products, services, business models, and management systems.

This goes for every type of organization, including governments. This is perhaps especially true for smaller governmental entities even though such organizations are being challenged due to overall economic trends and possibly, long-term shifts in revenue. However, due to their manageable size, the above stated innovational trends are entirely possible if such an organization adopts and aggressively implements a philosophy of learning from top to bottom. This can be largely implemented through scaled learning, rather than simply turning to economy of scale. It does not necessarily have to be a choice between the two, scaled learning can take place in any context, and it does not require of formal system in place. This is the nature of a learning organization and the characteristic that emerges within an organizational culture that leverages learning opportunities. And it begins with leadership and willpower.


Hagel, J. III & Brown, J. Institutional innovation: Creating smarter organizations to scale learning.