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.

How Leaders Can Fight Impostor Syndrome

Leading at the top of the organization is lonely. According to a recent study called by The School for CEOs, 93% of top leaders require intensive preparation to take over an organization. Technical skill gaps that a leader faces as they take on positions of greater responsibility, such as making decisions about organizational structure and managing various stakeholder groups, often times receive more attention than some of the emotional and psychological hurdles they face. Impostor syndrome, for example, a major phenomenon that many leaders experience as they navigate a more complex landscape often causes people feeling ill-equipped to do the job. This has real performance implications both at a personal level and for the organization.

Leaders that experience impostor syndrome generally feel like a fraud. Often times, the story that replays in their minds is that they are going to be “found out”. In fact they often attribute their success to other factors – “ I was in the right place at the right time” or “I ended up here because I got lucky”. It’s also common to see executives that suffer from impostor syndrome not taking credit for their accomplishments. And if they do, they are usually pretty convinced that they won’t be successful the second time around.

It turns out that execs with impostor syndrome, tend not be vulnerable and this lack of vulnerability inevitably leads to a lack of self-awareness and development . To overcome this, creating a peer support system that can become a trusted network of advisors and serve as a go-to resource can be helpful. Working with an executive coach to look at some of the underlying beliefs and assumptions that are driving certain behaviors and then creating strategies to overcome them can also be of tremendous value. So if you or someone you know is feeling like an impostor, it’s normal and there are things that can be done to address it.

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.

A Bright Idea @ IDEO

What does a flying fish tell us about corporate culture?

At design consultancy, IDEO, the answer is – quite a bit. When IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett, hoisted an Icelandic lamp made from a lacquered, deboned cod above his desk in IDEO’s office space, it was more than a quirky design decision.

The lamp is a symbol of Bennett’s experiment to work differently. One day, the chief creative officer realized that his hyper-scheduled workday was preventing him from living an important cultural value at IDEO: ‘Talk less, do more.‘ Scheduled in back-to-back, ten-minute micro-meetings left no room for doing.

One of Bennett’s core roles as chief creative officer is to ‘help inspire people’. With no space for the type of organic interaction and spontaneity that inspires creative thinking, Bennett felt his energy was misdirected.

So, he ran an experiment:

  1. Clear the calendar: Say no more than yes
  2. Buck the ‘hot desking’* trend: Be an anchor amidst the fluidity
  3. Do ‘doctor’s rounds’: Spend ½ day at the desk, ½ day visiting colleagues
  4. Respond in real time: Allow for 5 minute or 2 hour interactions depending on the real needs of the organization

*Hot desking = No designated workspaces; Employees at IDEO sign up for desks every morning

Claiming a permanent desk and stringing the massive cod lamp above it are symbols of Bennett’s commitment to change his leadership behavior:

“When the light is on, it’s a signifier to the office that I am there, and a symbol to me that I should be accessible and approachable. And it’s a huge incandescent fish: As a surreal object in a public place, it can shake you out of your office stupor and help you think more creatively” Paul Bennett (

Bennett’s experiment is a perfect response to one of the trickiest aspects of managing culture. Culture is grounded in habits. Thankfully, habits exist to save us the time of making drawn-out decisions about…how to sign an email, for example. But, leaders and organizations run the risk of relying on habits that once served them well but are no longer driving high performance. Left unchecked, this is how culture can derail organizations.

Bennett’s habit of hyper-scheduling wasn’t helping him contribute to the creativity and organic interaction that IDEO values. Leaders should be deliberate, like Bennett’s experiment, in course-correcting behaviors that aren’t aligned with their company’s values. Ultimately, leaders set the cultural direction for their organizations. The fish lamp, the dedicated desk over which it hangs, and the stories behind them are artifacts of IDEO’s culture that can’t help but reinforce the value of ‘talking less, doing more.’

The Importance of Now

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to speak with people from all walks of life – children, adults, clients, colleagues, blue collar, white collar – it’s spanned the gamut. One unifying phenomenon I’ve noticed often is that when people speak, they tend to spend a majority of their time discussing what’s happened to them in the past (e.g., “I shouldn’t have done that.”, “That meal was great.”) or about what’s yet to happen (e.g., “I can’t wait for this project to be finished.”, “Vacation is going to be so nice.”). Keeping this observation of others in mind, I’d imagine it probably wouldn’t take long for you to find this to be true of your own encounters as well. There’s nothing wrong with thinking or expressing the past and future in this way, but it does preclude one key experience – the now; the full experience of what’s happening in the present moment.

In Daniel Goleman’s latest work, “Focus,” he makes mention of this “problem” in another way. Goleman’s research indicates that more often than not, in general people tend to be thinking about something other than what they are currently doing. People are therefore not fully in tune with what they are doing. I’d argue that as a result, we too often experience life on the surface; there is not enough processing of the current moment. By living life in this manner, we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to fully experience the now, and all of the emotions that it potentially encompasses.

If you agree with this basic premise, it follows that there are clear implications from this in the business world, including employees’ ability to focus on their work in any given moment or leaders’ ability to focus on the needs of their team. These of course beg the question of how to counteract this tendency.

  • I’d suggest four steps you can take immediately to be less consumed with the past and future, and be more concentrated in the present.Take stock – turn up the dial of your own curiosity; be actively curious about your surroundings and the impact they have on you if you let them
  • Take note – be conscious of all of your senses; what does whatever you’re doing right now feel like? smell like? sound like?
  • Take breaths – focus your full attention on your breathing – in through your nose, out through your mouth; practicing conscious breathing allows for you to bring your mind to the present
  • Take up a hobby – research shows that you can be more alert doing things that are active and engaging

So, what are you waiting for? Just focus on the present moment reading these words. Now these words. Now these.

How does that feel?

Pirating Some Lessons in Leadership

With Oscar season fast approaching, one of the big contenders garnering tons of buzz in the best picture category is Captain Phillips. This film tells the based-on-a-true story of a cargo ship, Somali pirates, and a 2009 hijacking. While this combination of elements in and of itself certainly provides a draw, another one of the film’s highlights can be traced to Tom Hanks’ riveting portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips. Although the Academy might not agree, as Hanks was snubbed for an acting nomination, the film provides us with numerous real-life lessons in leadership. Note: since this is a true story and is well documented, I’ll cut right to the chase and get the spoilers out of the way: the ship gets taken hostage, Phillips leads his ship and crew through the ordeal, and the Somalis get captured or killed in the end.

Now with that out of the way, it should be said that while it’s true (at least I hope it’s true) that most organizational leaders will never have to face the kinds of difficult circumstances that Phillips did, if you unpack the leadership skills that were demonstrated throughout the film, there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn.

  1. Using your Training – Through a combination of experience and training, having the necessary skills to do your job effectively is of great importance. While not every situation can be planned for, with a solid base-level knowledge of what to look for, what to do, and how to react, you can extrapolate into a variety of situations. Phillips had a good handle on policies, protocols, procedures, and commands, which ultimately served him and his crew well.
  2. Having a Plan – In high-stress times, it’s important for leaders to remain calm under pressure and set a course of action that will allow their teams to successfully weather impending storms. Phillips was very deliberate in his decisions, making moves only after thinking through the repercussions of each of his options.
  3. Trusting your People – When sitting at the helm, it’s very important to fully empower those below you to do what they’ve been taught. While being held at gunpoint under a constant barrage of pirate orders to summon his people to the deck, Phillips was confident in his crew’s ability to remember their training. He put on appearances, got on the loudspeaker, and summoned them all; it was no surprise to him when none came forward – they didn’t hear the safe word they had been taught.
  4. Making Hard Decisions – Making and committing to bold decisions is an especially crucial responsibility for a good leader. Leaders need to gather all available information, analyze options quickly, and make and clearly communicate tough decisions. One of the most potent displays of this leadership skill came not from Phillips, but from the Navy SEALs deployed to save him. “Stop the tow. Execute.” was the chilling yet explicit command given to the SEALs by their leader, right before three simultaneous bullets took down Phillips’ captors.

Though there are conflicting accounts on the internet as to the accuracy of Captain Richard Phillips’ portrayal, what’s undeniable is that the tenets of organizational leadership were very much in play throughout the film. A strong commitment to one’s people, a high level of preparedness, an overwhelming sense of responsibility, and a selfless resolve can serve all leaders – regardless of industry – particularly well as they navigate the rough seas of their respective worlds.

Leadership Drift: How Not to Get Caught Up In Tactics

Leadership drift is a dangerous trap. Have you ever felt like you’re moving so fast and reacting to all the things around you that you aren’t clear about what you’re doing – or why you’re doing it? Leadership drift, a term first coined by leadership guru Bob Lee, is a common phenomenon that many leaders face. Rather than dealing with complex, strategic issues and opportunities that can really propel you, your team, and the business forward, leaders get caught up in fire fighting and dealing with tactical issues that prevent them from achieving optimal performance.

What are some signs of leadership drift?

  • You’re solving problems that that tend to be technical in nature and could be tackled by other people who are lower on the organizational chart.
  • You’ve not expressed your vision about where you want your organization to go lately, so others aren’t clear and aligned about the direction you’re heading.
  • People on your team (and you for that matter) aren’t clear about how the team needs to work together to accomplish all that its setting out to do.
  • You’re burned out and can’t remember why you took this leadership role in the first place!

Given those signs, what are some things that you can do to avoid leadership drift?

  • Be deliberate about setting time aside to self-reflect.
    • Ask: What is my vision and is how I am showing up as a leader helping or hindering our success?
  • Create space for your team to “press pause” and think about what they are doing and why they are doing it; you’ll probably find that there is a lot of energy being spent on things that aren’t actually all that important.
    • Ask: Based on our collective purpose, what about the way we work is working? And what’s not? Do we have the right communication, decision-making and accountability mechanisms in place?
  • Build a community of leaders aimed at exchanging best practices about leading effectively and discussing strategies for overcoming obstacles.
    • Ask: As leaders, what can we learn from each other? What are we doing that’s working that we should share with one another?

Net – net: Catch the drift before it’s become a problem – you and your team could end up in a destination much different from the one you are targeting.

On Being Unreasonable

Last week, I watched an executive address 150 leaders in his organization – an organization known for its unparalleled ingenuity, ‘against all odds’ innovation, and global impact. In his remarks to close a three-day ‘leaders summit’, the executive made a request of his team:

“Please…Be unreasonable.”

Unreasonable: difficult, obstinate, without good sense…

The negative connotation of the word hit first. But within seconds, the meaning behind the request settled. And the reaction was visceral– an energy spurred by the idea of disruption, dissatisfaction with the status quo, an urge to take risks. I envisioned Monday’s to-do lists being mentally rearranged by listeners, “reasonable” tasks being shuffled off the list indefinitely.

We hear leaders struggle with the pace and complexity of today’s changing environment. How do we inspire innovation? Breakthrough? How do we stay ahead of the curve?

Doing something remarkable requires risk-taking. Inevitably, with certain risks comes failure. To motivate employees to take risks, leaders need to drive and maintain a cultural acceptance for failure. “Please…be unreasonable” set the foundation for just that.

If your organization feels starved for fresh ideas, a good first place to look is how failure is perceived culturally. Is risk being recognized and rewarded – whether it ends in success or failure? Are failures broadcast as organizational learning or swept under the rug? Are leaders encouraging employees to tackle challenges that seem impossible? If we think about what innovation truly is – upheaval, disruption, breakthrough, how could we achieve it any other way than being unreasonable?

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw

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.