Leading From The Front Lines

I’ve never been a soldier in the military. But, as a student of history, I have learned important lessons in business from military leaders who have inspired their troops to victory. The leaders who were most successful in battle are also those who earned the admiration and loyalty of their troops. In business, as in war, the best leaders are those who lead from the front lines--who commit themselves fully to the mission of the company, and work alongside team members toward the common goal. Here are three ways I see this analogy played out in today’s business world:

Walk the Walk

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” – General Douglas MacArthur

There are many business leaders who don’t fully understand the responsibility that comes along with leadership. When you lead a company, every single employee queues off what you do. When I was growing up, my parents said to me: “Do what I say, not what I do” if I questioned something they were telling me to do that seemed in conflict with their own actions. I didn’t believe that made any sense when I was a child and I don’t believe it now. Great generals and commanders understand the grave responsibility of leadership, because they are actually putting their life and the lives of their troops on the line. Leaders know that in order for soldiers under their command to operate with courage in the line of fire and risk their lives for their country, it starts with leaders showing the same mental and physical fortitude.

In business, it’s just as important to embody the values and character you want to see in your team. We put significant time and thought into creating the values we wanted to see in Axcient--integrity in our work, a partner/customer focus, a team-first attitude, dedication to building inspired products, and a commitment to great results. I realize that if I’m not leading and working with these at the front of my mind on a daily basis, I can’t expect the rest of the team to do so. Enron is a perfect example of what happens when leaders say one thing and do another; one of their four values was “integrity.” At Axcient, we only hire people who exemplify our values, but I know that never excuses me from the utmost adherence to and discipline in carrying out those values myself.

Get in the Trenches

“Look upon (your soldiers) as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Employees who are inspired by their company’s leadership and values will get in the trenches and get the job done. Put the right people on the job and those value-driven, inspired employees--like the most inspired troops--will “surprise you with their ingenuity,” as Patton once said. But no matter how dedicated the employee, they want to see that their leaders are aware of the sacrifice they are making for their team. Getting in the trenches with the employees means not only setting the example in your character, but also in the hard work you put in on a constant basis. It means sincerely acknowledging and appreciating everything your team does to make the company successful. Ultimately, I believe a sense of purpose and the acknowledgement people receive for their achievements is far more motivating than any amount of money.

Toward the end of a six-week agile release cycle, for example--when our engineering team is working until the early morning hours to make the delivery date--I’ll try to work late too, because I know it’s important for them to see that I know they’re making that sacrifice. In the last couple weeks of the quarter, I’ll make myself available to get on calls with the sales team to help them close a deal. Whatever I’m asking others to do on behalf of the company, I try to show that I’m willing to do the same.

Leaders don’t always realize what an impact they make by how they act and how they carry themselves. The best leaders in history are those who realize how motivating it is to people under their command when they roll up their sleeves and jump in to get the job done.

Take All Responsibility; Give All Credit

“Officers who fail to correct errors or to praise excellence are valueless in peace and dangerous misfits in war.” – General George S. Patton, Jr.

Another sign of a great leader is someone who owns the decisions he or she makes, doesn’t pass on blame, and recognizes that it takes a team to get anything done. Too often leaders get caught up in the ego of leadership and fail to recognize the responsibility. In war, for example, whatever goes wrong is the fault of the generals--they receive the blame. But when there’s a victory, a good general gives all the credit and praise to the troops.

This is what leading from the front lines is all about. In business, you stand up and own up to mistakes in strategy and execution; you don’t put layers of deniability between you and the decisions you make. And when the company succeeds, you give credit where credit is due--to the employees that worked alongside you to get there. I don’t write Axcient's code, or spend every day on the phone signing up new customers, or write the marketing materials that explain what we do, or support the businesses that are our customers; my team does all of that, and that’s why they deserve the credit. Real leaders understand that it’s a team effort. As Patton also said:

“An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of bullshit.” 

[Image: Flickr user US Army]

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