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Leading Off
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Most business leaders have never experienced the horrors of war, yet many salute the trappings of leadership derived from the armed services’ power and prowess. Executives are “captains of industry.” They pride themselves on mastering strategy—a word derived from a fourth-century Greek term meaning “a general’s knowledge.” Bosses ranging from CEOs to Tony Soprano turn to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for direction and counsel. Still, in many underappreciated ways, the military has valuable—and often counterintuitive—lessons to offer leaders about learning and team building and dealing with the issues of resilience and ambiguity that have marked this period of pandemic-fueled uncertainty. So, in this week of US Memorial Day, let’s explore some of the military’s contributions to leadership that might help you keep your troops productive and happy.
What’s old is new again
Two major events—the global financial crisis of 2008 and today’s pandemic—have defined this century so far. Both have struck businesses hard and have put a premium on resilience and preparation. Collateral damage has followed. “What the armed forces can teach business” from the Economist notes that, while businesses in recent years have embraced predictive analytics as a panacea for forecasting market direction, such approaches fall flat when crises plunge the external environment into volatility and ambiguity. It is better to make decisions and adjust, a perspective shared by General James Mattis, rather than trying to parse an uncertain future.
In Britain’s Royal Navy, that’s the number of members that most ships’ crews are either smaller than or divided into. The figure is near the upper end of Dunbar’s number—which, according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, represents the extent of a fully functioning social group. Hard as military service can be, thoughtful leaders understand that social connection and soft leadership skills may be even more important for maintaining morale in environments that can vary between boredom and terror. In this 2013 article, “Leadership lessons from the Royal Navy,” learn the techniques navy leaders use to encourage cheerfulness, humor, and communication.
“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
So says Colin Powell, retired four-star general and former US secretary of state. The sense of leaders’ deep personal responsibilities and the commitment that their words reflect are being tested today as leaders struggle to help institutions of all types emerge from the pandemic. Have you provided those you lead with the trust, the capabilities, and the freedom of choice to be resilient in a crisis? You may have recruited their talent, but how are you caring for their families as they face postpandemic grief and other mental-health issues?
Three questions for Elizabeth Young McNally
Three questions for Elizabeth Young McNally
Liz Young McNally is executive vice president for Talent Ventures at Schmidt Futures, the venture facility for public benefit founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. During 12 years at McKinsey, she was the global partner lead of McKinsey Academy and served clients on the topics of transformation, capability building, and execution excellence. A Rhodes and Truman Scholar and West Point graduate, she spent eight years prior to McKinsey as an officer in the US Army, including two one-year tours in Iraq. Here she talks about the lessons military life provides for leaders.
Leading Off: When you made the transition to private-sector work, what were the lessons from your years in the military that seemed most relevant?
Elizabeth Young McNally: There’s a famous saying in the military, “Amateurs talk about strategy, and the professionals focus on logistics.” From an early point, I tried to focus on the ways an organization was going to implement recommendations for change—as it’s usually in the execution phase where you win or lose. Another useful saying was “No good plan survives first contact.” The whole idea is that you need to understand the commander’s intent and then build a team that’s going to adapt and execute whatever happens on the ground. To do that, you have to have real clarity on, and shared alignment for, what that goal is.
Leading Off: What leadership lessons did you take away with you?
Elizabeth Young McNally: One huge lesson was that ultimately, it is about the people. If you take care of your people, show them you really care, everything will have a way of figuring itself out. And caring means not just caring about what happens to them at work but also about what happens outside of work. Prior to COVID-19, I often felt the business world didn’t look at the whole employee. There was a sense that regardless of what was happening in your life personally, you were supposed to show up and get the work done. I think that an appreciation for the whole person—what is happening across their professional and personal life—is a silver lining of the pandemic. In the military, if performance goes down, the first question is “what’s going on at home, in your personal life?” I think we don’t spend enough time getting to know the whole person. When you do, it is incredibly rewarding because then you can watch people grow and flourish.
There’s also something of a misnomer that the military is about command and control. It is, of course, but it’s not how people lead. If you think about the missions that the military asks people to carry out, you can’t do that just by telling someone to do something. You have to inspire your team to do more than they thought they could possibly do. You have to use all kinds of informal leadership, inspiration, collaboration, and servant leadership to do that.
Leading Off: What about dealing with coming out of the pandemic?
Elizabeth Young McNally: One of the most important experiences one gains in the military is learning to survive, and ultimately thrive, in situations that are outside of your control. You learn to roll with the punches. In observing how many have dealt with the pandemic, I realize that this experience of making peace with what you can control versus what you can’t, and making peace in an incredibly ambiguous and uncertain situation, is one many people haven’t had before. And it is very hard if you’ve always been in control before. I’m hopeful that people will look back and realize on the back end how resilient this experience has made them and their families and made them better able to deal with uncertainty. That said, I am also deeply aware that there are a lot of people really struggling right now. And I hope this experience also enables all of us to be more willing to ask for and provide help when we need it.
One final point on reintegrating into the next normal. When soldiers came home from yearlong deployments to Iraq, the military realized people couldn’t just flip a switch and go from the war zone to the home front. They needed a structured reintegration process. Similarly, as organizations go back to the next normal, and as individuals reacclimate to less of a quarantine-type life, I hope that we don’t just try to flip a switch and expect people to act in a different way. I hope instead that we are purposeful and intentional. That’s important.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office
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