It was the late fall of 1967 and I was an Officer Candidate at the U.S. Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia (affectionately known at the time by its inmates as “The Benning School For Boys”).
In early December, we were taken to an unusual facility called the Leadership Reaction Course. On an otherwise open field, a series of pens had been assembled, surrounded by walls high enough to prevent easy viewing of what was contained inside. Once we were in, we were presented with the first of a series of physical problems to solve within a space about sixty feet square. In one problem that I can still remember quite vividly, we had to move our squad of six men and our weapons across a water hazard by shimmying up a vertical metal pole and traversing a horizontal one to the twin vertical on the far side of the pool. The bad news was that one of us had to pretend to be incapacitated and thus must be somehow carried by the others. For this task, we had access to some lengths of rope and a stretcher.
If that wasn’t hard enough, we had only fifteen minutes to make it happen. The officer that was our lane grader grinned evilly as he happily announced that final constraint. What we thought would be a solvable problem wasn’t. We didn’t make it. We did solve three of the next four problems, but only with great difficulty and effort.
At the end of our allotted five problems, the lane grader assembled us around him and observed that fifteen minutes had provided us with plenty of time to solve each problem, even though it had seemed ridiculously inadequate at the outset. He added that the action phase of each solution had been engineered to require no more than five minutes to complete successfully. That, in turn, would have permitted us a full ten minutes to think through how we might best accomplish the mission.
“But,’” he asked pointedly, “Did you approach it that way?”
Much chagrinned, we exchanged looks and shrugs.
No, we hadn’t approached it that way. We had run around, throwing solutions against the wall, like a bunch of crazed monkeys. It was all trial and error… and mostly error.
This was a big lesson for me: Sometimes, we just need to go slow before we can go fast. We need clarity and specificity about what we’re trying to do before we proceed. For those of us with a reasonably well-developed bias for action, this can be a challenge. The urge to do often submerges the requirement to think.
I have since had the opportunity to replicate this very formative experience for my hospitality students at San Diego State at the U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton.
As at Benning, the problems all took place between walls ten feet high and in a space overlooked by catwalks prowled by junior officers and other members of the cadre. Specific tasks included the movement of heavy objects – a fifty gallon oil drum, perhaps – over vertical and horizontal obstacles or the movement of the whole team of students across a constricted landscape by means of strategically placed and precariously balanced planks of swaying two-by-eights.
As I watched my students struggle through the same experiential learning curve as I had so many years ago, I realized that there was more than one lesson to be learned on the course.
I now see five of them, which are also directly applicable to business:
- Managing Your Pace and Your Process
Your people will want to go fast. They’ll want to attack problems before they’re ready and even before the problem has been satisfactorily diagnosed. This, again, is the human condition. You, however, have to ensure that their collective reach doesn’t exceed their grasp and that they don’t run off half-cocked in a frenzy of misdirected zeal.
The leader must manage the pace and the process. To bring the task at hand to a successful conclusion, ten minutes of thinking the problem through will often suffice – that is, when it is coupled with five minutes of focused effort. This is an example of “going slow in order to go fast.”
- Maintaining Your Line of Sight
The leader must maintain a line of sight on the team’s activities. A leader who gets caught up in executing the tasks of subordinates cannot effectively direct the overall effort. A leader who cannot see what the team is doing well and what it is failing to do cannot make the necessary course corrections.
How do you maintain your line of sight in your own business? It could be visits to the field, popping unexpectedly into one of your department work areas and chatting with some of your people, or taking the subordinates of your subordinates to lunch every now and then, or talking directly with vendors and customers. Whatever package of actions you choose, the end result should be a much fuller sense of what’s going on inside the firm. Inevitably, through that grasping of deep operating context, you will be launched into your next wave of decision-making and focused action.
- Maintaining a Careful Balance between Direction and Responsiveness
As the leader, you must direct the efforts of your team strongly enough to ensure that progress is made; but, at the same time, you must simultaneously be responsive to the alternative points of view and approaches that may reside within the team. The key fact is that no matter how effective a leader you are, you are highly unlikely to have the corner on all the good ideas. In tackling novel situations, the value of multiple perspectives and inputs is perhaps easy to underestimate. Often, too, the ego of the leader can be a barrier to the acceptance of solid inputs when they come from an underappreciated source.
In the Leadership Reaction Course environment, you could watch this happen in real, concentrated time.
The leader must maintain a balance between directing the team and being open to its suggestions about possible solutions. Too much direction and solutions may be missed; too little direction and the team flounders in fragmented and uncoordinated flailing.
- Adjusting the Plan on the Fly
In the Leadership Reaction Course, the team leader must have the expectation that no more than 70% of the original plan will survive contact with the enemy (in this case, the specific components of the problem). Adjustments will have to be quickly thought through and made on the fly.
Likewise, in business, you need a plan, but be prepared because it won’t be quite right, no matter how well crafted. Events, or competition, will throw wrenches into your works and you’ll have to adjust. This will be less of a problem if it’s something you’ve anticipated and prepared for to the extent possible. It’ll be even easier if you’ve prepared your people for such an eventuality.
Failure is essential for learning. In a system too paranoid to countenance any type of failure, learning is smothered in its crib.
- Visualizing the Solution
I have come to believe that most of us relate better to images than to text on a page. When I was a high-school student, I remember the big break-through that came one night doing chemistry homework when suddenly valences and atomic numbers began to become pictures in my head instead of words on a page.
So it goes with larger group challenges. You have to paint the big picture.
Images are essential to deep understanding. We are visual creatures and “getting the big picture” is part of defining reality for us.
The more clarity, the more specificity, you can bring to that picture, the more likely you are to be able to enroll your people in the effort to achieve it.
The key point: the team must be able to visualize the solution to the problem intellectually before it begins to execute it.
The pens of the Leadership Reaction Course are a long way from your Board Room, at least physically, but those five principles we’ve just covered are very much present in the best leadership practices in business today.
These things – not mere technical skills – are the stuff of leadership.