Initiative

This article is part 4 of a many part series treating the Marine Corps Leadership mnemonic, JJDIDTIEBUCKLE

Definition: 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.

I am currently on a Mel Gibson, Nicholas Cage, John Travolta action movie bender. Dozens of 1980’s and 90’s action-packed glory. I probably need help at this point, but I can’t stop/won’t stop.

Fortunately, I have noticed some real pearls of wisdom. Every great action movie is filled with characters who know just what to do when things go bad. Where to go, what to blow up, or whom to take down.

The motif is important. It’s the idea of people who just get things done with no guidance even in disorder or duress. In a word, “initiative”.

Here are some elements of the motif behind initiative:

  • Expertise
  • Communication
  • Respect for competence
  • Trust

When your team has the expertise, communicates well, there is general respect for each other’s professional competence, and general trust, initiative will thrive.

Which means your team will thrive.

The sign of a great leader is when you can embrace the decisions your subordinates make which are reasonably correct and run with them. The truth is that most all decisions can be course corrected, but a decision needs to be made in the first place. Embracing decisions from your subordinates creates more decisions. Unwarranted criticism of subordinate’s decisions which you were not equipped or confident enough to make in the first place creates team paralysis. And you are to be blamed.

It’s a mark of an immature leader that creates paralysis. And the gates of leadership hell (“heck” for those in Utah) swing wide and hungrily for those who refuse to make a decision till a subordinate is forced to and then proceed to criticize. It’s a gross feat of cowardice.

I have seen managers avoid making a decision (that would tie them down) and then browbeat those who saved their bacon by making a call. I’ve seen managers chew the buns right off well-meaning subordinates who made pretty solid decisions, just because it wasn’t the decision the manager would have made. The erosion of trust and confidence is staggering. Initiative ceases.

Soon you get a “leader” musing about if they only had a better team.

“There are no bad battalions, only colonels”, said Napoleon Bonaparte. That translates to “there are no bad teams, only leaders.” Let that sink in.

I assume you have expertise in your role and understand why communication is important (go read “Crucial Conversations”). On showing respect for people’s competence, that gets downright philosophical. I’ll give you a free tip: If you find yourself being a jerk-wad, stop it! That’s it.

So let’s focus back on the trust piece. This is hard, yet freeing. Do you have what it takes? Are you confident enough in your professional game to allow your people to develop through decision-making? Even though the buck stops with you? I hope so. A great leader will allow subordinates to step into and mimic higher roles (including their own). There’s no experience like hands on experience.

I have seen great leaders defend their subordinate’s decisions because their subordinates making increasingly complex organizational decisions is part of a well-foundedleadership development program. The overwhelming majority of those leaders then gain their own bosses respect. Because trust takes guts. Being a sneaky weasel does not.

An organization which embraces daring-doo, putting aside ego and public displays of perfection (which no one buys anyway…sorry), is a strong one. But the culture which values the false forms of flawlessness over the function of leadership development will watch its talent launch daring escapes. Then they’ll gripe that “kids these days don’t know how to work!”

Want to create leaders? Represent initiative yourself and protect the initiatives of your subordinates. It is key.

TAKE AWAYS:

  1. Create communication by not being a critical jerkwad
  2. Let your people make decisions
  3. Support their decisions, course correct as needed, but above all, run interference for them

I’ve been rebranding people through career and life coaching, writing resumes and building LinkedIn profiles for years from my online vacation home at www.careerflex.net. I love public speaking and helping people identify what they want to do with their talents. Preferably we hike a mountain while talking. I can be reached at jake@careerflex.net or (858)522-0194.

Dependability

This article is part 3 of a many part series treating the Marine Corps Leadership mnemonic, JJDIDTIEBUCKLE

Dependability: The ability to carry out what is expected of you consistently.

Isn’t this a better trait of for “followership”? I say no. I have noticed that a significant amount of training in organizations focuses on how to get your job done, from the follower’s perspective. We do very little, however, in the workplace to effectively prepare people for leadership. Managership, sure. But actually wielding power, creating buy-in, caring for others, and creating long-term relationships is something organizations struggle with.

For instance, when was the last time you saw leadership traits and practices actually measured and managed. As in, if you are a terrible leader, your job is on the line?

I thought not.

Working for someone who is inconsistent, changes their word, misremembers facts, or lets the course of the week drive their mood is awful. The opposite experience is glorious. But the former experience is all too common.

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved”. I grew up in a world where this George MacDonald quote was repeated with some frequency and it affected my worldview. As I grew older, this belief was challenged by those who teach that to be loved should be the prime focus and should be independent of action.

But experience has shown me that love has to be based on something. It’s a response to perceived value. Dependability is a serious motivator towards love, be it romantic or fraternal. In military parlance, we call it someone “having your 6”. It’s an incredible experience to really know you can trust those you work with.

Want your team to “love” you? Be dependable. When you promise an action, make that action happen.

As a leader, another way to look at dependability is called “being authentic”. As a leader, you need to remove the “who am I dealing with today?”

How do you achieve dependability? The easiest way has two parts. 1) Surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback, regardless of your rank or position, 2) Have the intestinal fortitude (courage) to listen and not punish them. The world and corporate America has more than enough would be dictators with fragile egos who, once they get a little power, wield it like a baton. They forget that eternal truth: while authority is granted from above, power comes from those you lead.

Once you break the trust of those whom you lead, you’ve lit a fuse on your own respectability and much will be the rejoicing when you are gone.

What’s more, as a leader you owe it to yourself to figure leadership dependability out. Data science and machine learning are coming for you. We know that disengaged workforces have enormous costs. Perhaps within the next decade or two, data scientistswill quantify leadership and track your execution of it. And I will be helping them.

Take aways:

1) Surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth.

2) Have the guts to listen and not make them pay.

I’ve been rebranding people through career and life coaching, writing resumes and building LinkedIn profiles for years from my online vacation home at www.careerflex.net. I love public speaking and helping people identify what they want to do with their talents. Preferably we hike a mountain while talking. I can be reached at jake@careerflex.net or (858)522-0194.

Justice

This is the first in a series of articles based on the Marine Corps JJDIDTIEBUCKLE concept.

We of the Marine Corps have looked with happy amusement as so many of our honored leaders have been ushered into high levels of power, including General Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Chris Bolender treats the why, which I give thumbs up, five stars, would recommend and all of that. Our private conversations got me thinking of some of the life-changing training and teaching the Corps gave us and how it applies to corporate life.

There’s a lot to pull from. There’s the 5000-year-old mind; there’s the OODA LoopMAGTF conceptDuctus Exemplo; and the Mission, Men, Me/Horse, Saddle, Man concepts.

I have had some really incredible leaders in my time. I’ve had a few mundane and self-serving managers. Leadership vs Managership is a conflict never missed by men and women on the frontlines, whether in the Corps or in a top company.

Leadership is a break from the mundane. They inspire and are inspired. They terrify the enemy in combat and the home office in peace. Leaders break molds and reset the possibilities. The great achievements you see around you or read about were likely initiated by a leader. Then they’ll probably be managed into decay.

Wise people know that while authority may be vested from above, power is loaned from the people you lead. When you violate the trust of the people on your team, you suddenly find yourself having to fight to get anything done.

And shame on you when that happens.

Wise people know that while authority may be vested from above, power is loaned from the people you lead. When you violate the trust of the people on your team, you suddenly find yourself having to fight to get anything done because they stand against you.

I decided that going forward, I am going to take a Marine Corps leadership mnemonic we call JJDIDTIEBUCKLE and break it out into articles. Application of these principles allows for true team building and the rare experience of people having your back.

The mnemonic stands for:

  • Justice
  • Judgement 
  • Dependability 
  • Integrity
  • Decisiveness 
  • Tact
  • Initiative 
  • Endurance 
  • Bearing
  • Unselfishness 
  • Courage
  • Knowledge
  • Loyalty 
  • Enthusiasm

Failure to exercise these principles will have you tied down with mistrust, your best talent fleeing from you, and worse, entire teams slouching towards mediocrity because they have no trust in the organization. This is something primal, embedded in all people. We fight back when we are misused.

So, from the top:

Justice– Justice is more than simply a fair mind, although that is important. It’s the philosophical underpinnings for our systems of fairness and fair play, creating max benefit for all parties involved.

To be just, you need to know what the policy or law demands, but then the circumstances behind decisions. It requires understanding different views, of right and wrong, give and take, and taking appropriate actions against violations. And mercy.

Heavy-handed responses are not justice. Injecting your subjective viewpoints against another person’s experience may violate this principle as well. Justice is only served when it is objective and consolidates all the facts available.

Using your power and authority to vex your adversaries—regardless of how thrilling— is not justice. In various stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, when different tribes or coalitions came to power, we all watched in horror as the former ruling parties were killed in the streets. Revenge is not justice.

Justice is one of the elements which will gain a leader buy-in from the team. It’s also first on the list because violating justice will have you up against an insurgency made up of those who know you best: your own team!

Let me give a personal story where I saw both sides of justice.

In Afghanistan, I knew a bright young Marine who on a random urinalysis tested positive for THC. The Uniform Code of Military Justice allows zero tolerance for illicit drug use. Pang-boom, you’ll likely be out with very serious charges and a very serious bad conduct discharge on your record.

So, as it were, some leaders insisted passionately that regardless of the circumstances, this Marine be prosecuted.

Now, it was known and part of case law that Afghan National Army troops found humor in putting hashish in rice meals and giving it to their US Marine partners.

Justice is one of the elements which will gain a leader buy-in from the team. It’s also first on the list because violating justice will have you up against an insurgency made up of those who know you best: your own team!

Thus, others believed the kid should be let alone outside of more evidence being presented because we knew the tricks our partners would play on us.

But then Justice appeared.

There was enough contextual evidence that this Marine’s meal had been spiked that wiser heads elected to not ruin this young man’s life. Yes, he actually had consumed drugs. But also, context considered, the young man’s honor was preserved. We gave our Afghan counterparts a good talking to, and this Marine went on to do great things.

In the American world, the ideal is a system of checks and balances. Corporations often try to have these systems in place and sometimes they succeed, but to do so takes guts and determination.

I was once with a company where the reputation of HR was that it always and invariably sided with management. HR had lost the trust of the ground level employee.

Frankly, sometimes management sucks. That’s why unions came into being. HR came into being to make sure Management treats people well and the humans as a resource are not mistreated. Thus, organizing success has dropped considerably.

Through hard work and diligence, we were able to realign HR’s reputation— the heuristic HR had created for itself. Ultimately it led to a happier, more engaged workforce with less turnover.

If you need any more reasons why HR (my field) needs to be able to push back against management, I have one word for you: Uber.

When HR loses its grasp on justice or courage to stand for justice, the company suffers because the people suffer.

TAKE AWAY: Keys to Justice in an organization:

1)            Know the standard

2)            Know the capabilities of your people

3)            Strive at all times to understand the barriers your people face

4)            Attack the process before you blame the people

Judgment

Judgment

This article is part 2 of a many part series treating the Marine Corps Leadership mnemonic, JJDIDTIEBUCKLE

Judgment is sound decision-making after considering variables at hand. Closely related to the principle of Justice, done wrong it is a credibility burner.

Twisting facts or considering only the facts that support our opinions is a mark of immaturity. When someone has poor judgment, a popular axiom is that they lack the sense that God even gave the lowliest goose. Running about the farmyard or the corporate office or squad headquarters, what comes from their mouth raises eyebrows, causes whispers, and at times dismay.

Judgment can be a tricky thing because it creates competition for our imaginative resources.

We have to understand both things as they are and things as they can or should be. Then the decisions we make must change current circumstances into better circumstances. More just and effective circumstances.

Let me tell you a tale of when I exercised poor judgment. An employee’s house had burned down, but that employee had used up all vacation and personal time. There was no mechanism for simply letting her be off work, so as a young fool held her to the attendance standard, which ultimately would have led to her termination.

I had a great leader and her response I will never forget. “Why would you do that?” she asked. “Do you really think our company is so brittle that we can’t put our arms around someone who has had a major life event? Do you think she burned her house down on purpose? You need to learn to make the heart decision instead of the hard decision.”

Ouch and lesson learned. I learned to supersede less significant factors with greater factors.

A mark of superior judgment in a leader is faith and hope in his or her people, creating greater confidence and desire for excellence.

Great leaders know that, as Goethe put it, “Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness”. Or put more modernly, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding”. We’ve all seen managers jump at the chance to reprimand with partial information. It erodes trust and shows poor judgment.

Soon people cease bringing their problems to you, at which point they’ve taken away your leadership. You then are consigned to being a mere manager driving metrics, but affecting little. In the words of one of my favorite workplace associates, “Ew”.

TAKE AWAY: Careful, well-considered judgment is a hallmark of a great leader. To have it, you have to think hard thoughts and read hard books. There are no bulletized steps to getting this, just hard experience. I recommend Dr. Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for excellent treatments of human nature and developing judgment.

Exhalt your team

A person might be smooth as oil, but if he executes power through distrust and duplicity, they’ll be deposed. And many questions will follow after him.

Power in a position is one of the most difficult tests a leader can face. It reveals your inner soul or inner snake. In most organizations, the consent of the led is rarely taken into account which is unfortunate. I do not think human nature has changed all that much through the millennia, but certainly—at least in the Western world—historically low violence, the high level of education, and ability to communicate as easily as we do lends itself to choice and buy in.

But less about the led (although doing right by your people is a core of leadership), leaders—real leaders— imbue all their people with power. They are transparent, trust their subordinates, back up effort, and don’t play favorites. A miniscule number of subordinates may be unwilling to reflect trust back. But most of the led I have ever seen are eager for leadership which inspires, transforms, creates a break from the mundane common experience of self-serving “managership”.  Too often the experience of most of us involves that duplicity I mentioned, but also disrespect, disregard for real achievement, favoritism, and demoralizing feats of hypocrisy.

The conflict is between what comes easy and what betterment demands. Beautifully put in of nasty conflict and human nature, in Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy writes,

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

But that’s the conflict. War, conflict, abuse, overreach have all always existed. But not all people take part in it. I would argue that honorable history is shaped by a few men and women who break the mold of human nature and show something new— something just as eternal but sadly less seen.

The nature of men is self-aggrandizement. Those who practice it as the cost of other’s trust in them call it “pragmatism”.  It’s bullshit because it wrecks teams. The burden of leadership is to transcend that, to become the ideal of a team, a thing that represents the team’s highest intentions.

If you exalt your team, your team will see you exalted. Leadership is a high and holy calling.

When to swim with rats

I was once part of the greatest Marine battalion on earth. Trust me. Well, it was the greatest. Then we had a change of command and a new unit leadership came on board which was totally opposite of the previous commander and his vision. The new leadership crew had an odd fascination with the mundane. Rather than technical skill, intrinsic communication, deep knowledge of the art of war, the new focus became uniform preparation, the precision of haircuts, and the proper greetings of the day. “Brilliance in the basics!” was the mantra.

As I watched orders come in for senior leader after senior leader to leave the unit, many well before the traditional transition point one would expect, as a young lieutenant I approached one of the highest ranking enlisted in the unit and observed how odd it seemed that all these leaders were suddenly leaving. “Sir”, he said, “have you ever heard of rats jumping off a sinking ship? This is one of those cases where you’re seeing the big rats jumping from the ship and it’s time to get yourself the **** overboard.”

How right he was. It didn’t take long to realize that the new team focused on the mundane because they didn’t have the intellect or connectedness with each other to delve into the grey areas of human experience together. You see, dress codes, politeness, and policy manuals are predictable and safe. But they don’t bring growth or excellence. As our unit was a combat unit engaged in warfighting so unusual so as to be described as “learning to eat soup with a knife”, focus on parade readiness and so forth was a safe escape from the hard, ambiguous realities that needed to be dealt with. The young warfighters, many who had been on the 5th and 6th combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, knew snappy uniform items did not prepare anyone for that world. They were wise and experienced.

To massacre a quote by a man smarter than me, here is what happened: The men who shut their mouths and dumbly nodded along at the latest powerpoint brief about drill formations received commendations and promotions, while the men who delighted the lower ranks by speaking truthfully about the reality-based training needed got reprimands. It was the truest distinction between management and leadership I have ever seen. I learned that leaders are original, inventive, movers and shakers, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that confuse and overwhelm the enemy in war and corporate HQ in peace. But managers are safe, conservative and predictable. They conform to the established organization, are always on the side of the “A team” and are dedicated to the establishment, not the mission.

It’s these guys who cause us to forget why our leadership principles are up on the wall in the first place.

I give you an example. I worked for a place where an overpowered corporate lawyer had say in virtually every decision made. His reach was incredible. Unfortunately, his first major travail as a young lawyer decades before had been a disaster caused by loose standards. Thousands died. After that point, every choice was viewed through the lens of worst possible outcomes. As a result of his risk aversion, terminations that should’ve been made years before were not made because of this amorphous and undefinable shadow monster called “risk”; daring business plans were not executed because hearts might be wounded, labor boards called, and pearls clutched. The stagnated cesspool of brash underperformers in a company which had no purpose defied description. I called it “cesspression” because we lived in a cesspool of ne’er-do-wells with no avenue to elevate our standing from our depression. It was awful.

I took it upon myself to terminate several of the underperformers in my region for:

  • falsifying leave documents
  • not performing up to standards
  • lying on and falsifying official company records
  • threatening a manager with “an ass beating”

Definitely cream of the crop.

Of course, the lawyer had seizures and end of day visions. Also, of course, none of the doomsday vision even remotely came to fruition. The California Department of Labor appeals board—those randy pro-business jerks— told the guys to get lost. But the lawyer did not learn. Instead, he doubled down and increased his obsession with risk avoidance.

In view of all this, the company was truly puzzled as to why it couldn’t attract and retain young talent. I tactfully explained that the kids these days are not hip on cesspressions. After a bit, I was told that I was hurting the tender feelings of executives who wanted to imagine that people under 30 lacked work ethic and that was why we could find none fit to be part of us. Negligence in their upbringings, basically. Further, I was told I had just better be quiet because. Yes, because. Mime-like, passionate as I was, I became quiet. And then I left.  As did others.

I think every organization goes from a place of growth to stability to stagnation and finally death. Some don’t die, they just become corporate-sized extras in “The Walking Dead”. I do not know how to stop it other than to punish it. When organizations start hiring people who favor the safe feels of stability over the life inducing energy of innovation, daring, risk, and reward, the leaders need to fight back until they lose the culture war. Then they need to leave to a new company which favors their view of the world. The old company will slouch into cesspressions and the new company will get an adrenaline shot.

A great culture is the goose that lays the golden egg. Once a culture is mired in risk aversion, revenues and forward momentum you see come from it is residual energy. But it’ll stop.

Then it’s time then to join the rats for a swim.

If not you, then who?

It’s easy to get distracted. Ever notice how the technology we use that was supposed to bring us together only seems to divide us?

It’s important to get back to basics. Especially those on this forum (ie, professionals) there’s a lot we can do by deciding to. By connecting with others and deciding to act, we can do some good. To be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”, as one thinker put it.

I’ll share my story:

Thanks to Amazon’s unbeatably veterans friendly culture, last year I was in the Philippines as part of my Marine Corps Reserves Civil Affairs duties. While there, I bought a plate of rice from a family in the jungle. I noticed they had an open pit well right in front of the front door of their house. Just an open pit with a concrete lip, down into brown water far below. They also had several children younger than 5 running about.

Having 4 little humans myself, I thought the open well was a poor design. I inquired and found that there used to be a pump, but it had been destroyed in a typhoon a few years earlier. They used some wood slats to cover it and afford some protection.

I asked why they didn’t put in a new pump and they gave me the, “Yeah, and why don’t we just fly a Rolls Royce to the moon while we’re at it, too?” look that homeowners give when some idiot proposes an impossibly expensive project.

Having done several remodels, I thought the components for a good hand pump assembly couldn’t be too much. I went down to the local hardware shop and priced out what would be needed for a good, steel hand pump. $60 for the full project.

$60? Easy decision. I bought the equipment and cement and took it back to the family. Being industrious, they had that thing in and cemented within 3 hours.

The next day I sat and talked with the family. I found out that they lived on not much money for a family of 9. The oldest daughter, Abigail, 17, had plans to go be a cruise-line hostess as per some ads she had seen, which promised to “show you the world”. As a Marine involved in stopping such things, I recognized it as a probable human trafficking trick. Like any decent military member, I quoted Admiral Ackbar and told her it was a trap.

Now I was involved. I’ve learned that while bad men get laser-focused on their quarry, too often good men just hope that bad things will not occur if their personal behavior is good. So I decided to get laser-focused on her plan. If I were involved, egregious actors would have less of a chance to trick and manipulate. I think we call that mentorship.

We sat and mapped out potential plans for college, trade schools, and so on. Turns out for her to have substantially increased odds at a good life was around $300 USD a year (which I confirmed through research).

For her, not possible. For me and mine, eminently doable.

Fast forward a year. We have her brother, Jerick, in an electrician program ($80), her with a study kits for high school final and college entry exams ($20), which occur in March, and the family with 2 new pigs to raise and sell for around $220 each ($40 each). We were also able to eliminate some predatory debt brought because of hospital bills from a car accident, for which the family had to take out a loan. Compound interest when working against you is hard to beat.

About once a week, Jerick, his sisters, and I communicate over Facebook. We talk about simple business plans, using compound interest in your favor, cost/benefit analysis, how to inventory, running a profit and loss statement, establishing a market, and avoiding scams. Stuff that for me (and probably you if you are reading this) is our daily bread. For my new friends, a useful master course in playing the game a different way.

In March, my family and I will go out there, together, so I can show them the Philippines, help my kids get a grasp of how much they have, and at the same time allow them to see the happiness and love in the eyes of the people there. We’ll also see what else we can do, not just for this family, but for the community.

The life we have in the West is the 1%, compared to the world at large. Instead of doing something with it, too many are distracted by false quarrels. Or waiting for someone else to act.

I am not a believer that asking a third party to do good with our money is very useful. I am a believer that we should all allow ourselves to click with other people, and when we do, wear our lives out in a good cause. Relay what you have learned.

Evil people have a laser focus on doing harm. Commit your laser focus on doing good.

If not you, then who?