Putting Leadership Back in Leader Development

Take a look at your unit calendar. Scan the clutter of appointments, meetings, formations, training events, ceremonies, and administrative commitments. Do you see any events dedicated to improving the quality of your people’s leadership? If not…if leadership development isn’t a separate line of effort…then how are you developing leaders?


A U.S. Army Ranger from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, keeps his sight on a target with an M240L machine gun during a company live fire training at Camp Roberts, Calif., Jan. 30, 2014. U.S. Army Photo Illustration by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade. I like this photo because it’s a reminder that all military leadership boils down to supporting this Soldier on the ground.

Sleep that Sabotages Leadership

Today’s HBR recommendation, “Your Abusive Boss Is Probably an Insomniac,” is a summary of findings from a study published in the Academy of Management Journal. The researchers studied 88 leaders and their teams to find out if the leaders’ sleep habits affected performance at work. The result?…you guessed it, but there’s a twist:

We found that daily leader sleep quality, but not quantity, influenced the leader’s self-control and abusive supervision behavior, and ultimately the degree to which his or her subordinates were engaged in their work that day. It is not clear why sleep quantity did not have the effect we predicted, but the effect for sleep quality was very clear; a given leader engaged in more jerky boss behavior after a poor night of sleep than a good night of sleep, and this influenced his or her subordinates to disengage from work.


Photo by Odi Mitch. Link to photo.

12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#12)

 Because I wield power over others,
I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.

Robert Sutton closes out “12 Things Good Bosses Believe” by citing what I think is the most often overlooked (and potentially the most destructive) aspect of leadership on this list. It is the idea that the very position of influence blinds the leader from truly realizing how his actions impact subordinates.

When you think about it, there is nothing more elemental in human interaction – to understand how we affect other people – but this awareness is often hidden even from those who base their professions on influencing others.


Army Reserve Soldiers and competitors listen to a class on rifle marksmanship before the inaugural Army Reserve Small Arms Championship hosted at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, Sept. 22. Approximately 70 Soldiers, making up 14 teams, came from all over the country to compete. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)

12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#11)

Simplicity resonates from #11 of Robert Sutton’s “12 Things Good Bosses Believe.” This belief is so basic that it is often overlooked and rarely discussed, but might very well be the belief that distinguishes great leaders from the rest.

Sutton’s #11 belief of good bosses is:

How I do things is as important as what I do.


Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, center left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, at Besmaya Range Complex in Iraq, April 21, 2016. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro.

12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#10)

Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to
eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.

In my first few weeks as a company commander, I noticed that directly across the hall worked a consistently loud mid-level leader. He made a point to interrupt and talk over everyone around him who was either junior in rank or wasn’t annoyed enough to walk away.

As his leader, though, what concerned me was that his talk was also constantly negative. He seemed to be incapable of agreeing with or encouraging a positive thought by those around him. It was an emotional drain to listen to and I’m sure it was exasperating for the Soldiers working for him.

#10 on Robert Sutton’s “12 Things Good Bosses Believe” zeros-in on negative interactions and caustic team members because they can quickly overwrite the positive that exists within an organization. Being a nice leader and encouraging others is not enough, Sutton explains in his Harvard Business Review blog post on the topic:

Eliminating the negative, as any skilled leader can tell you, is not just the flipside of accentuating the positive. It’s a whole different set of activities. For someone with people to manage, accentuating the positive means recognizing productive and constructive effort, for example, and helping people discover and build on their strengths. Eliminating the negative, for the same boss, might mean tearing down maddening obstacles and shielding people from abuse.

Some might say that the climate of authority and bravado in military units makes positivity “uncool.” Success in the military, like anything else, “rises and falls on leadership” (John Maxwell). Sutton’s point is that actively developing a positive climate is less important than removing the negative people and interactions. Sutton draws an analogy to marriage:

Negative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impacts than positive ones. In the context of romantic relationships and marriages, for example, the truth is stark:  unless positive interactions outnumber negative interactions by five to one, odds are that the relationship will fail.

In the instance of my former subordinate, it was clear to me that his corrosive attitude was exactly opposite of the command climate my First Sergeant and I were trying to build. One day after a particularly cynical monologue, I engaged him with an ultimatum…cut out the negativity or I’d pull him out of the position, period. He adjusted his attitude.

Here are a few tips for action:

  • Lead with positivity and publicly reward such behavior in your team.
  • Words matter. Pay close attention to how you discuss problems and difficult people. Your attitude will propagate through the organization.
  • Frame conflict in the context of growth, always placing the outcome and the learning process higher than the friction that caused it.
  • Establish no tolerance for caustic, negative people (Robert Sutton’s book on this topic is called The No Asshole Rule)
  • Go on the hunt for negative people. Roam around the building, get conversational with people, and investigate rumors of negative behavior.
  • Use Baird CEO Paul Purcell’s approach to clarify your stance on negativity:  “If I discover that you’re an asshole, I’m going to fire you.”

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12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#9)

Sutton’s #9 from 12 Things Good Bosses Believe has significant, daily application for the military leader. You definitely need to read his expanded blog post on #9, which provides details on how successful companies become more effective at cultivating the right ideas. Here is #9:

“Innovation is crucial to every team and organization.
So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas.
But it is also my job to help them kill off
all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.”


12 Things Good Bosses Believe (Rule #8)

One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization —
is “what happens after people make a mistake?”

Robert Sutton’s 12 Things Good Bosses Believe continues to provide insight for military leaders. Sutton explains that of his five books on business and leadership, #8 is the most important lesson:

Failure is inevitable, so the key to success is to be good at learning from it. The ability to capitalize on hard-won experience is a hallmark of the greatest organizations — the ones that are most adept at turning knowledge into action, that are best at developing and implementing creative ideas, that engage in evidence-based (rather than faith- or fear-based) management, and that are populated with the best bosses.

The military has a lineage of “no fail” leadership. There are clearly times when error, failure, or underperformance are unacceptable. (On this 70th anniversary, the D-Day landings at Normandy come to mind.)

D-Day Landings

There are also times (I’m sure you can recall from your own experience) when military leaders have exercised “no fail” leadership in situations that were slightly less decisive as D-Day. Unit meetings in garrison come to mind, where I’ve observed a commander routinely rip into the staff for minor (and often unavoidable) deviances from his perfect expectations. What is a person or team to do when they offer their best effort only to be cut down and reminded of their failings?

There are basically three responses to failure:

  1. Nobody notices. In the military, not identifying failure is worse than overreacting to it. Given the importance of our military mission, this typically does not happen in the areas of warfighting. However…don’t forget that “what doesn’t get checked often doesn’t get done.” It’s easy to assume that areas like counseling and property management are “good to go” and not identify a problem until critical system failure.
  2. The team gets crushed. In this case, the individual or team gives it their best but falls short, and the leader gives no allowance for not meeting the standard. Sometimes a leader has to intentionally do so to make a point, but leading without allowance for failure destroys creativity, morale, and learning.
  3. The leader uses failure to grow the team. Provided that failure wasn’t illegal, immoral, or unethical, the leader should use every opportunity to calmly walk the individual/team through a process to objectively capture the facts, identify successes as well as faults, and then extrapolate the appropriate lessons. This leader assumes that everyone is doing their best and wants to learn. And when the leader couples this process with positive feedback for the parts that went well, the result is immeasurably productive.

The effects of having a measured response and using failure to grow will be twofold:

  1. Productivity will increase. The team members will feel inspired to seek excellence, won’t be afraid of failure, and will be enabled to try new methods.
  2. Trickle down effect. Your subordinate leaders will follow the leader’s example and treat their teams in a similar way, which elevates the entire organization’s growth.

Questions for Leaders:

  • What determines how you react to failure? Your mood? The severity of the failure? The frequency of failures?
  • What is your threshold for what is an acceptable failure and what is not? Have you clarified your philosophy to your team?
  • Do you know how your subordinates react to their team’s failures?

Leave your comments below and be sure to share your thoughts with your team.

“12 Things Good Bosses Believe” was published on the Harvard Business Review online leadership blog May 28, 2010.

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12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#7)

I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong —
and to teach my people to do the same thing.

#7 of Robert Sutton’s 12 Things Good Bosses Believe should be a no-brainer. Military leaders generally don’t have a problem fighting as if they’re right, but what does “listen as if I am wrong” mean for leaders who are driven, experienced, and trained to perform with total confidence? Let’s start by looking at the antithesis.

good bosses

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with members of the Marine Guard Detachment at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Feb. 20, 2016. Link to photo.