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).