Military Leadership: Lessons for Business

Dov Seidman’s recent HuffingtonPost piece got me thinking about my own military experience and its non-basic training for business leadership:

As an organizational psychologist and combat veteran, consulting with corporate and government clients on the topic of organizational culture, I wholeheartedly agree. Military leadership may be perceived as “strict discipline” and “mindless followership” by those who have not experienced it firsthand, but the reality is, in today’s fluid combat environment, our leaders and soldiers must be able to adapt quickly and think on their feet. A core set of guiding principles and values in conjunction with intense training and development has enabled our military forces to adapt to the changing face of combat in impressive ways.

After our victory in WWII, it’s not surprising that the values to hierarchy and command and control would become engrained in the civilian sector as “the right way to do things” and, at the time, they were extremely effective, driving our economy to great heights, creating a strong middle class and creating the most highly educated society in the world. As the world situation evolved and warfare became less “stand toe-to-toe and duke it out” and more decentralized and nebulous, our military organizations had to adapt in ways that changed the face of warfare in dramatic ways.

Blind followership would become less effective as warfare became more dependent on small units operating somewhat independently across long distances. Small unit leaders and their soldiers had to learn how to succeed in very nebulous environments, to accomplish their mission nonetheless. They did this by rightfully training their leaders to lead by a core set of fundamental principles and to do the “right thing at the right time” as LTC Glick stated in the article.

While the military doesn’t need to show profit every month, I would argue that the price they pay for failure is exponentially greater than any for-profit business could ever fathom. Leaders in the civilian world who fail to understand that the world is evolving around them and who attempt to shape the world to fit their ways of working rather than adapting to be most successful certainly run the risk of becoming extinct.

I use the principles that I learned as an officer in the Army every day in my own business with great success. Not only is my team fully capable to working in nebulous situations, they are able to do so while working with ever-changing team structures, designed to best serve the diverse needs of our clients. My team is guided by a clear set of fundamental core principles and ways of operating and they are given an enormous amount of autonomy in HOW they actually accomplish their mission.

If the civilian sector can get past the stereotypes that many hold about the military I would suggest that there are a great many lessons that could be adapted to their work. These lessons have be learned as a result of a great many lessons learned and lives lost and if they are passed off as ‘only applicable in a military context’ I’m afraid that we may be missing some extremely valuable learnings.

Find Your Match: 3 Steps for Building Mutually Beneficial Business Relationships

“Building and leveraging productive partnerships can bring immeasurable value to your business, but it requires careful research, effective communication, and a willingness to compromise.”

In this LinkedIn piece, Chris walks readers through three steps for forming productive and strong strategic partnerships. Read more.

The Secret Power of Introverts (as Leaders)

First published in Full Start, March 23, 2014

People tend to automatically think of leaders as extroverts. After all, an outgoing nature, openness, and inherent sociability are all basic requirements to being a leader, right? Not necessarily.

Research shows that 4 out of 10 top corporate executives are introverts — and for good reason. Introverted leaders bring quite a few qualities to the leadership table, such as their ability to form deeper relationships and think through decisions. These traits make them a powerful force in a business setting.

In this Full Start article, Chris Cancialosi discusses the misconceptions people often have about introverts and explains the hidden values a more reserved leader can bring to a company.

How Company Culture Can Make or Break Your Business

First published in Fast Company, March 6, 2014.

We are excited to share Chris’s inaugural Fast Company post. Here’s a quick snippet:

“Culture is a relentless driver of employee behavior. Left to its own devices, it can potentially limit an organization. But if leaders work to define it, assess it, and understand it, culture can be used as a tangible business lever to directly achieve goals and improve performance.”

He goes on to share the four key components needed to translate culture into something people can relate to, and invest in:


For more, read the full piece and feel free to join the discussion on “culture translation” by commenting here. We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

The Talent Retention Myth: A Devil’s Advocate Viewpoint

We hear it all the time, the continuous chatter of experts reiterating the same old talking points about what organizations need to do to retain and engage a younger workforce. All this talk got me thinking.

What if we got it all wrong? What if we are being held captive by our own beliefs and assumptions about the very nature and structure of work in today’s society?

Common thinking is that we, as leaders of organizations, should retain talent as long as possible in order to capitalize on things like organizational knowledge, relationships with co-workers and vendors and that, somehow, employees who stay with us will be eternally motivated and highly productive team members. We may also subscribe to the risk mitigation side of the argument, seeking to keep talent to avoid the costs, financial and otherwise, of having to recruit new talent to fill in the gaps that departing employees leave.

The issue with this philosophy is that we are basing these rationales on our own (older generational) beliefs that the longer the tenure of the employee the more productive, engaged and fulfilled they are. We equate tenure with loyalty and loyalty is a sought after attribute. Workers of the millennial generation, and younger, don’t necessarily view their experience with one employer from a permanence perspective. Instead, they move from job to job, and organization to organization, in a constant effort to find a place where they can make a meaningful contribution and develop.

What if, rather than trying our best to hold onto younger employees and satisfying our own needs, we redesigned work to be accomplished by people who would give us their all while they were with us, but who could also quickly and easily pass the knowledge onto new generations of employees when they moved on? Rather than fighting against the values and trends of the times, what if we embraced the values of younger generations and evolved the way in which we do business to capitalize on a more consistent stream of new and fresh viewpoints and ideas? What if, instead of spending mounting resources trying to retain talent, we used those resources elsewhere and flexed our way of thinking to thrive in a new age of business?

With the speed of change in organizations today, is the job even the same thing it was two or three years ago? One might argue that many jobs today evolve rather quickly and the gains of retaining talent are a bit overstated. Let’s think about re-designing work and re-shaping organizational cultures to take advantage of new talent that fills these roles over time.

5 Tips For Turning A Performance Deficit Into Your Company’s Best Year Yet

We all know that in a company’s big picture, consistently failing to meet performance goals can have dire repercussions. But falling short of these goals can also affect how a workplace functions on a day-to-day basis. Employees can lose passion for their work or even look for other, healthier companies. Their productivity is likely to fade alongside their enthusiasm.

That’s why it’s so important to keep on top of these performance failures and change course before small losses snowball into bigger ones. In this article, Chris Cancialosi discusses how you can take these failures and turn them into opportunities to make your company healthier and stronger.

Toxic Cultures: Where Does the Buck Stop?

It’s been a long couple of weeks for New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie. With numerous political scandals coming to light and the Governor continuing to insist that he knew nothing of the alleged strong-arming of local politicians with opposing views, one must wonder- how do such cultures devolve to the point where staff members feel that it is acceptable to behave in such ways.

When scandals erupt, once publicly confident leaders who seem to have complete control of their organizations suddenly claim ignorance and rush to divert attention away from themselves. This happens more commonly than one might expect.

If unethical organizational behavior is known to leaders and tolerated, for whatever reason, the clear message to employees is that it is okay to behave in such ways. If the behavior occurs unbeknownst to the leader than the leader is not doing an effective job of supervising the people that work for him. Either way, the leader is at the root of the culture issue.

Four Signs Your Culture May be Toxic-

  1. Employees feel they can behave in unethical or unprofessional ways with little or no repercussion from their leadership.
  2. Leaders hold themselves to a different standard than they hold their people.
  3. When the going gets rough, leaders quickly look to blame someone or something else for the mishap rather than take responsibility.
  4. Employees are fearful that they cannot speak up in fear of retribution from leadership.

The buck really does stop with the leaders. And, they must intentionally cultivate employees’ beliefs about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and the guidelines for behavior in the organization. With so many stakeholders looking more closely at the brands and companies they engage with these days, it pays to create an organizational dynamic where team members know exactly what’s expected of them. Otherwise, toxic cultures will kill themselves.

How To Manage Dynamic Tensions — And Master The Balancing Act

At the core of good leadership is a skill shared by tightrope walkers and jugglers around the world: the balancing act. But in the business world, the tightropes are opposing workplace tensions and the juggling balls are stakeholders.

The trick to mastering this daunting feat? Find a way to manage seemingly opposing dynamic tensions — like stability and flexibility — to foster a clear set of expectations that allows for growth and innovation in an ever-evolving marketplace. In this article, Chris Cancialosi offers insight into how to manage these tensions to achieve an equilibrium that keeps engagement, performance, and productivity high.

Everything You Need To Know About Management You Learned In Psych 101

As a student, you almost certainly spent more time dreading general education courses than actually paying attention to them, and following the final, you quickly forgot the material altogether. After all, you’re never going to use calculus again, right?

Psychology 101, however, is one course that does play a pivotal role in business operations — particularly team management. Reacquaint yourself with the basic principles of psychology to boost your leadership, your team’s motivation, and your company’s success.

Six Leadership Lessons From “The Walking Dead”

Zombies aren’t typically my thing, but “The Walking Dead” series has caught my attention. My interest isn’t so much related to the zombies as it is the leadership lessons that are embedded within. That’s right – leadership lessons. A lot can be learned by watching this small group of survivors struggle to prosper in a post-apocalyptic world infested with the living dead.

Here is proof that leaders can find guidance in the least expected places.

  1. Ditch the Script When the gates fail and you are being overrun, as happens in business and during the apocalypse, the rulebook should be thrown out the window. Leaders who are able to break from the script and quickly adapt to changing conditions are those who will survive. Those who stick to the plan no matter what’s happening around them risk being mauled.
  2. You don’t have to have all the answers Just because life as you know it has ceased to exist and you find yourself leading your group in unfamiliar territory, you aren’t expected to have all the answers. When hordes of undead are knocking at your door, effective leadership may call for decisive, top-down authority. But don’t forget that team members on the sidelines may hold key information that will help inform your decisions.
  3. The Stockdale Paradox The people who succumb to the mere thought of the biting and clawing undead always seem to be those who either lose all hope and quit or who fail to realize their dire situation. The Stockdale Paradox proposes that leaders must ensure that their teams are honest with themselves about the reality of their situation while always keeping hope that things will improve. Those who don’t keep a balance between the two are much more apt to lose their focus and become lunch.
  4. North Star Having a guiding “north star” provides clarity and creates a collective direction. Supporting the Stockdale Paradox, leaders need to articulate a vision for the future that inspires people to weather the storm. This becomes especially critical when the going gets rough and people are called to task in ways that push them to their limits.
  5. Empower your people Micromanaging doesn’t work in the office, and it certainly doesn’t get you very far during a zombie attack. Empowerment involves people making some mistakes, but that’s a great way for them to learn. Authoritarian and hierarchical structures enable dependence and mindless followership rather than creativity and proactive behavior. The worst you can do as a leader, in most cases, is to breed a team of zombies.
  6. Stick together It happens in every time. The person who splits from the group inevitably ends up stumbling around with a glazed look destined to become a future threat. When the odds are against you, working together becomes especially critical. One reason team members split off from the group is that they are misaligned in terms of who the real “enemy” is. As leaders, we must keep the group together and focused in the direction of that North Star. Misalignment can be disastrous in a business context in terms of lost productivity and team effectiveness. In “The Walking Dead,” it can mean the difference between life and death.

Though the obstacles we’re facing in our own businesses hopefully don’t match the intensity of “The Walking Dead,” we can certainly take a page out of the book of the brave survivors navigating the ultimate leadership challenge.