I am still running slightly behind my plan to discuss these 12 Leadership Truths (based on the United States Marine Corps’ Fourteen Leadership Traits). This month I will be thinking through initiative and decisiveness. Last month I talked about Judgment and in January I discussed Justice. We have had a lively discussion so far ranging from Twitter commentary to personal phone calls. So far, folks seem to resonate with our thoughts on the leadership truths that need to be present to support a culture of mutual trust and respect, the culture lean needs to thrive.
As I said in my December installment, there are fourteen traits that the USMC – a world class expeditionary war-fighting organization – focus on as they develop each person on the team. I combined two of the traits this month, partially to get the assignment completed in 12 months. I also felt as thought these two traits paired well together, like a nice Zinfandel from California and a velvety piece of dark chocolate from Switzerland. Can you tell I’m writing this just before my evening meal? My point is that these two traits are like two sides of the same coin. They both require the impetus of action; some of my prior military mentors would label it, “a bias for action.” Certainly an executive skill, knowing when to act is crucial for both crisis and everyday leadership. So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at these important ideas.
Initiative and Decisiveness | Initiative
The Marines say this about initiative, “Initiative is taking action even though you haven’t been given orders. It means meeting new and unexpected situations with prompt action. It includes using resourcefulness to get something done without the normal material or methods being available to you.” When you think about the Marines mission, this trait or truth really fits well. How does it fit for leaders who are leading the change necessary for lean or, even better, for Operational Excellence (a better and more comprehensive approach to world class performance)? In any situation where change is happening rapidly and the situation shifts without notice, top leaders can’t control every facet of their organization. They can’t give orders; it just won’t work. If you are that type of leader, it’s time to get a new thing. I’ve worked for at least one control freak whose leadership ability undershot even the “wet bag” test. When the stuff hit the fan, his team languished, unable to stay on mission much less achieve objectives. Great leaders understand this truth and develop initiative in their team. Initiative taken reflects a bias for action and a zest for risk-taking. Of course, risk taking needs to be tempered with fact management, but let’s face it, who would you want on your team (leading it or working for you): the calculated risk-taking guy with initiative or a milquetoast risk-adverse guy with a lack of initiative? That’s what I thought… The range of the Marine’s explanation also includes this sense of resourcefulness, or being able to get things accomplished through other-than-normal methods or with alternative materials. What Operational Excellence wouldn’t want this kind of leadership developing, especially as it begins to yield the ever-elusive “innovation”. The KCOE System includes a fairly unique Suggestion System that creates the framework for just this type of leadership action.
Initiative and Decisiveness | Decisiveness
Teddy Roosevelt – known for his bias for action, forged from his feeble childhood, no doubt – once said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” While I don’t always agree with his policy-making, I like Teddy Roosevelt for this very reason. He was a scrapper. Fighters know that indecision can lead to bad things happening. Even if you’ve made the wrong decision, at least you are still moving and have a chance to recover. The Marines give it this thought, “Decisiveness means that you are able to make good decisions without delay. Get all the facts and weigh them against each other. By acting calmly and quickly, you should arrive at a sound decision. You announce your decisions in a clear, firm, professional manner.” Without delay and “with consideration” are not at odds with one another. While decisiveness does, in fact, come from that bias for action, it does not mean setting aside the getting-of-the-facts. Remember judgment? Decisive carries with it a sense of speed, but it also contains the idea of being positive. Oh, that more leaders would be positive and use the Three G’s: go and see, get the facts and grasp the situation!
Initiative and Decisiveness | The Elusive Bias for Action
Tom Peters, fellow former US Navy Seabee Officer, says it this way, “Good managers have a bias for action.” So what exactly is this bias for action and why is it so important? Tom tells us that Agility relies heavily on leaders being able to act (including initiate) and decide quickly. If this is so, how can we have everything we need to act and decide quickly? We have to build a system that enables us to see problems as they are occurring so we can solve them. We also need to create such a simple problem solving algorithm that anyone can do it in five minutes or less. Face it, we need these things to survive. Think about when sparks are flying in the middle of a crisis: you can get the information you need in a fraction of the time it normally takes. People respond to crisis situations. So, the answer to how to get a bias for action while respecting some of the other leadership truths, namely judgment and, later, knowledge and bearing, is to get a system that keeps the hidden crises right under your nose, all day long.
Segue | From Initiative and Decisiveness to Dependability
Next time I will make up our March topic, Dependability. Before I close today, I want to make a clear connection between initiative and decisiveness and dependability. Dependability is being able to depend on the leader – up and down, double loyalty, etc.. One of the ways I’ve seen young leaders grow and develop in the area of dependability is how they comport themselves in initiative and decisiveness. Acting rashly and making bad decisions reflects poorly on leaders. But, acting and nailing the decision based on good judgment, well…that gets high marks in my book. It shows me maturity. Remember that initiative and decisiveness are keys to that Peters-ism known as a bias for action. I can tell you that Tom Peters didn’t make that up. I’ve seen it on my Navy Fitrep (Fitness Report) and I’ve used it on others. When I sense a bias for action, I can count on the leader to have sharp initiative and decisiveness: some basic leadership goo that will cover over a lot of other flaws.