27 Questions to Identify Culture and Define Vision

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately about organizational culture and vision. [To me, vision is where the team is going and culture is the behavior, beliefs, and norms that get it there.] One point of dispute deals with when the new leader of an organization (say, an incoming commander) should begin shaping the culture and setting the vision.

Some feel that culture-setting is a ‘Day 1 activity’ that centers on the leader’s influence…“I’m the new leader and here’s how I want things to run.” Others feel it is haphazard and potentially disastrous to join a team and immediately set it off on a new course…“I need to understand the culture before I know what to change.”

Regardless of your personal preference, it’s tough to argue that leaders should ignore culture and vision. Even a leader who immediately drives vision and culture will have to assess whether or not the team is meeting the intent. Identifying and understanding culture, for all leaders, is a critical task.

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Soldiers participate in a sunrise run during annual training at Fort Stewart, Ga., Jan. 11, 2017. The soldiers are assigned to the Georgia National Guard’s 78th Troop Command, 110th Combat Services Support Battalion. Army National Guard photo by Capt. William Carraway

Patton’s Advice Has a Serious Flaw

When I was in high school and the service academy, I did what many aspiring military leaders do. I studied famous generals from history and extracted the lessons that I wanted to live and lead by. I compiled quotes from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon…Washington, Marshall, and Powell.

And of course, Patton. I had pages of Patton quotes. There was the “pint of sweat and gallon of blood” quote, the “good plan executed now” dictum, and “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” But here’s the quote that stuck with me the most:

“You are always on parade.”

I referenced it almost daily as a clear reminder that example is everything in leadership. [I even wrote about it in You Are Being Watched.] But now, 20 years later, I think Patton’s analogy has a serious flaw.

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George Patton, c. 1919.

Stories of Failure – “That time I made my FRG Leader cry.”

Know this…the demands of being a leader put you on a path to break someone’s heart. Meetings and phone calls, requirements and taskings, emails and paperwork. They serve as culturally-legitimized distractions that can divert leaders from seeing and doing the right thing. And if you don’t sort through the sea of busywork to identify the glass balls, soldiers and families can get hurt. It took an ugly failure to teach me that lesson.

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Tiffany Smiley holds her youngest son while watching her husband Capt. Scott M Smiley salute the colors during the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Unit at West Point change of command ceremony Feb 1. U.S. Army photo by Tommy Gilligan.

The Bee, the Brain, & the Bully

Leadership is as diverse as the individuals who exercise it. We influence through distinct talents, shaped by experiences, personality traits, core values, and an endless list of other factors. Nonetheless, when we look back at the leaders we’ve encountered, it’s easy to identify behavior trends that point to a set of defining leadership styles. The aggressive risk taker. The deliberate planner. The encouraging coach. The intense micromanager.

Each profession has its own set of styles that generally lead to success. The military is no different. Here are three types of military leaders you’ll find that, for better or worse, produce results.

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A Marine points in the direction of the next objective on a security patrol during an Integrated Training Exercise aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., July 19, 2015. Link to photo.

Stories of Failure – Undermining the First Sergeant

Anyone in search of success should plan on finding failure along the way. Not only should it be accepted as a matter of course, failure should be invited as an indicator of what works and what doesn’t. Those who never fail aren’t pushing themselves hard enough, as the saying goes.

But failure in leadership is tricky because leadership involves people. Catastrophic failure is not acceptable, but it’s helpful to fail just enough to learn good lessons without hurting your people. Then hopefully the lesson will stick with the leader throughout the career and benefit future organizations and their people. That’s how I learned a vital lesson about communication and trust.

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Army 1SG Joshua Engel, First Sergeant for the 416th Theater Engineer Command, Headquarters Company.
Link to U.S. Army photo by SFC Michel Sauret.

Stories of Failure – Ranger School

Failure is an important part of any career…but only if you learn from it. I’ll admit that I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by fantastic leaders throughout my career. But no amount peripheral talent can eliminate the bumpy learning curve that accompanies a life of military service. As such, I have found failure despite their best efforts. This post is but a snippet of those failures.

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U.S. Army Soldiers conduct patrols during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, Ga. Link to photo on ABC News.

When Everest Just Isn’t Your Summit

by Joe Byerly

In 1996, ninety-eight men and women successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest. Unfortunately, fifteen climbers lost their lives. On May 10 of that year, a series of mishaps mixed with a powerful storm to create one of the deadliest days in the mountain’s history. The story of the two teams, led by Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, has become famous due to the blockbuster movie Everest and several books written by the survivors.

Why did some climbers make it to the top and back to basecamp that day, while others lost their lives? John Krakauer, one of the survivors and author of Into Thin Air wrote the following:

“Truth be told, climbing Everest has always been an extraordinary dangerous undertaking and doubtless always will be…the strongest guides in the world are sometimes powerless to save even their own lives. Four of my teammates died not so much because Rob Hall’s systems were faulty-indeed, nobody’s were better-but because on Everest it is the nature of systems to break down with a vengeance.”

Krakauer’s remarks highlight the point that when it comes to Everest type endeavors, it is not only training and preparation that matter – it is also luck. Therefore, we must take the time to reflect on the sources of our successes and failures to better understand our own strengths and weaknesses. By doing so we avoid two pitfalls that can affect later performance: committing fundamental attribution error and developing an overconfidence bias. Both of these pitfalls can leave us blinded and we won’t focus on areas where we need to improve, or we miss out on chance opportunities, or worse, we hitch our personal value to our professional progression (or lack thereof).

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Eighty-year-old Yuichiro Miura faces the summit of Mount Everest on his way to becoming the oldest person ever to climb the world’s highest mountain. Link to photo on The Japan Times Online.

The Role of Luck in Becoming a Successful Officer

If…

…you were born into 0.4% of the US population
…you avoided serious criminal offenses as an adolescent
…you can do push ups, sit ups, and run
…you stumbled upon worthwhile mentors who taught you the basics of leadership
…you were placed in a branch that at least mildly aligned with your passions
…you didn’t get a course-ending case of cellulitis in Ranger School
…you got orders to a unit with a legitimate operational future, where you could gain valuable experience
…you joined a unit with NCOs who cared about developing junior officers
…you didn’t get someone killed at your first live fire range…

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Retired Lt. Col. Alissa Turner places the general officer rank on her husband, Brig. Gen. William Turner’s, Field Artillery School commandant and chief of FA, uniform during his promotion ceremony Oct. 9, 2014 on Old Post Quadrangle. Photo Credit: Ms. Marie Berberea