(With acknowledgement and apologies to Steven Kerr for the ‘play’ on his original quote – see below)
Some time ago, a senior executive in a brand name management consultancy lamented to me that what they needed was leaders, but what they had was managers. Now this gentleman was very intelligent and a very successful consultant, but it was a bit of a case of the ‘cobbler’s children having the worst shoes’. No more than a little thought was required to see that managers emerging at the top of the organisation were a natural outcome of the selection, training and promotion processes.
You get the executive you recruit and train
When I joined the RAF, I would like to think that I had some leaning towards public service, dutyand all the other things which go with joining the Armed Forces. However a good deal of my thinking may have been influenced by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, which by coincidence, came out about 6 months before I applied. This would kind of imply that I joined to fly jets, which is broadly true. But first I had to ‘jump through this hoop’ called Officer Training. Now at the time, Officer Training was, in my mind, basically about polishing shoes, saluting, marching and running around carrying pine poles for 4 months (it has since been extended to 8 months). It was simply something to be endured until I got to start my flying training. However, I now rationalise it rather differently in hindsight. Before I ever got my hands on an aircraft, I had to do this course on brand values, organisational history, the role of air power, leadership and teamwork. And only if I passed that course, would I get to learn any functional skill. As officers, leadership is what you do; it is what the job is. It doesn’t matter how functionally brilliant you are, if you don’t demonstrate the right behaviours, and leadership potential, you never even get beyond first base. Officer first. Pilot second.
And this theme of cross-functional non-role-specific training continues throughout your whole career. Junior officers must attend a 4-week course prior to further promotion. At Squadron Leader level, the first above junior officers, there is a similar 8-week course, and at Wing Commander level (the level at which one might command one’s own squadron), there is a full year of further leadership development at Staff College to prepare officers with both the functional skills and the leadership competencies for higher command. And it goes on through the more senior ranks.
Now the military offers no perfect solution on any of the above, but the approach adopted does offer an interesting compromise to the recruitment and development programmes of many organisations where leadership potential is often a lesser factor than functional skill, and leadership is often confused with seniority or management (it’s possible to be on a senior leadership team without any particular strength in leadership…). We like to use a variation on the Executive Trinity described by Stephen Bungay in which leadership (a moral and emotional activity) is just one part of a trinity also incorporating management (delivering outcomes – a physical activity) and setting and communicating direction (an intellectual activity). This isolates leadership in its purest form – the ability to develop followers through engaging, motivating and inspiring – is about values, behaviours and emotional intelligence. It can be learnt about, to some extent, in a classroom, and psychometrics and feedback can improve self-awareness, however leadership can only really be developed through experiential activities. It is often only under stress that values and behaviours really become exposed.
Given that leadership is patently a practice rather than a theory, it is perhaps odd that the development of leadership is often delegated to non-practitioners. Imagine being taught to fly by someone who had only learnt about how to fly through observation and study but had never done it. Or imagine doctors being trained by scientists who had never worked with a patient. There is clearly a valuable place for all sorts of contributions, academic and otherwise, to leadership programmes, however ultimately, if the organisation takes leadership seriously, its development should be owned by operators.
You get the executive you reward
Kerr’s original quote was the title of his seminal paper in 1975: ‘The Folly of Rewarding A and Hoping for B’. This concept of misaligning effort and reward is common bordering on prevalent. If you talk a good story about risk but pay bonuses based solely on returns, where will an executive prioritise her effort? If you communicate a certain set of values but then promote the best performer irrespective of behaviour, what message does that send about what is really important in the organisation? The relevance of this effect on leadership behaviour can be seen in a very simple example below.
To see the problem, consider somebody at the bottom of an organisation – level 1. They would generally like their level 2 Boss to be considerate, supportive, loyal, respectful, fair, and to have integrity – basically be someone they would follow i.e. a leader. However at level 3, the Boss’ Boss wants the level 2 Boss to deliver results, to make their own life easier up at level 3. And herein lies the dichotomy. Considered against the Executive Trinity, we want to work for leaders who will inspire and empower us to new levels, however the organisation promotes on intellect and results – managers.
This is as true of the peacetime military as any other organisation. Wartime tends to expose true leadership ability rather more brutally and that of course is not the ideal time to find that your senior officers or executives are lacking in the leadership department. By placing a genuine emphasis on leadership ability as described above, in recruitment, training and reward processes from the lowest levels, the organisation (commercial, military or other) will be far better equipped when the strategic shock does strike. To paraphrase Warren Buffet, ‘it’s only when the sea goes out that you can you see who’s not wearing trunks…’. Preparing for that eventuality is a long-term commitment though. You can’t turn leadership ability on and off, nor is it easy to suddenly turn managers into leaders.
You get what you train for and you get what you reward…