All my leadership development in the corporate world had not prepared me to immediately sense my critical leadership moments, unlike how the military had prepared me so well.
During my initial meeting with my VP and Director of Human Resources, when I noticed the strange way they were looking at me, I now understand that I was in my own critical leadership moment. The consequences of failure in that moment were high: my upward trajectory in that organization changed to a nose dive into the ground. But even if I had been able to sense that moment, I hadn’t been trained to behave and act successfully, unlike how the military had trained me so well.
Leadership development industry can’t help leaders in critical moments
The $20 billion leadership development industry had only trained me to be good enough most of the time at my routine leadership tasks. And up until that time in the corporate world, I’d had only been in routine leadership scenarios.
But my organization was more hierarchical than most, and mixed messages regarding leadership behavior were the norm. That organization had not trained me to recognize when I might be advocating too much for my own preference, and then when to back-off and accept the direction provided by my VP. Instead, they hired external leadership consultants who trained me to be bold and respectfully challenge the status quo and my leaders. No one ever discussed how to recognize when challenging others crossed the line unique to my organization.
When I was finally able to see the difference between my military and corporate leadership development, it was a gift. Here’s what I learned and what I now ask organizations to do.
Only you know your critical moments
Just like you couldn’t know how my patrol went from routine to critical until I told you, the $20 billion leadership development industry does not know your organization’s critical leadership moments until you tell them. But even if you tell them, and then demand development to help your leaders succeed in your organization’s critical moments, will they be able to deliver beyond simply good enough most of the time in the routine?
Primary role of any leader
While we need leaders who are good enough most of the time at their routine leadership tasks, we also need leaders who will succeed in critical moments.
The military is also very intentional about the primary role of every leader: to develop future leaders. It’s the leaders in your organization who can help your emerging leaders be successful in their critical moments. Here’s how to do it:
#1 Know your critical leadership moments
Assemble each level of leadership and get them to talk about their own successes and failures in your organization, and the successes and failures of the leaders who report to them. This is not the time to talk about corporate values or broad leadership competencies. It is the time to understand what happened to who, when, and how. Discussing values, traits and competencies will only dilute and distract the conversation. Document and categorize the success and failure scenarios.
#2 Decision time
Are your leaders good enough most of the time already? If they are, then you can stop paying for external leadership development. If they are not, then you still need that general leadership development, but you should also take a hard look at who you are promoting. If you promote these people, they are already good enough most of the time. But now, you need to decide if you’re going to dedicate resources toward training your leaders to succeed in your organization’s critical moments.
#3 Develop leaders for their critical moments
If you’re going to train for the critical moments, your real work is only beginning. You need to design and deliver the leadership development that will ensure your leaders behave and act successfully in critical moments. You have to design it, and leaders in your organization will have to deliver it. Why? Because those leaders have been there, themselves. They know what success and failure feels like. The delivery doesn’t need to be resource intensive, but it needs to be focused and intentional. Selected leaders can dedicate one day, twice each year, to deliver training in your organization’s critical leadership moments to your emerging leaders. Emerging leaders can spend a couple weeks each year shadowing and being mentored by senior leaders.
How did my patrol end?
When that soldier looked at me, when our eyes locked for a fraction of a second, he wasn’t looking at an electronics technician. He was looking at someone who out-ranked him and he gave me a fraction of a second to be his leader. I sensed that moment, like I was trained to sense it, and I immediately made a decision. In that critical moment, I became his leader.
The Sergeant was out there, somewhere, with a radio. The other radio was in the armoured personnel carrier (APC) about fifteen minutes away. If we could get back to the APC, we’d be able to communicate with the Sergeant. If we had to search the town, we’d be safer in the APC. I decided that we would make our way back to the APC.
Initially getting from the APC to the town square was a routine patrol but getting back to the APC was anything but routine. We moved carefully, quickly and quietly, covering each other like soldiers do. When I saw the square outline of the APC, we dropped to one knee, raised our rifles and looked through our optical sights. Standing about ten metres in front of the APC was the Sergeant. His plan had changed. He told me why, but I can’t remember. All I remember is that the patrol went from critical and back to routine.
Train for critical moments
Have your leaders train your emerging leaders to be successful in their critical moments. Keep that training focused on those moments. Make it meaningful. Make it powerful. If you do, you will create a generation of leaders who, when the consequences of failure are too high, when being good enough most of the time is not enough, will be successful. No one is born knowing what to do in critical moments. They need that training.
Thank you to the sponsors, my fellow presenters, and everyone who made the Bold Summit a success. It was an honour and humbling to be a very small part of this very big effort.