Thursday, September 15, 2016

Leaders need to Lead

Guest post by Ken Marlin:

Leadership is one of those concepts that management gurus like to throw around. There are tons of books and articles on the subject. One article I read said that leaders look forward while managers manage what just happened. I don’t buy it: good leaders do both. Another said that leaders “influence” while managers “direct.” Nah … Leaders direct too—when their suggestions don’t get the desired result. An HBR article a few years ago talked about the need for leaders to create value vs. just measuring it. I like that concept. But how do you do it? To me, most of these books and articles are more about “managing” than about “leading.”

There are also a fair number of military-themed books, many of which take advantage of things such as the 14 Leadership Traits I learned while serving in the Marines, or they leverage the teachings of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher. But there too, there is a link missing. 

A fundamental premise of the Marine Corps approach to leadership is that it is inextricably linked with winning. It begins with a clear articulation of a unit’s long term strategic objectives—and the development of a disciplined strategy to achieve those objectives. Simply managing effectively—killing more bad guys or making more profit—isn’t a strategic objective, and it isn’t enough. Leaders decide which battles must be fought as part of a longer term effort to win strategic objectives. And they decide which ones to skip. They decide what resources to allocate. They think three steps ahead.

It never ceases to surprise me how many CEOs don’t understand the concept of linking leadership to actually winning—not just managing. Like too many politicians and too many on Wall Street, they just keep pushing forward along some path, such as reducing costs, improving profit margins, growing the company 15 percent, getting promoted or re-elected. That’s not leading. It kills companies.

Marine Corps Leadership also requires that leaders have true “domain expertise.” There are far too many organizations led by generalists. My father is a retired engineer with his Master’s degree in thermodynamics. He worked on the Mercury and Gemini space programs before moving to Cummins Engines where he helped develop the small diesel engines now used in pickup trucks. He used to bemoan senior managers that knew a lot about finance, labor negotiations and “leadership” but couldn’t tell a crank shaft from a piston rod. “Develop real domain expertise,” he told me. Unless you do, you will be at the mercy of subject matter experts. You won’t be able to challenge them and you will never be able to lead the organization to the next level. Marines embrace that concept. 

Leadership also requires that leaders actually lead. Managers work within the realm of what’s possible believing that they are constrained by what they see as the facts on the ground. Marines (and other leaders) certainly take note of the facts on the ground but often they see those facts differently—and then they bend them in their direction. They motivate a team to accomplish things that others believed impossible and lead them to victory. Dwight Eisenhower; Douglas MacArthur, Chesty Puller are military examples. Nelson Mandela, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Aung San Suu Kyi are political examples, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are recent business world examples. George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

Over the years, I have come to appreciate that these principles Marines practice in an effort to successfully execute their missions also can lead to success on Wall Street and on Main Street. I have seen first-hand that those who lead units without applying these principles succeed far less often than those who do. I won’t call them doomed to fail—some people do just fine. Some people win lotto. But those that do apply these principles have a much higher likelihood of success—and along the way they have less drama and feel good about how they got there too. I like that. It’s the Marine Corps Way.

Ken Marlin is founder and managing partner of the award-winning investment bank Marlin & Associates and the author of The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street (St. Martin’s Press; August 30, 2016).

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