This is from an email I recently received from one of our mentors.

First, a definition of the high levels of leadership:

  • Direct leadership is the direct management of a team and making sure that it performs and operates along its predefined constraints and with the most effective process, while at the same time retaining enough flexibility as to not getting stuck. An outperforming group in that regard will, at the same time as it performs, increase its skills and abilities (both as individual members and as a group). That is advance direct leadership. that is what makes championship winning sports teams for example (US Dream Team in the last olympic comes to mind)
  • Strategic leadership: the ability to manage groups where now the global decisions and directions are up to the strategic leader (be it an individual or a group) and the implementation or tactical operation is conducted by the teams (be it of real teams, or individuals acting as teams.). So it’s the management of managing teams. Great companies do that effectively.

Both types are not entirely distinct in analysis and methods, but their fundamental difference lies into the active participation factor. Strategic leadership has little if no participation of the leader into the teams’ work, it’s more of a fuction of coordination between teams, Direct leadership has complete participation within the team:

  • Type of leadership
    Does a leader have to lead by participating, by being in front (think army style in the old days), or would he/she be better with different methods?
    Since I brought up the point of the military, after all they represent a long study on leadership and in having people do the unthinkable, we can use it at least as an illustrative and research tool. Military is not the be all end all of team, strategy and achievement method illustration, but as long as we understand the boundary limitations, it is somewhat useful. The first limitative boundary is that they are usually involved in a zero sum outcome, that is a winner and a loser, and are fairly poorly equipped to do otherwise (hence a “state department” for example). The second is that their objective is fairly simple and straightforward (conquer land, and/or destroy enemy capability). The third is that they use fear a lot in their positive and negative reinforcement, both by environmental hazard and by design. They may be more limitative boundaries. By contrast, general leadership and its business subset are not just limited to these scenarios. The use of fear is very limited and borderline not effective, the zero sum outcome is almost non existent, and certainly limited, and non military life problems are vast, complex, shifting and usually can only be dealt in numerous compromises of somewhat satisfactory solutions (This one is a bit more unclear, let me use an example, military can take over land, or liberate it and usually will not be questioned if they trash the fields, the roads, the infrastructure etc…, in other words, the ends has often precedence over the means, in business at least the means are often as important if not more than the end, this is what I mean here).
    So military leaders used to lead up front, the king is front and forward. It was good as it gave courage (or so it’s thought) to the soldiers, and surely provided for them the inability to justify their fear of lack of action (if my leader does it, I have no choice but to follow). It also provides a form of respect as in “he is not afraid to himself do what he asks of me”. (notice the relationships to fear)
    Oddly enough that old way has not lasted forever, and today the framework of effective military is subtancially different. What happened?
    Think about it, reflect and consult, and we’ll discuss this further.
    Here is a possible skeleton of direction:
  • What is the role of the leader?
  • Is an organization that is monolithic and just follows the leader without a mind of its own effective?
  • Is there such a thing as an infallible leader? Then what?
  • Is an army of 10000 men following a single leader effective? Could it be defeated by one man?
  • What is the interaction with strategy and tactics, flexibility?
  • What is the iinfluence of increasing complex technology if any?
  • Did the military fragment into strategic and direct leadership, where and how?
  • The power of success and failure, and the mutual trust contract.
    A team always has some form of implicit contract, and some time explicit. The form of that contract is of primal importance for the effectiveness of teamwork.
    The typical topics in such a contract are:
    Who is in charge of the team? Who is responsible? Is it the team leader sole responsibility? Or is it shared? What has been clearly enunciated and understood as team dynamic and collaboration principles? How are we judged as individuals, both positively and negatively? Etc…
    A good team will have a very clear contract where those questions will be uniform teamwise and understood by all. It doesn’t have to be explicit (in writing) and can be very implicit (a team trained together to acquire all answers by experience (if I do this, this happens), very typical in sports for example).
    If implicit, the process of trial and errors will be the main way of acquiring and understanding the contract. It seems like a difficult and less effective way, but do not dismiss it quite yet, it has at least one great advantage, it provides for a leader and a team to shape the contract as they go, thus giving the team tremendous flexibility to adapt to its members individual characters and specific interaction. For a leader to know in advance how and what the team will do and be certain of its right application with the team members is not an easy and trivial answer, and sometimes construction as we go is better than preplanned on uncertainties.
    So as part of this mutual trust contract, one (of the many) successful way is to make sure that the team gets credit for success and the leader takes responsibility for failures. If we analyse the complex trust contract in more details (not done here), it is a fair trade to balance power and responsibilities, it ensures that each member of the team including the leader can perform the three actions (Discussion, Decision, Implementation) fairly and correctly and they all trust each other. More on that another time, just take my word for it for now.

  • The need for failure, the most counterintuitive notion, yet the most obvious once understood.
    We’ve all heard the proverb “no pain, no gain”. I don’t like it because if I strike you on the head with a hammer I’m not sure you gained much and one can certainly gain without pain. But anyway bare with me. You also may have heard that “through failure comes success” or any variations of those. It is also undeniable that the more one tries and succeeds, the more one makes mistakes also. Take for example Babe Ruth and his outstanding hitting record of 714 life home runs, wow. But also a 0.342 batting average, so he missed 2167 times. All this to illustrate that:

  • The more you try and do, the more mistakes you’ll make and so you should. the only way to never make mistake is to never try anything.
  • Success and failure go hand in hand, it’s the relativity that ultimately matters.
    Which introduces the first notion of failure management:
  • Do not fear failure for it leads to lack of action or decision.
    The second notion of failure management is that we learn more from failure than from successes. Case in point, remember a great success in your life, you cannot sincerely point out the one single reason that it was so, it was a “perfect storm”. Sometimes you can even point out a few things that could have been improved still. On the other hand with most failures, it is much easier to point out one single cause for it. Furthermore as human it is no news that we learn much more form failures than from successes. Do not be fooled, when you see or hear of successful people, you do not hear about their mistakes, but they are there for it was a large contributor to what made them so good. So enunciated:
  • Seek mistakes in yourself and others, for they guarantee that you are both trying and challenging yourself.
    I always told my teams that I wanted them to make mistakes, lots of them, so that they challenged themselves, so that we all learn more and faster, and so that we outperform. The role of the leader is to mitigate those mistakes (more on that below) and to make sure that the team is not responsible for them, but the leader is, for after all he’s the one in charge. Yes it takes courage and confidence to be a leader, there is no other way.
    So now what about mistake implications and consequences. That is another vast subject but the short of it is this:
  • A good leader manages not that mistakes are not made, but rather that their consequences are appropriate to the development and fairly inconsequential. Thus is built trust among other things. If a team member is capable, he should get to perform the task unwatched. If he’s “in training” he should get the task with monitoring and fall back positions, if he’s untrained yet, he shouldn’t get the task but should be provided opportunity for training. if a task has a potential for dire consequence in case of failure, then the best possible way to achieve it should be used and it should not be left in the realm of “failure sought and acceptable”. Incidently, this process describes “training” for firefighters for example (more on that too when I tackle decision making process). They are provided with a training environment so that they can make the mistakes and learn in a less consequential environment.
    And finally the corollary condition:
  • Fail once and learn. If you fail and are so fearful, anxious or what have you, the chances are you will either fail again or precipitate another mistake. So you failed, good, now STOP : Stay calm, Think, Observe, Plan, in other words learn form that mistake first before acting again, figure out what can be done better or different (sometime you still have to act fast, but it’s a good habit to have and train). If you fail twice in the same manner, now it’s a different issue. Failing once is OK, but twice the same way shows a lack of self awareness and power of analysis. It shows a lack of basic learning ability. Then failing three times the same way is now clear incompetence and should ideally never happen. It outlines however a complete failure of the process if nothing else.

And thus you have it, in extenso. In short and to make it relevant here, we should make sure that students understand that mistakes are not a problem, quite the contrary, that is precisely why they are “students”. They should learn not to fear them, and instead how to learn from them (observation, analysis, conclusion) and perform in confidence as our role as advisors is not to “throw them in the water and see if they sink” but rather to watch them calmly and confidently as they learn to better swim. And they in turn have confidence in our judgment to know what and when it is too much, and to be there when it is to prevent anything bad from happening.
Also our role as a “teacher” (officers and faculty) in this instance, is being advisors and guide, we should convey that we judge not out of pure relativism (good vs bad) or a personal judgement of worthiness (you failed therefore you’re bad as a person), but rather to measure the difference between what we know works in our own experience (never perfect either, nor it being the “only right” way) and what we observe. Thus the corrective actions or “teaching” becomes not a way to tell what to do, but rather a way to help the student develop his or her own successful way, knowing that the direction is correct for their own self teaching process. Furthermore as teachers we shall not presume that our own mental process that allowed us to master the subject, is either the only correct one, nor the one that will be successful with any particular student. We each as individuals learn in our own way, some may learn in similar way as we did, but it’s not a guarantee. As teachers however we absolutely need to make sure that whatever way one learns, same or different, the learning goes in the right direction.

Sorry for the long email, hopefully helpful information (but there is lots of it, it will take time and many many reading now and later (with field experience) to digest)… It’s not obvious nor do I expect anyone to understand 25+ years of experience in one email or one day. I am here to explain and share.
Note: This is one of my first posts so please move if this is in the wrong folder.

Robert G,
This provides excellent food for thought and I would agree that it will take several readings and quite a while for all the information provided to be absorbed.

Did you create this thread just to share your mentor’s wisdom and thoughts or did you have anything that you wanted to add? I’m a little confused as to why you posted the e-mail. I also hope you obtained permission from your mentor to share this with us here in CD.