Keeping Your Fingers On The Pulse

Leadership is about giving your subordinates the room to do their job, the ability to think through decisions and understanding there is no such thing as a zero-defect environment. There are clear lines that can’t be crossed and things you cannot do (lie, cheat or steal for example).

We spent a few days with a retired Green Beret Sergeant Major friend of ours and as we were enjoying a few German beverages we were talking leadership. He is a hero and spent the bulk of his 25 year military career in Special Forces. He will be the first to tell you he has learned the hard way, and though he achieved the highest Non-Comissioned Officer rank, his early years were spent achieving and losing the rank of Private First Class. He had good leaders looking out for him and I’ve found him to be one of the finest military leaders of our modern time with a gruff and tough exterior that can frighten the most chiseled warrior! He looked out for Soldiers, counseled them as needed (even wall to wall counseling if it applied), and always backed them regardless if he personally liked them or not. He knew leadership is not a popularity contest and he wanted men that were accountable, capable and audacious. They were Green Berets, they had to be good at everything!
As we talked about our careers and shared stories how we assisted Soldiers in developing their careers and being successful, he said he would always tell his troops there are two areas “I can’t ever help you, and that’s if you steal money or ammo”. You violate either one of those your career as a minimum is over and you might even go to jail; your storied and distinguished career means nothing in these cases. I can’t go to bat for you and tell the boss “but he’s a great guy, a war hero even!” Those accolades are over-shadowed because you violated these two simple rules. When your dealing with men that are often working in small teams or even alone on assignments, he stressed its important to keep your fingers on the pulse, however you must do it in a way that allows your talented people to do their jobs.
Keeping your fingers on the pulse and micro-managing are two DIFFERENT animals and not to be confused. If you are managing other people’s daily activities and their time, then you are micro-managing. This is NOT the preferred method of leadership and only should be done in extreme cases (ex: trying to gain control of a dysfunctional unit/team). You keep your finger on the pulse by asking questions, receiving brief-backs and requiring your team to continue to plan at their current capacity and beyond. Then and most importantly, you supervise and inspect. Get on the ground and see what’s happening and ask more questions. Finally, be observant. Look, listen and see what’s happening around you. Change the angle you look at things, seriously. You can’t see what’s going on if you look at it from your office window; move around, look high and low. I suggested to a plant manager of a company we assist with in their leadership development to look at the factory floor from a different angle. I suggested next time the maintenance team was on a lift changing light bulbs to get on it and look at the process from above; I guaranteed he would see something he would not have seen from the ground level!
When I was the First Sergeant and Senior Enlisted Advisor at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in Fort Monmouth, NJ, my boss and school Commandant was a brilliant man and well educated Infantry Officer by the name of Colonel Mike Anderson. He was old-school Army and enjoyed his martini after dinner in his quarters and he smoked like a fiend. He would stand outside his office (all the buildings were non-smoking) at our headquarters several times a day and smoke cigarets. To the causal observer he was taking nothing more than a “smoke break,” however I quickly noticed he was watching everything happening in the Academy area and he was keeping his fingers on the pulse. One day I was in my office filling out the duty roster for the weekend and a young Army Captain walked in my office asking where the Colonel was? Knowing he hadn’t left for the day as the Guidon was still posted (the universal symbol the Commander is still in the area), I told the Captain the “Colonel is most likely outside his office.” The young Officer, physically fit himself said “oh is the old man on smoke break again?”. I smiled and offered him some First Sergeant advice by simply saying “Sir, if that’s all you think the Colonel is doing then you’re not paying attention.” Colonel Anderson knew everything that was happening in our Academy and you could clearly tell by the questions he would ask the senior staff. He would say things like “tell me about the decrease in academic performance in…” a particular class or subject. Or he would say “why is Cadet Candidate Smith thinking of leaving the program?”. The look of bewilderment would come across the staff as he would ask very specific, very poignant questions and I could tell in their faces they were “how the hell does he know this?”. It’s because Colonel Anderson was paying attention and had his finger on the pulse and though he was clearly the smartest guy in the room he specifically didn’t act like it and always wanted everyone’s talent to be a part of the success.
I could always tell when it was time for me to move on in an assignment or job setting, my finger on the pulse would turn to auto-pilot. Things begin to run so smooth (which is your ultimate goal) that you could be replaced and the ship will continue to sail smoothly. This means as a leader you’ve done the necessary training, cross-training and set the appropriate standards for success. A leader knows the ship will always continue to sail with someone new at the helm, a micro-manager feels it will run aground without them.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and took something from it for your leadership kit-bag. Hooah!

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