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The United States military has a bit of an advantage over most small to medium businesses in how it develops leaders. Perhaps companies with sufficient working capital can afford to have extensive leadership training, but most companies do not seem to prioritize leadership to the same extent that the military in the USA does.

For example, the military had a long history of effective leadership. New people entering the organization see the examples all around them in a myriad of situations. They can observe various styles of leadership in various situations and put some of these methods into their own leadership toolbox.

Another example is the leadership schools used by the US military. They have the organizational structure and budgets to operate their own school system. These include basic and advanced leadership training at the direct leadership levels (tactical) and go all the way to indirect leadership (leading other leaders) and to enterprise-level (strategic) leadership for organizations. Most profit and non-profit organizations do not allocate this level of resources to leadership training in their organizations. Instead of building their own leadership schools, many non-governmental organizations will either create in-house or license pre-made courses for facilitators to use or for web-based training. Learning management systems are starting to be more common in medium-sized organizations. For smaller organizations, open source LMS systems like Moodle can be used too.

Another advantage the military has is that they split up leadership into two areas. Commissioned officers focus on collective performance of the entire organization (platoon, company, battalion, brigade, etc.) while non-commissioned officers (NCOs) focus on individual performance. This separation of roles is not common is the commercial realm or that of non-profits. This teamwork between multiple leaders in an organization can make a huge difference in the success of the unit under the stress and strain of combat. In most non-military organizations, one leader focuses on both the individual performances and the collective performance of the organization.

Part of the reason for the emphasis on leadership in the military is that they have to prepare people to succeed in combat. Combat is one of the most (if not the most) unstructured and chaotic situations people have to operate in and leadership in combat requires practiced effective leadership, sometimes called “in the muscle”, rather than checklists or a new book, or ponder-as-you-go that might succeed in a slower-paced environment.

Teaching leadership is one thing. People do need a small degree of theoretical background. However, much more important is skill transfer to the job. This requires opportunities to practice and receive feedback in many different situations. This is another advantage the military has over most other organizations. The military system is designed to move people into various operational assignments that provide opportunities for leadership application, feedback, and improvement. Some companies like General Electric in the US do this too, but many small to medium sized businesses hire people for their specific job skill set and use them in that role until they leave the organization. Although such specialization can be effective for specific performances, it sometimes robs the organization of the leadership talents of their people. In many hiring situations, leadership is not even acknowledged or suggested as hiring criteria. Individual hiring managers will select for leadership on their own depending on their personal experience and background. In some organizations, with poor leadership histories have started to improve when a person with leadership ability gets into a key position with hiring/firing authority and starts including leadership as a criteria for hiring, promotion, and reassignment. They may or may not have the full support from supporting business processes like human resources functional groups. They may make these improvements on their own until a momentum starts to build. This can take time, months or years.

So non-military organizations can learn from the military leadership system and apply the parts that seem applicable to their situation.

Here are some suggestions.

  • Many organizations have implemented succession planning, but often stop there without the follow-up of developing the people they identified further. Rather than a once-per-year paper exercise, make a closed loop feedback system to ensure the planned developmental tasks get accomplished.
  • Watch for who effectively gets things done with others, getting both the results and keeping the group morale high. Offer them an additional project or two to confirm your observations. Then put them in charge of a more challenging situation or group. Support them with additional leadership training.
  • Be careful that your actions to develop are not perceived as exploiting them until they burn out and leave. This can be done most effectively by sincerely feeling this way. People see through insincerity quickly. Even high potentials need some feedback they are succeeding.
  • Pull together the executives who demonstrate the most effective leadership and ask them to help build the organization’s leadership capability. As a side effect, the organization will end up with a leadership development program. Focus on business objectives first keeps everyone focused on the best organizational outcomes.
  • Key individuals can start to use effective leadership as criteria in their advancement choices when vacancies open up or when re-structuring occurs. Not all supervisors and managers know how to do this. Start with those who do and begin and get some successes. Then focus on mentoring or training others on how to accomplish this. However, you’ll have more results from focusing on those that already know how and having them coach others than you will get trying to start from those with the least demonstrated leadership abilities. Apply Pareto analysis to figure out what 20% of your leaders get 80% of the results and begin with the 20% group.
  • Human resources groups can provide hiring managers behavioral interview questions that include leadership questions for supervisory and manager positions. Most people can spot effective leadership, but many don’t know how to go about assessing the degree of its existence. Job aids like this can help.
  • Executive hiring should always include leadership criteria.
  • Supervisors and managers at all organization levels can be provided training on providing opportunities for less experienced people who demonstrate above-average leadership potential.

However, manage expectations carefully with such a program so that people understand they are getting horizontal opportunities, not necessarily vertical opportunities. Some organizations have counted on specialized skills sets and have kept people in their same roles for 5, 10, 15 years. This does not typically offer promotional opportunities, but rather project opportunities.

Leadership is too vast of a subject for any one article to be comprehensive. Hopefully this has given you some ideas. How you improve is up to you.

Effective leadership is one of those intangible abilities that when present helps organizations in any endeavor.

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KW Lanham


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