Every organization needs a truth teller. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling is a truth teller.
If you recognize the name, it’s probably because some of his bold statements about the Army he loves and serves have been reported in the mass media. Here’s a sample.
“As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
“The intellectual and moral failures common to America’s general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship.”
“It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”
The Small Wars Journal blog recently carried part of a speech Lt. Col. Yingling gave at the US Command and General Staff College on April 2. It’s titled “Irregular Warfare and Adaptive Leadership.” You can click through to a pdf of the full presentation, but here’s the money quote from the blog.
“Officers conditioned to conformity in peacetime cannot be expected to behave boldly and flexibly in combat. This phenomenon is not new.”
This tension between conformity and innovation is not unique to the Army or even the armed forces. It’s something you and your business need to wrestle with every day. Here are my big take-ways from Lt. Col. Yingling’s writings along with some comments on adapting them for business,
Leadership development is a cumulative process. Leaders do not spring full-grown from the brow of Zeus. They develop over time, hopefully for a lifetime.
The trick is encouraging leaders to develop habits of decision making early in their career. That means that young leaders must be allowed to decide things. They need to be allowed to get things right and get them wrong and learn from both.
You can help this process happen if you provide leadership opportunities, assure that feedback is both certain and helpful, and provide peer support systems to aid learning.
Help leaders prepare so they can handle whatever future they stride into. In leadership development, follow the advice of Jamie Dimon on planning: “At JP Morgan, we try to prepare for all kinds of weather. We don’t guess what the weather will be and prepare for that.”
Here’s something that Yingling doesn’t say, but that fits his philosophy well. It’s not just about those who do and will occupy leadership positions. Everyone needs to be encouraged to bring ideas to the party.
You need every brain in the game. You don’t want to find yourself like Woody Morcott, CEO of the Dana Corporation asking: “Why did we hire 55,000 brains and only use three of them?”
Boss’s Bottom Line
You don’t get everything right. Neither will your team members. To grow and develop and innovate and contribute meaningfully people need to know that it’s safe to say things and try things.
Don’t create an environment where people are willing to take risks. Instead, remove the risk from experimentation. Experimentation and innovation will follow.