Sunday, August 10, 2008

Capt Jack had it Made!

Captain Jack Aubrey was the commander of the HMS SURPRISE in the 2003 film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," as adapted from Patrick O'Brian's series of novels.  The movie itself is probably the finest cinemagraphic representation ever of the realities of life aboard a naval vessel in the days of, "Wooden ships and iron men."  Though Capt Jack is fictional, his position as master of a fighting frigate is clearly historical.  From my position as a commander in the 21st Century I look at Capt Jack with great envy.  While he was at sea, his only duty was to ensure that his men were doing their duty and that ship was well tended, fitted and fought.  He had little, if any, administrative minutiae to fog his days.  He kept logs, wrote letters, and read & reread accounts of other naval officers, to be sure, but the majority of his time was spent on the weather decks ensuring that his ship was on course and "tight." 
Unlike Capt Jack, I am constantly buried in an avalanch of paperwork to the extent that it takes significant effort just to get out of my office.  There is so much that I could do that I have had to deliberately choose what will not get done.  Modern communication technologies, as great as they are, more often add to time pressures than take away from them.  Here's an example.  When I first came on active duty we had very few computers capable of performing word processing.  As a result, if I wanted to type up something official, I had to use a typewriter.  We didn't even have electric ones - just manuals.  When I finished writing my document and wanted to forward it to someone in another command, I either had to hand-deliver it, or put it in a messenger envelope and have it sent through our courier system.  If I sent it at the beginning of one week I might reasonably expect a documenatry response by the beginning of the next week.  Now someone will forward a 15-page document by email and expect it to be read, digested and critiqued in less than an hour.  That might be fine if it were done only once a day.  The reality is that the ease of generating documentation with today's technology means that the quantity of documentation has multiplied exponentially.  This boils down to a lot more time looking at my computer and trying to dig through my "in" box than I would like to be spending. 
Good leadership is about people.  Just as life is about people.  Everything else pales in importance to people.  If my paperwork doesn't have a beneficial effect on the people with whom I am charged to lead, then it is counterproductive and a "sea-anchor" slowing progress.  There are some collaborative tools out there that I want to investigate using in order to decrease the time it takes for me to handle paperwork, but for the moment I still find myself signing my name up to 50-60 times a day on documents that I usually have to reacquaint myself with in order to ensure that what I'm signing is accurate & trustworthy. 
No matter how important a piece of paper is to the operation of my unit, I still need to get out to see, and be seen by, the people I lead.  I've already had several situations in which I have learned things just by visiting my people, that I otherwise never would have known.  In those situations I have learned of needs that I could fill in order to help my people get the mission accomplished.  There is no great leadership without presence.  No email or video teleconference can make up for looking someone in the eye and dripping sweat with the people in your charge. 
Jack Aubrey had it good.  He was on a small ship with a contained amount of sailors.  They learned very quickly what was important to him and what he expected.  That is critical for anyone in a leadership role.  One of the things I'm doing to get out from behind my desk is that I'm going to get a stand-up desk soon.  It will make walking away from my office that much easier, because I'll already be standing.  More updates on this later.
If you haven't done so yet, watch "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."  It's a great leadership film.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

What are Your Standards?

Part of almost every military officer's career is the study of leadership.  I will caveat that and say that, though we almost always talk of "leadership" as a positive virtue, the fact is that leadership is often bad, because bad leadership is pretty easy.  It doesn't take much effort to lead poorly.  Great leadership, on the other hand, is inconvenient.  It requires focus and effort on almost everything put personal desires and comfort. 
So, we study good leadership in order to have the tools to lead well those of whom we have been given charge.  I keep several books on leadership on my desk and every day read a few passages or paragraphs in order to get thoughts on leadership flowing.  One passage I read last week really got me thinking about the standards by which we critique ourselves and our oranizations.  The author mentioned how a large athletic shoe company might motivate their employees by setting a goal to "beat" their major competitor, or a rental car company might do the same.  The author mentioned these as possible means by which an organization may establish unifying goals for its members - goals/objectives that motivate everyone to work together to achieve. 
The more I thought about this passage, though, the more it bothered me.  It finally hit me why I think this type of goal-setting is only second-rate at best.  Setting your sights on outperforming a competitor, in effect, means that you are letting the competition set the performance standards.  If we succeed by just being "better" than another organization (and what metrics do you use to make the comparison?), then what do we do when we "arrive?"  Does the goal then become, "staying ahead of the competition,"?  If so, the competition is still the one setting the standard by which we judge ourselves. 
I just don't think there is any way around the need to have objective, immutable standards by which we judge our own performance and the performance of the organizations with which we are associated.  Let's take our athletic shoe company as an example.  Instead of setting a goal to provide a greater monetary return for investors than the current, "industry leader," this company could decide that its objective, immutable standards include high quality products, great customer service and a corporate environment in which excellence, honesty and valuing individuals are the most important characteristics of daily operations.  What the competition does or doesn't do has no impact on those standards at all.  In fact, the company could be tracking very well on all those standards but not be the "industry leader" in terms of profitability.  So what?  Most people who we want to be around would much rather be part of an organization in which excellence and taking care of people are highly valued and rewarded. 
A benefit of being imperfect human beings is that we can always improve.  Therefore, if we have standards that require perfection to attain, we may never get there, but we can always get closer than where we are right now.  Objective, immutable standards of performance keep us focused on the right path and protect us from using subjective comparisons to others in order to justify complacency or laziness.  Improvement is a journey, not a destination.
"Take responsibility, finish well & have fun!"

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Boss Sets the Pace - Whether He/She Knows it or Not

This morning I learned a very valuable lesson in pace-setting.  Physical Training (PT) is a staple of military life.  This morning the commander of one of my subordinate elements invited me to participate in PT with his unit.  That’s one of those invitations that a commander really can’t easily refuse.  Since the session was based around a formation run of about 3.5 - 4 miles (you know, the ones where someone is singing “Jodies” and the unit repeats the lines) I used my status as a “guest” to run in different places of the formation and be seen by the personnel.  At one point I sprinted up to the front and ran next to the commander – the one who works directly for me.  Very soon I realized that we had picked up the pace significantly.  I had inadvertently become the pacesetter.  In my mind I was just trying to be with my subordinate and let him know that I was enjoying the invitation, but as I got to his pace, he wanted to make sure that he wasn’t running slower than I was, so he sped up a bit.  Simultaneously, I wanted to ensure that I didn’t fall behind his pace, so I sped up, too.  Pretty soon we had accelerated significantly -  much to the chagrin of the personnel behind us.  


I realized very quickly that my presence at the head of the formation had immediately resulted in a change of pace – and the pace was faster.  Even though I was the senior person there, I was an invited guest of my subordinate, and I did not want to overshadow his position.  It was a very poignant lesson on how the senior person out front sets the pace for an organization, and may inadvertently cause subordinates to toss aside plans that had been well-thought-out.  Sometimes, good leaders need to make radical changes in order to get subordinates out of inefficient or dangerous ruts.  However, things like that need to be done deliberately and with great forethought.  Getting out in front and making great changes, or implementing the “bright idea of the week,” can put an organization into terminal confusion.  I once had a commander who was a great man to work for, but had a different “bright, big idea” every week.  In August of 2000, after he came to my office and elaborated on his latest brainchild, I finally said, “Sir, I’m still working on your great ideas from April.  Can we slow down on the changes for a while?”  



  • Leaders, good and bad, set the pace for their organizations, whether they realize it or not.  A good leader will regularly seek feedback as to the effect his/her pace is having on the organization, and then evaluate whether that effect is beneficial and how to maintain or alter the pace as necessary to meet the goals of the organization.  



Monday, July 14, 2008

In Command

Command – leadership – and, in fact, all of life is about PEOPLE! We become so caught up in, and enamored by systems and processes that we forget that PEOPLE are the spice of life – the sources of the greatest joys (and the greatest sorrows) of our lives. Systems, programs and processes are supposed to help us care for people and help them succeed. Unfortunately, getting a system to work becomes so daunting a task that we achieve nominal success with the “thing” at the expense of the people for which the “thing” is supposed to exist in the first place. Accountability of equipment is a big deal in the military. Some units have in trust millions of dollars-worth of taxpayer-funded equipment. We need to ensure that it remains where it’s supposed to be, is used as it was intended and is maintained properly. Why is all that important? So that our people can use that equipment to ensure that the bad guys die, surrender, or otherwise decide that fighting us doesn’t make them good risks for the Term Life Insurance advertised on satellite TV last night.


  • It’s amazing how most people respond when someone higher up the chain of command demonstrates true care & concern. How is that done? It spelled T-I-M-E. Taking 30 seconds to look an individual in the eye and really listen can change a life.
  • People outside of established standards are not horrible losers – they’re just outside of the standards. It’s in their interest, and the interest of the organization for them to get back into standard.
  • Give people your honest opinion – backed up with actions that demonstrate that you truly care. If you have proven that you care, your opinion, even a critical one, will be received with sobriety.

More to follow - Dirk

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three weeks in....

Now that I’ve been in the saddle for three weeks I’ve gotten over most of the saddle sores, but it is still a challenge.  I’m still “learning the ropes,” but I think my level of competence is increasing steadily – at least I hope so!  The mountains of paperwork associated with being “the boss” are staggering.  There are so many documents that require my signature by policy that I’ve found myself having to either come in early or stay late in order to have unhindered time at my desk in order to wade through it all.  I have determined, though, that I’m not going to be glued to my computer screen or chained to my desk any more than necessary.  If I’m stuck behind my desk I can’t interact with the people who make our organization successful.  They need to know what I intend and what I think is appropriate (or not).  


I’ve change my office a little bit from my predecessor, and I’ve cleaned it up quite a bit.  Note to self:  When leaving a location for someone else to fall in on, clean it up and make it look as presentable as possible.  It’s simply bad form to leave an office looking like a mess.  In that vein, I’ve determined to always have my desk look neat and tidy.  I remember a ship’s captain once saying, “A clean ship does everything else right.”  I would phrase that a bit differently, because appearances can be whitewashed with nothing of substance beneath the attractive exterior (sound like some female celebrities you know?).  I would say, “A well-organized outfit will demonstrate its effective organization in outward appearances.”  


I am going to get rid of the flat “executive” desk, though.  I’m having a stand-up desk built so that I can move around more easily and not have the desk as a physical obstacle to people who come to see me.  My stand-up desk will face the wall.  Have you noticed that once you are sitting down the law of inertia takes over?  Getting up takes physical and mental effort.  If I’m already standing up (or sitting on a bar stool from which I have to come down) moving around the office, or into the hallway or adjacent offices becomes a lot easier.  It also makes me sneaky!  My assistants around me won’t hear my chair squeaking when I get up.  It will make me more mobile, and thus, more accessible.  I can’t wait until it’s ready!


Journal point of the week so far:

  • Good leadership is often inconvenient for the one exercising it – thus it is exceedingly rare in our self-absorbed culture.  (I use the qualifier “good” because I believe that there is no such thing as a “leadership vacuum.”  “Leadership” always happens – and it is usually bad.)


More later - Dirk

Saturday, June 28, 2008

First Week in the Saddle

Well, I’ve been the “boss” for just over a full week now.  I find the feeling is much different than I expected.  Being in charge of such a large organization is much more natural than I had expected.  It helps tremendously that I have a good, no, great group of immediate subordinates who know their jobs, are committed to the success of the organization and believe that the only way that others are going to be loyal to them is if they demonstrate loyalty as well.  


I’ve implemented some changes, but mostly I’ve been trying to adjust attitudes and thought processes.  In places where I’ve found situations and practices that are out of line with my priorities or our organization’s core values I have taken a direct action that I hope gets the point across without any misinterpretation of my intent, but trying very hard to do so without blaming or making the changes appear to be personal affronts.  I know that some feathers will get ruffled, but that is the nature of change – human beings get very used to their ruts.  Having to carve new paths is uncomfortable.  I understand that.  But if we don’t have constant improvement we’ll be going backwards.


At the moment I am facing my first issue with a subordinate who has apparently been caught in a serious compromise of professional integrity.  This individual is in a position where he has significant influence over a very important part of the organization – so much so that if I cannot trust his integrity, I’ll have to sack him.  Since this is the first such situation I’ve had to deal with, and the circumstances will unfortunately be flying through the rumor mill very soon, how I deal with this will set a tone for the remainder of my tenure.  I hope there are mitigating circumstances that I will learn about later, but at this moment, given what I do know, I don’t think that’s possible.  My immediate subordinates and assistants hold their integrity high enough that they won’t sugar-coat anything – so I’ll get to the bottom of this soon.  


Lessons –

  • Right & truth fear no investigation.
  • Individual gain at the cost of organizational integrity is a “lose-lose” situation.
  • The boss needs to appear organized & in control at all times.  If I look rushed & hurried when I’m walking around the building I give the appearance of disorder and that my demeanor is being dictated by circumstances.  Every organization is a direct reflection of its leadership.  If the boss is in control everyone else will be, too.  The converse is also true.
  • Give people your full attention when you give them attention at all.  Don’t go half-way.  I’ve found several times when someone wants to talk to me & I’m in the middle of something else, I’ve said, “Give me a moment so I can give you my full attention.”  I get to a good stopping point and then pay attention.
  • When given the choice between paying attention to inanimate objects, such as paperwork and email or people, always choose people.







Friday, June 20, 2008

New Direction for Blog

I’m taking this blog in a completely different direction.   This blog will now focus on leadership in all its aspects.  I expect it to be log and primer regarding leadership as I assume the helm of a mid-sized organization for a finite period of time – about two years.


Today was my first full day “in the saddle.”  It is surprising what it is like to be the man in charge of such a large organization – the authority and responsibility are tremendous.  I began the day by giving my staff a fire-hose rendition of what is important to me.  In a word, PEOPLE!  It is my goal for all the people in our organization to be RIDICULOUSLY SUCCESSFUL in what they do, both professionally and personally.  I want to get everyone excited about making everyone else successful.


Leadership always happens – and it isn’t always good.  Everyone’s primary leadership audience is themselves.  We must each lead ourselves well in order to lead others well.  In fact, when others see us leading ourselves well, they will naturally follow our lead, or, if they are in authority, will give us greater responsibility for leading others.  How we lead ourselves and others is completely wrapped up in our individual identities.  Why we do what we do is completely based on who we think we are or want to be.  


Right now I’m still in a whirlwind of getting settled.  The first big thing I want to do is change the environment of my office so that people around me see a visual difference in what is going on.  The previous chief is an excellent leader and ran the organization very, very well.  Now he’s going on to bigger & better things.  I’m just different, and I want to demonstrate that not so much by changing what other people do, but by changing what the chief does, and letting that filter down slowly.  


More later.  This shall be an exiting ride.  - Dirk