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10 Battlefield Rules for Business Executives

A good friend just left the company he had been with for many years. His previous employer has good products but struggles operationally, which always strains earnings. And, despite having a cadre of GREAT operations people pass through the door, they always fail. The only common denominator is the long-term CEO who controls everything, and is quick to blame.

This got me to thinking… If this CEO was the Captain of a navy ship, he would have been relieved of command long ago. So, why is he still there?

My career as a US Naval Officer lasted just eight years and I’m not really the “military guy.” But there are valuable business lessons learned on the battlefield (or an aircraft carrier in my case) that should be taught in business school.

1. Rank has its privileges, BUT: Newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenants (or Ensigns) are OFFICERS who are vaulted immediately into the upper ranks. Despite having just one day’s experience they have accepted the responsibility of that rank and will lead people with SIGNIFICANTLY more experience than they have. They will be questioned, they will be tested and they will be pushed to the limits by the “salty dog” Sergeants and Chief Petty Officers. Despite their inexperience, junior officers are in charge and are expected to LEAD. This means that they set the direction of their organization and drive its success. Results – good or bad – are on THEM, starting on day one.

Accepting the title means a willingness to drive the direction and owning up to the results – all of them.

2Leadership flows down: Good leaders train their people and teach them to step up to the plate. In a commander’s absence, the executive officer (XO) can take over. If the XO gets shot, the First Sergeant can step up and so on and so on. Great leaders do not care that everyone is happy… They care that their people have the knowledge, training, skills and tools to do their jobs well.

Great leaders teach their people how to take charge.

3. Want a Promotion, Get Results: Admirals and Generals don’t get to the top levels by accident. They got there because:

  • They are smart in their actions
  • They excelled in every position they assumed
  • They got results

Tomorrow’s VP’s, Presidents and CEO’s are getting results – TODAY.

4Set Clear Objectives: One thing I remember about squadron flying was every mission had a clear objective and defined goal. Combat missions identified targets for destruction and training missions identified clear lessons to be learned. All activities were briefed beforehand to identify the objectives and debriefed at conclusion to determine results.

Undefined goals are wishes. Meetings with no executables or deliverables are a waste of time. Unclear objectives create wishy washy organizations and wishy washy organizations are confused. Confused organizations fail.

Set clear objectives for your teams and hold them accountable for the deliverables.

5Responsibility Cannot Be Delegated: It is a very simple equation: AUTHORITY can be delegated; RESPONSIBILITY cannot. Every junior Naval Officer knows the Captain is always responsible for the actions of his crew. He may delegate the authority of night operations to another officer but maintains responsibility if the ship runs aground while he is sleeping. No matter what the reason for the grounding, the result is clear, his career is essentially over.

Congratulations if your team kicked ass in 2019. The credit is YOURS! If your department struggled, take responsibility and fix what is broken.

Years ago when asked about his team’s poor performance and sloppy play (100+ penalty yards per game), Texas Tech football coach Kliff Kingsbury had only one thing to say… “Yeah, that’s entirely on me….” Not a military guy, but he was taught well.

6With Responsibility comes Authority – In the military, the person with the responsibility has the authority to get results. When you hire a new VP of Sales you have given him RESPONSIBILITY to get sales. This means you give them the AUTHORITY to pick a team, guide marketing, hire and fire sales talent. It does NOT mean that you give them the responsibility… but allow them to act only when you say it is “okay.”

Leaders are given the tools they need to do the job AND the authority to use them.

7Don’t Fight a Losing Battle: One of the first rules taught at Top Gun… “in the event you are outmanned, outgunned, or not in a position to win, then turn around and go home. You will live today and be able to fight tomorrow.”

It’s a simple concept… if you can’t win, then don’t fight. Sometimes it is better to just walk away.

8. Do Your Job, Not Everyone Else’s: On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier you will see a rainbow of colors: red, blue, purple, yellow, brown, white and green. Each one of these colors represents an in individual who is trained and tasked to do a very specific job. No matter how talented they may be the Red Shirts do not, ever, execute Blue Shirt responsibilities. The reason is very simple: the deck of an aircraft carrier is a dangerous place and division of duties is a clear PROCESS established to prevent confusion, mishaps and death.

Say what you will about matrix’d organizations but it is usually better to do your job and let the other guy do his. If you’re a leader then hold your people accountable for the job they were hired to do, not the one they WANT to do. AND, throwing more crap at the A+ players in order to compensate for the lack of production from the B’s and C’s is just stupid.

Exceptions to this rule: When there is a fire on the flight deck, it is everyone’s job to put it out!

9Ask For Help: When a platoon of soldiers becomes engaged by an overwhelming force of enemy combatants they will call in the artillery. God love you General Custer, but you should have learned Rule 7, or called in the A-10’s. No matter how talented you are you cannot, and nobody expects you to, do everything by yourself. You WILL have challenges and you WILL get overwhelmed.

It is okay and admirable to ask for help.

10Success on YOUR Merits, Not the Failure of Others: In a Navy squadron there is a term called “Bravo Fox” which is also known as a “Buddy F*ck.” Those guilty of a Bravo Fox made their buddy look bad. Perhaps it was calling someone out in public or flaming them in “reply to all” email. Whatever it is it can be done exactly ONCE. Do it again and it’s a bad habit. Truly successful people get to the top via delivery of results, which speak for themselves.

When you deliver results, people notice. You don’t have to say squat about the other guy…

No, businesses and organizations do not need to look or act in a military manner. But, it is hard to deny that there are some basic tenants in leadership, personal accountability, teamwork, and “results focus” that provide solid building blocks for success.

What are the lessons your people are learning on your team? Let me know.

Craig Picken, Managing Partner of Northstar Group, is an executive recruiter who focuses on senior leaders in Aviation and Aerospace.