Sunday, April 12, 2015

Notes From the Field - On Being a Leader

I've been in command positions a good part of my life, on the ground, in the air. I'm not usually just the only woman leader, I'm often the only woman-- period.  I've been in my current gig as the leader of my group for several years, in a unit, that with one brief exception, has been all male,  all but one Veterans, quite a few Marines, all strong men, strong personalities. We've had some losses, and we've had some laughs (specifically someone in defense that once called a planned Post 9/11 tabletop exercise among various agencies as a  "Practical Exercise Not Involving Soldiers".  Yes, Operation PENIS had us in  stitches before someone caught that and changed the name.

I wouldn't trade these years for anything and it's the reason I spend at least two weeks a month away from my husband, not willing to give it up for a desk at headquarters. My husband too is a leader.  He knows that if he asked-- I'd quit my career in a heartbeat as he is more important, just as he knows he won't ask that of me, for he totally gets it.

These thoughts here tonight, are based on the core principals of military leadership that many have passed on to me, as well as things I just learned by watching bad leaders as well as making my own mistakes, finding my way.  I revisit them regularly, and with humbleness.

Seek out your strengths and weaknesses, even the ones you can't see yet, and look to improve on those daily.  Do it openly, do it quietly, but each day try  to improve on something in which you are lacking and perform just a bit better on those things of which you are skilled.  Teach those with you to do the same.
You can get away with not knowing how to play Dungeons and Dragons but if you are managing people, you must know the latest of technical developments in your field and  how to use them to deploy your resources. Never stop learning.

Seek responsibility and take it.  A key leadership principle is that we ALL make mistakes, but it's how we respond to them that separates the "men from the boys", as they say. If you make a mistake and blame someone else, no one is ever going to trust you again  (though some people might be stupid enough to vote for you again).

Your Mom doesn't work here.  If you screw something up, own it, don't wait for someone to make an excuse for you or correct it for you.  If you break it, fix it, if you open it, close it. You are accountable for your actions, you are accountable for your outcomes.
Act with your head, not other parts of the body.  You're angry, desperate or just want to fling a colleague into the next county with a trebuchet? Don't.  Take a deep breath, go drink some cold water and deal with it rationally. Once you've acted rashly or solely on emotion or hormones, you will lose ground you don't get back. If you're already perceived as weak, it can be fatal, as a leader.

The rules that apply to your team, apply to you.  If they have to sort it, document it, retain it, verify it, or fill out 8 forms for it,  SO DO YOU.

Lead from the front. You are setting the example. If you are thinking  "just this one time",  or "let's take a shortcut",  "let's just this once, sacrifice a (little) standard", whatever it is, then your team will be OK with it too when you're not looking.  Hold yourself to a higher standard, and they will try to as well.
Waffles are great for breakfast but they make lousy leaders.  Think out your decisions and take into account, every bit of information you can get when you make them, asking those who are more informed and, if they aren't available, then questioning yourself.  But make them decisively. Do NOT wait for popular opinion or the news cameras to come out to make them.

Questions are less bloody than not asking them.

Know yourself, but know your team as well, and look out for their welfare like your own.  Loyalty may be bought, but only very briefly. Be compassionate, but be firm, and be clear that what they offer is important. If they know that they can count on you, you can count on them.
We all have wounds that drive us and the scar tissue usually isn't visible.  Understand what drives your people, what gets their hackles up, what motivates them not to be in some particular place.  Never be so busy that you fail to listen to them about something that may sound like it has nothing to do with the team.  It will have everything to do with the team.

Successful missions come in threes - the mission you plan, the mission you do, and the mission you wish you had done.

Some  things are classified, but don't be a mushroom farmer.  Keep people informed.  Share those things that may not necessarily be their specialty, or even within their current technical grasp. They will learn, and they will feel included and valuable, for they are.
Go into battle with them.  Don't sit at your comfy desk with your giant mocha latte every single time they hit the field when conditions are beyond crappy or risky.  Get out, be in front, and get seriously dirty and a bit dinged up with them.  Never forget those places that got you to that desk and revisit them when you can.

Successful completion of a task depends upon how well you know your unit’s capabilities. Don't give out a task you have not prepared them to do.  Experiments are for a science lab, not the field.

You set the standards by what behaviors you ignore, reward and punish.

There is no "I" in "Team" but there's "Me" if you rearrange the letters.  Yes, and No.  Respect the individual, know the individual.  But train and cross train as a team, individuals have weaknesses, teams learn to compensate and overcome them.  Reward is not the only thing shared, responsibility is.
Have a sense of humor.  It can disarm, it can engage.  Don't overuse it, and in the workplace, avoid with strangers, but never forget it.  And someday, when I'm retired and all witnesses are dead, I'll tell you a story about getting someone to collect evidence by milking a goat.

Just because it's not your fault, doesn't mean it's not your problem

Trust  but Verify.  You have to trust your team to do their job without micromanaging every step.  But verify it's done to the standards you have set, standards that are clearly communicated and adequately supervised. For their mistakes aren't just theirs, they are yours, for you are accountable and creditable with your superiors.
People like rewards, be it monetary or even a plate of home baked cookies - but that's not why they sign up to work with you, when there are other choices.

Recognize not just physical courage but moral courage.  Standing firm on values, principles and convictions is just as important as putting life and limb on the line.

Know your limitations. Not just your own, but the limitations of your team and the individuals that comprise it, as well as those of your organization as a whole, at the highest level.  If you know that, you know when to call in back up and how and who to call for back up.  And don't be afraid to, no matter whose toes or egos get stepped on.  There are jobs, where failing that might mean a bad meal, a bad haircut, loss of income, or a loss of face for someone.  In some positions, failing that means people will die.  NEVER forget that.

Never get so self important that you can't take advice from the probie.


  1. Wise counsel. Nice M&P too!

  2. That's very good advice. Thank you for sharing that; I hope it helps many.

  3. Wel, there's a post of mine you killed.
    I've been thinking about a post on leadership for a while.
    I report to a manager who seems to confuse leadership with management.
    We had a long talk about it one evening a couple weeks ago.
    I mentioned that I learned leadership in the Boy Scouts and the military.
    He thought military experience was invalid, because they led through fear.
    He got a half hour of correction on the subject.
    And he listened.

  4. Sound advise. Those who follow, as well as those who lead can learn from this post. Thank you.

  5. Please tell me that the goat was not a billy.

  6. Brilliant post Brigid! I've bookmarked it to share with Kiernan when she's older. Sound advice given straight. Loved it!

  7. Of course, great and profound advice. When I listen to your musings on leadership, I am always struck by how running a critical care unit isn't much different !

  8. Brilliant. I sent this to my 20 year old grandson. Hope he takes away what he needs but if not I will save this for when he gets a little older.

  9. Words of wisdom! But milking a goat?????


  10. When - not if, but when - you screw up, you apologize to whoever was affected. Even if that's the most junior person in the group.

    Praise in public. Criticize in private.

    The ass you kick today may be the ass you have to kiss tomorrow. Behave accordingly.

  11. Ron F - so true - I never chew out anyone in front of others, though they might get a gentle, humorous chide of "yup, did that myself once" so everyone learns.

    Merle - a long story best left for the post retirement "cone of silence" but it was pretty funny, and no, it was NOT a billy goat

  12. Yeah, I understand the "post retirement" angle! Been there, done that! But I'm now retired, so MOST (but certainly not all) stories are fair game.
    PS: how long will that be?

  13. And the most important one:

    Never trust a fart when you've got the flu.

  14. Perhaps you could send a copies of this sage advice to Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC.

    On another note - Ok, who or what did the goat eat that the evidence could be found in her milk?

  15. Mrs. S. - it involved alleged poison spilled at a scene where goat were present (eating anything in sight). That' all I can say til retirement. It also involved people that watched TOO much TV.

  16. just a quick note as I head out the door.

    Red Dragon - thanks and yes you may sure with your colleagues but please put that it's by author L.B. Johnson. Maybe they'll go check out my book - which has some lessons in it as well. . (and dog hair).

  17. Leadership starts by understanding you will be underpaid and over played.

    Too cynical, but it is worth knowing your focus should always be the mission and the men, and if you don't know which is most important, someone else should lead.


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