This topic actually came up at SQL Saturday #70 - Columbia, SC. I spent the first 15 years of my life as a U.S. Marine dependent. Two years later I reported to The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. I spent four years there and then served four years on active duty with the US Air Force. Throughout all that time, there was a lot of leadership training. Some things were emphasized to me by my father. The rest were reinforced in the leadership lab that is The Citadel. And the USAF was where I really had a chance to put some of it into practice. If I were to distill what I learned, here's what it comes down to:
- Lead from the front.
- Lead by example.
- Never ask your men to do something you aren't willing to do yourself.
- Mission first, my men second, myself third.
I know I said "men" but you can use "personnel" instead. "Men" is traditional and it helps in the last one due to the alliteration. But the principles aren't limited to gender.
Today we'll look at the first one. The best example I have for this is the legendary Marine, "Chesty" Puller. I've heard numerous tales over the years about Puller's leadership style. Among one of them was when another commanding officer was looking for Puller's headquarters (HQ). This officer was used to the HQ being in the rear. But Puller's was up by the front lines. Puller believed in leading from the front. His fourth (fourth! and not his last) Navy Cross citation was this:
"For extraordinary heroism as Executive Officer of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, serving with the Sixth United States Army, in combat against enemy Japanese forces at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, from 26 December 1943 to 19 January 1944. Assigned temporary command of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, from 4 to 9 January, Lieutenant Colonel Puller quickly reorganized and advanced his unit, effecting the seizure of the objective without delay. Assuming additional duty in command of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, from 7 to 8 January, after the commanding officer and executive officer had been wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Puller unhesitatingly exposed himself to rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire from strongly entrenched Japanese positions to move from company to company in his front lines, reorganizing and maintaining a critical position along a fire-swept ridge. His forceful leadership and gallant fighting spirit under the most hazardous conditions were contributing factors in the defeat of the enemy during this campaign and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
So outside of a combat unit, what does it mean to lead from the front? First, be visible. Your personnel need to be able to see you because they need to be able to talk to you. It means making a point of talking to them, asking them more than just about work-related matters. In other words, getting to know them as real people. It means keeping your eyes and ears open to get a sense of how they are doing. Are they calm but efficient? Are they fired up but lacking discipline? Or are they acting like they've gotten punched in the gut?
In a lot of places there is the expectation of a line between management and those they manage. The military is a great example of this. You don't have to cross the line to find out how your folks are doing, to care about what's going on in their lives, and to seek to help in non-work related matters. The fact of the matter is that if your folks are worried about things at home, they aren't going to be very productive at work. If you show that you care and if you look for ways to help when your help is needed, you can engender loyalty, both to you and to your organization. I'm reminded of Irving Berlin's White Christmas where two guys totally change their Christmas plans to help out their old general. Not only do they change their plans, but many from their old unit do, too. Why? Because that general led from the front. That was obvious in the opening scene. In today's world where the personal touch seems missing so much in business, your personal touch may make all the difference.