Restructure. Redirect. Redesignate

By Joseph Cervenak*

Conversations with a recently retired military commander have confirmed my belief that the only difference between leaders wearing jacket and tie and those garlanded in epaulettes, lanyards and braids, is a uniform. Leading and leadership is essentially the same in the military as it is in business.

Jargon, choice of words, euphemisms and ubiquitous acronyms, typically cryptic, arcane or byzantine, are the only identifiers. Once defined, leadership is, in both worlds, a philosophy of sameness. All leadership has as its objective successfully completing ‘the mission’. Strategy and tactics, however applied, are quite similar. In essence, leaders historically direct, command, and control.

On both fronts it has changed. Find and destroy the enemy or, otherwise, undercut the competition and take the customer. Command and control were the watchwords of the battlefield’s General George S. Patton and of General Motors’ Alfred P. Sloan’s titans. Their philosophies and practices of leadership are not winning today’s wars, be they on the battlefields of Afghanistan and the Middle East or in the marketplaces, bazaars or souks of New York, Istanbul or Dubai.

No longer direct and linear, our world is of one change; of disruption; and, of black swan events. It is a world of ever-accelerating, warp-speed transformations. Adaptation across all fronts is needed to adjust and respond to achieve ‘the mission’.

Today it is restructure, redirect and redesignate. ‘Command and control’ was previously the U.S. Army’s overarching approach to its war fighting function. In recent years the Training and Doctrine Command has redesignated its war fighting function. In U.S. Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, Mission Command the war fighting function is designated as “mission command and commander’s intent.” Nuance, semantics or is this something new? Hardly.

During the U.S. Civil War, Commanding General of the U.S. Army, Ulysses S. Grant directed General William Tecumseh Sherman: “I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of Campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to execute in your own way.”

There is little question about the commander’s intent. From the aforementioned publication:

Disciplined initiative is action in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise. . . . Commanders rely on subordinates to act, and subordinates take action to develop the situation. . . .

The commander’s intent defines the limits within which subordinates may exercise initiative. It gives subordinates the confidence to apply their judgment in ambiguous and urgent situations because they know the mission’s purpose, key task and desired end-state …Using disciplined initiative, subordinates … perform the necessary coordination and take appropriate action . . .”

Further, from the same publication, in a statement of mission orders: “. . . that all directives that emphasize to subordinates the results to be attained not how they are to attain them.”

And what of the marketplace?

In 1978, I had the good fortune to work under the leadership of Samuel (Sam) Neaman, Chairman of the McCrory Stores chain. Mr. Neaman was a workaholic, most-demanding and an ebullient leader. He took this money-losing retail chain and made it into a profitable 1,600 store case study of success.

His secret? No secret. He scripted and posted his leadership mantra everywhere. Printed on carry-with-you laminated cards were the Keys to Successful Management: Facts, Plans, Execution and Supervision; and the Directives for Supervisors: Detect, Correct, Prevent.

And, adorning the walls of every … yes, every … office, hung Mr. Neaman’s halo-lit photo with his one hundred twenty-two word, five paragraph credo.

  • “We believe in the effectiveness of the multitude—a great many normal people with normal talents working together supporting and compensating for each other.
  • “We believe in guided autonomy—individuals using their initiative, having authority to act upon it, and looking to their fellow executives for guidance in fields of their specialty.
  • “We break our big problems into small segments and assign to an individual who is totally dedicated to solving it.
  • “Our operating systems and procedures are designed to provide for individual as well as corporate success. In the long run, the two are inseparable.
  • “Finally, we believe in a continuous re-examination of every thing we do in light of new experience. This is the only way we can maintain our progress.”

Charged with ‘the mission’, our current imperative is not to revert to a new and different understanding of our combatant world. We need not redesign the way we lead in order to successfully accomplish that sacred ‘mission’. We need no modern-day consultant nonce words, idiomatic or pop-psych leadership tomes, #tags, or keywords.

We need ongoing and intense training and to know the rules of engagement and legalities of operational parameters. We need to gain experience by delegating demanding tasks and gradually stepping-down oversight while stepping-up responsibility. The times demand and the path is clear. From disciplined initiative, guided autonomy or whatever be the read comes the same directive: You know what to do. Do it. Accomplish ‘the mission’. []

Joseph Cervenak

 * Joseph Cervenak, management consultant, is Managing Principal, Kemper~Joseph llc.