Last year I had a series of discussions with a guy named Nick Parish. Back then he was working at Contagious – and now he’s at Uncorked. Nick was interested in knowing how SOF approach ambiguity in their formal planning processes – and related our discussions to advertising processes between clients and their agencies. Very good connections – and just the tip of the iceberg. Check it out for yourself.
Gross’ first law states that it’s almost impossible to communicate anything to anyone. This truth about human interaction creates a lot of problems in communicating vital information in a military orders process – problems that can and do derail the flow of operations and lead to their failure. In a military setting this means defeat with lives lost. In a business setting it can mean loss of market share, revenue, profit. Both cases are very important – they mean success or failure in mission accomplishment. The purpose of this post is to consider one way of overcoming barriers in communication within an organization – military or civilian.
Backbriefing is a military practice of a subordinate explaining his or her understanding of the plan to the leader (the one who had originally briefed the plan), prior to execution. It’s considered a critical practice to ensure the subordinate understands the plan and to ensure the leader understands implications of the orders. At the tactical level, subordinates can have between hours and days after getting an order to read it closely, determine their own plan, and prepare their brief back to the leader.
Most who have an Army background at the tactical or operational level are familiar with this concept. What was news to us is that this concept has existed on the civilian side for at least half a century. The Manager’s Letter was first pointed out to us in Stephen Bungay’s book the Art of Action – Bungay, a career management consultant with BCG and historian, goes into depth about how it’s a great military practice that can have great effects for civilian organizations. He cites Peter Drucker’s explanation of the Manager’s Letter as proof of how it can work.
In his book The Practice of Management first published in 1954, Peter Drucker gives a great summary of the Manager’s Letter. Instead of trying to summarize it further, I’ll just let you see it for yourself:
Being a manager demands the assumption of a genuine responsibility. Precisely because his aims should reflect the objective needs of the business, rather than merely what the individual manager wants, he must commit himself to them with a positive act of assent. He must know and understand the ultimate business goals, what is expected of him and why, what he will be measured against and how. There must be a “meeting of minds” within the entire management of each unit. This can be achieved only when each of the contributing managers is expected to think through what the unit objectives are, is led, in others words, to participate actively and responsibly in the work of defining them. And only if his lower managers participate in this way can the higher manager know what to expect of them and can make exacting demands.
This is so important that some of the most effective managers I know go one step further. They have each of their subordinates write a “manager’s letter” twice a year. In this letter to his superior, each manager, first defines the objectives of his superior’s job and of his own job as he sees them. He then sets down the performance standards which he believes are being applied to him. Next, he lists the things he must do himself to attain these goals – and the things within his own unit he considers the major obstacles. He lists the things his superior and the company do that help him and the things that hamper him. Finally, he outlines what he proposes to do during the next year to reach his goals. If his superior accepts this statement, the “manager’s letter” becomes the charter under which the manager operates.
This device, like no other I have seen, brings out how easily the unconsidered and casual remarks of even the best boss can confuse and misdirect. One large company has used the “manager’s letter” for ten years. Yet almost every letter still lists as objectives and standards things which completely baffle the superior to whom the letter is addressed. And whenever he asks: “What is this?” he gets the answer: “Don’t you remember what you said last spring going down with me in the elevator?” The “manager’s letter” also brings out whatever inconsistencies there are in the demands made on a man by his superior and by the company. Does the superior demand both speed and high quality when he can get only one or the other? And what compromise is needed in the interest of the company? Does he demand initiative and judgment of his men but also that they check back with him before they do anything? Does he ask for their ideas and suggestions but never uses them or discusses them? Does the company expect a small engineering force to be available immediately whenever something goes wrong in the plant, and yet bend all its efforts to the completion of new designs? Does it expect a manager to maintain high standards of performance but forbid him to remove poor performers? Does it create the conditions under which people say: “I can get the work done as long as I can keep the boss from knowing what I am doing?”
These are common situations. They undermine spirit and performance. The “manager’s letter” may not prevent them. But at least it brings them out in the open, shows where compromises have to be made, objectives have to be thought through, priorities have to be established, behavior has to be changed.
Though the concept is in reverse – a civilian management genius describing a valuable communications practice more common in the military – it gets to the core of what this blog is all about.
Also – in researching this post we found a quote that proves Drucker understood the military approach to leadership and management:
“Never mind your happiness; do your duty.”
Image and quote above from Lifehack at quotes.lifehack.org
Drucker, Peter F. The Practice of Management. New York: HarperBusiness, 1993. Print. (ISBN 0-06-091316-9)
Bungay, Stephen. The Art of Action: how leaders close the gaps between plans, actions and results. London: Nicholas Brealey, 2012. Print. (ISBN 978-1-85788-559-0)
We have written before about what a singularly successful leader Field Marshal William Slim was. We discuss his leadership and some of his thoughts on commanders here and here. His Command Philosophy was simple. We think it also makes a hell of a lot of sense regardless of what sort of organization you might lead.
No Details, No paper and No regrets! Each of these self-admonishments serve to sharpen a leader’s exercise of that crucial skill – judgment.
No details! Don’t go about setting machine guns on different sides of bushes. That is done a damn sight better by a Platoon Leader.”
No Details! There is a very fine art to knowing the level of detail you should concern yourself with at any given level of responsibility. Pay too little attention and you are disengaged and ineffective; pay too much attention at too fine a level and you micromanage – doubling the work. Employ people you trust and trust them to do their jobs well. Don’t kill your subordinates’ confidence and productivity by getting involved where you have no business doing so. Be mindful of the appropriate level for your attention and strive to focus your efforts and attention there.
No Paper! Do not have people coming to you with huge files, telling you all about it. Make the man explain it; and if he cannot explain it, get somebody who can.”
No Paper! Leaders need to surround themselves with people who can communicate. No leader has time to read every report and digest every piece of information themselves. You must rely on others to distill information for you and communicate that which is pertinent to your decisions. This “No Paper” philosophy isn’t really about paper at all – it’s really about making sure your key subordinates can communicate. This precept is all the more relevant today and it could be restated in 2017 as “No PowerPoint.” SECDEF, Retired Marine General Jim Mattis famously claimed that “PowerPoint makes us stupid” and National Security Advisor Lt.Gen. H.R. McMaster banned its use in his headquarters in Iraq for similar reasons. Of course, PowerPoint doesn’t actually “make you stupid.” But, it can allow your thinking to become muddled and your message unclear. Practice the arts of verbal and written communication. Decide what really matters, get your message across and give your people the space and support to make things happen. As the original “Mad Man” George Louis said, “Think long. Write Short.”
No Regrets! What is the next problem? Get on to that. Do not sit in the corner weeping about what might have been done.”
No Regrets! Use your talent and judgment to do the best that you can. Having done so, do not become paralyzed with over-analysis when things don’t go exactly as you had envisioned. This is not an excuse for failing to conduct proper “After Action Reviews” or failing to examine lessons learned – this is an admonishment against indulging in that incapacitating and selfish habit of regret. Do not allow regret to rob you of your momentum.
Below is the text of a small handbook for junior officers of the US Marine Corps from the early days of the Second World War. In it there are some great quick leadership guidelines. As Dylan posted earlier there’s the striking presence of qualities sorely lacking from today’s leadership learning or in many cases leadership practice: seemliness & propriety. Indeed many of the rules herein are strict by today’s standards – what makes me wonder is how closely these were followed by the men that led combat operations on Tarawa, Peleliu, Okinawa or Iwo Jima.
Our copy belongs to Dylan – a gift from his aunt Debra on the occasion of our commissioning in 2002 – we took the time to make it digital for all those who could benefit.
As Weaponsman would say, “The past is another country” and we’d do well to regard it with the same respect we give to other cultures today.
“Thou shalt not”
HINTS TO NEWLY COMMISSIONED OFFICERS
MARINE CORPS SCHOOLS: MARINE BARRACKS QUANTICO, VA.
Your duty towards others
1. DON’T neglect the comfort and general welfare of your subordinates. This is your first duty.
2. DON’T go to your own meals unless you are satisfied in your mind that those you are responsible for are being properly fed.
3. DON’T say “Hi, you,” or refer to those in the ranks as “What’s-your-name.” Learn the names of your subordinates; it can be done rapidly with practice. They appreciate being addressed by their proper names.
4. DON’T neglect to investigate any complaint submitted, but don’t be imposed upon.
5. DON’T show favoritism. If your subordinates think you are unjust and partial, things will soon go wrong.
6. DON’T overwork your staff. There is a difference between over-working and working hard.
7. DON’T hesitate to keep the “backward” ones at work. The good ones will look after
8. DON’T curb your subordinates’ initiative; direct it into proper channels.
9. DON’T permit N.C.O.s to be aggressive or overbearing towards the rank and file; insist on the same kind of attitude which you set for yourself.
10. DON’T forget to study your subordinates. Learn their idiosyncrasies. Mark the weak ones and those on whom you can implicitly rely to do their job efficiently.
It is equally important to study the idiosyncrasies of your superiors. The higher their rank the more important it is that you should keep a watchful eye for their “hobbies.” It may be “toothbrushes,” “cubic air space” or “flying regulations”; Whatever it is, if you wish to succeed, you will require to use your ingenuity and tact in the matter of idiosyncrasies.
11. DON’T allow the sick to remain on duty; order them to “report sick.”
12. DON’T forget to supervise by occasional checks the duties you have delegated to subordinates.
13. DON’T desert your subordinates the moment the day’s work is done. Take an interest in their entertainment, and “off-duty” amusements. Help organize them; it is part of your duty.
14. DON’T make recommendations for promotion unless you are certain the person concerned is competent. You have a duty to the State, the Service and your unit.
15. DON’T forget that a house divided against itself will come to grief. Be loyal to your C.O. in thought, word and deed.
Your personal efficiency
16. DON’T scorn knowledge of Service matters. It is better to know a thing and not want the knowledge, than to want it and not know it.
17. DON’T lack initiative; we are not all born with it, but it can be cultivated.
18. DON’T be afraid to make up your mind quickly and rightfully. This is termed
“character.” Take charge.
19. DON’T forget to cultivate tact; you will want it all day long. Some people are always at the beginning, middle or end of a row which could have been easily avoided.
20. DON’T forget confidence is begotten of experience and knowledge. The latter must be acquired by your own efforts. Experience comes to you.
21. DON’T use civilian terms for Service matters. The Service vocabulary is your professional language. It is essential that you should understand Service expressions.
22. DON’T, when given an order, explain all the difficulties you will have in carrying it out. Overcome them and give effect to the order as speedily as possible. In other words, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do to-day.” Do it now!
23. DON’T economize with your “Uniform Allowance.” The Government is not a philanthropic institution and you may be sure the allowance is only just enough.
24. DON’T obtain your uniform from “any old tailor.” Be correctly dressed by one familiar with the precise details appertaining to your Service. There is such a thing as a “Sealed Pattern,” and there are also “Uniform Regulations,” which are exacting in their demands for uniformity. Ask for advice rather than have to replace what you have purchased.
25. DON’T omit, when in uniform out of doors, to be correct in all essentials of your dress. There are such things as gloves, and gas masks, without which you aren’t properly dressed and “letting your Service down” in the eyes of those whose judgment matters.
26. DON’T smoke a pipe in uniform when in public places such as streets of a town, etc.; it isn’t done.
27. DON’T neglect your personal appearance. Be smart. Your subordinates will soon spot whether your boots and buttons are as clean as theirs. Yours should be cleaner, even in war time.
28. DON’T lounge about. Cultivate an erect carriage and always move about smartly.
29. DON’T omit to wear your headdress on all occasions out of doors. It is slovenly not to do so.
How to use your authority
30. DON’T be sarcastic with subordinates or hold them up to ridicule. Learn to “tell off” those deserving it, quietly, strongly and to the point. Fools must be suffered gladly sometimes.
31. DON’T ever lose your temper. It will only result in ridicule and indignity.
32. DON’T be pompous, adopt a bullying attitude or shout when there is no occasion to do so. Orders can equally well be given in a quiet but firm manner.
33. DON’T curse subordinates. It is cowardly. They cannot curse back. This includes mess servants, as they cannot stand up for themselves without danger of dismissal. Make your complaint to the Mess Secretary, who will take proper steps to deal with it.
34. DON’T be guilty of “nagging.” Cultivate the art of a short, sharp reproof should the occasion demand it.
35. DON’T find fault unnecessarily, or omit to find fault when the occasion demands it.
36. DON’T reprimand a non-commissioned officer in the presence or hearing of those in the ranks. You will undermine his authority if you do.
37. DON’T fail to correct your subordinates if you hear them speak disrespectfully of superior officers, but do it tactfully.
38. DON’T interfere unnecessarily with subordinates in the street or other public places. The golden rule is: if your authority as an officer is necessary for disciplinary reasons, and is likely to carry weight, use it; if not, pass on.
39. DON’T exclude common sense when interpreting the regulations.
40. DON’T give slovenly orders. They must be clear and lucid, both oral and written. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. The power of clear, unambiguous expression is not such a common gift as is usually imagined. Try to acquire it.
41. DON’T leave drunken Service personnel to their own devices if they are behaving in such a manner as to bring discredit on the Service, injury to themselves or others. If no N.C.O., Service police or civil police are handy, find a telephone and ring up the nearest Service unit; failing that, a police station. Give your name and request that the offender be taken into custody. Don’t go near the offender yourself on any account you may cause him, unwittingly, to commit a more serious offense.
42. DON’T forget that all your orders must be “lawfuI” i.e., the disobedience of which would tend to delay or prevent some military or air force proceedings.
Your behaviour and personal example to others
43. DON’T criticize superior officers (whatever your private opinion may be of individuals), particularly in the presence of juniors.
44. DON’T live beyond your income, get into debt or borrow money.
45. DON’T push yourself forward at the expense of others, especially your seniors.
46. DON’T be unpunctual. The Services are run to the exact minute; synchronize your watch daily with the official time.
47. DON’T quarrel; it dissipates energy needlessly.
48. DON’T walk arm in arm in public. The relationship doesn’t matter; don’t do it.
49. DON’T waste time and breath grumbling. Have this text in a visible place to cure you of this habit:— “Lord, teach me not to whimper.”
50. DON’T carry informality too far in the informal conditions you will find in Mess.
51. DON’T fail to show respect for senior officers at all times, but avoid a servile or fawning manner as you would the plague.
52. DON’T allow your personal dislike of an individual to impair your good manners.
53. DON’T remain seated if your C.O. enters the room you are in. Stand up.
54. DON’T bore people with your own doings, however interesting they may be. You have no idea how popular a “good listener” can become.
55. DON’T open a conversation with very senior officers; leave it to them. In other words, don’t thrust yourself forward uninvited; you might meet with an unexpected reception.
56. DON’T “stand drinks” to members of your Mess.
57. DON’T be afraid to refuse a drink at any time if you don’t want it. Only a “boor” would press drinks upon a guest unnecessarily.
58. DON’T acquire the aperitif or cocktail habit in war time. Both sometimes affect the moral as well as the physical fibre.
59. DON’T forget that ladies — even if they are serving as officers — are only allowed into that part of the Mess set apart for their use.
60. DON’T introduce religious or political into conversation in an Officers’ Mess.
61. DON’T seek popularity with other ranks by assuming a contempt for authority and strict discipline. You will lose their respect and gain nothing.
62. DON’T strike fancy attitudes of your own, or move about when giving a word of command on parade. Stand to attention.
63. DON’T apply for leave the first day you arrive at your new station. You will create a bad impression.
64. DON’T try to evade your responsibilities. You are not paid to “pass the baby” to others.
Relationship between officers and rank and file
65. DON’T be familiar with those in the ranks. They like you to keep your proper place.
66. DON’T be familiar with your N.C.Os., however efficient they may be. Young officers need great care when handling experienced N.C.Os. Keep your dignity. Common sense and understanding on both sides will simplify matters.
67. DON’T enter a Sergeants’ Mess unless invited by a general invitation to officers.
68. DON’T stay for more than one hour at any dance to which you (in common with other officers) have been invited by the Sergeants, Corporals or rank and file.
69. DON’T attempt to buy N.C.Os. a drink at any such entertainment; remember they are collectively “Host” and it really isn’t done.
70. DON’T try to create an impression by consuming a large number of drinks. You will lose your subordinates’ respect (if nothing worse happens).
71. DON’T enter or remain in the “bar” of a hotel if rank and file are present. The “lounge” is more suitable for officers.
72. DON’T, because the “ranker” happens to be your father or brother, drink with him in a public bar. Find somewhere private. He is sufficiently proud of you not to want you to behave in a manner unbecoming to your rank.
73. DON’T take an N.C.O. or any of the rank or file into the Officers’ Mess.
74. DON’T inquire into the private domestic affairs of those in the ranks who are married; leave this to senior officers. If they want your help in any such matters they will ask for it.
75. DON’T attempt to know the “married families” socially, that is, by visiting their homes or forming any other social liaison. To do so is to invite accusations of partiality and favoritism, which are difficult to refute, bad for your reputation amongst seniors and juniors, and detrimental to Service discipline.
76. DON’T allow the attractiveness of your “lady driver” to make you forget, even temporarily, that the dividing line between officers and rank and file must be maintained.
77. DON’T shirk saluting senior officers at all times, Whether “on” or “off duty.” There is nothing servile or derogatory to yourself in this. It is an ancient Service custom with hundreds of years of tradition behind it.
Irrespective of rank, you must salute your superiors in rank before addressing them, or being addressed by them, on duty or parade.
78. DON’T fail to return every compliment paid to you by rank and file, and acknowledge it with a proper full salute; never touch your cap like a taximan acknowledging a tip. There is only one kind of salute, and it is the same for officers as for those in the ranks.
79. DON’T forget to salute if covered when you enter and leave an office occupied by a brother officer of equal or senior rank. It is courteous and has now become an established custom of the Service.
80. DON’T forget to salute a bier, uncased Colors or when the National Anthem is played.
81. DON’T salute or return compliments if you are without your head-dress.
Disposal of offenders
82. DON’T find an alleged offender “guilty” if any reasonable doubt still remains as to his guilt. He must be allowed the benefit of the doubt.
83. DON’T punish a first offender for a minor offense.
84. DON’T fail to keep an alphabetical roll of first offenders you have “let off with a caution,” so that swift and suitable punishment follows a further offense. Every offense cannot be treated as a first offense, or it becomes a habit.
85. DON’T forget to inform an offender whom you have decided to punish that you are doing so for three reasons:-
(i) Because he deserves it;
(ii) To deter him from committing that offense again;
(iii) To deter others from committing a similar offense.
86. DON’T use your position to inflict any punishment which could be termed “malicious.”
87. DON’T forget that the careers of your subordinates can be seriously damaged by a mistake on your part. Be correct in all your dealings with offenders, and above all be just.
Your correct conduct in private affairs
88. DON’T discuss official Service matters in private correspondence.
89. DON’T indulge in adverse criticism of junior or senior officers in private correspondence. It is grossly unjust: they cannot defend themselves.
90. DON’T discuss official Service matters with anyone, unless it is a matter which their official position demands that they should know.
91. DON’T, when permitted to wear “mufti,” wear any old clothes. Re-member that you are still an officer. If someone recognizes you in “loud” or any clothing unfitted to a commissioned officer, you bring discredit not only upon yourself, but the status of officers generally.
92. DON’T discuss Service matters at home. Your family will undoubtedly be curious, and you may wish to impress them with the importance of your position, but careless talk even amongst those you trust most, may sacrifice valuable lives. Do not by mere foolishness become an unpaid agent of the enemy.
93. DON’T attempt to gain a personal advantage by writing a private letter on an official matter to a friend or relative who may hold high rank or be in a position of authority.
Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different.Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.But there is no reward at all for doing what other people expect of you, and to do so is not merely difficult, but impossible. It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants “just a few minutes of your time, please — this won’t take long.” Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time — and squawk for more!So learn to say No — and to be rude about it when necessary.Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you.(This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.)
In 1942 the United States Marine Corps published Thou Shalt Not! Hints to Newly Commissioned Officers, a small handbook for junior officers. It contains some truly great leadership aphorisms. Reading through it you notice qualities sorely lacking from today’s “leadership” learning – among them, seemliness and propriety. Though many of the rules may seem prudish and stuffy to us today, it bears considering that these were the guidelines for the men who led the combat operations which won the Pacific theater in some of the bloodiest battles in American history. We plan to post one a week. Enjoy!
1. DON’T neglect the comfort and general welfare of your subordinates. This is your first duty.”
This one is all about your duty to others. Take care of your people and they will take care of the mission. A leader’s first and most important duty is to those under his charge. There is a long standing cultural expectation in our military that a leader should never eat before his troops have eaten. This is about building a culture of service – not setting a dining schedule. This principle is as applicable to an infantry platoon leader as it is to a Fortune 500 CEO. Ignore it at your peril.
What does the frequency of the use of certain words tell us about a given organization? Can the frequent use of a word reveal an institutional focus? Think of any organization to which you have belonged – what word or words would show up most often in its written communications? If you were to “control F” search all of these documents which words would show up most frequently? Would the words most used align with the organizations self image? Would they align with the leader’s vision for the organization?
Our military is very fond of a quote to the effect of: “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.” This quote is always attributed to “A German General” but I think some American made it up at some point simply because I think that it is not true and that a German General would know enough to know that 1) it isn’t true and 2) the German Army were the real masters of performing in chaos. An analogous quote is also attributed to some unknown German of high rank… “A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.” We really love these quotes. We put them on t-shirts and paint them on the walls of our military offices… trouble is they may not be true. The fact that American servicemen love these quotes so much might tell you much more about the sort of organization we wish we belonged to than it does about the organization we actually belong to.
In fact, Jörg Muth, the author of a recent book on American Command Culture Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War , (review here) made some interesting observations about American Command Culture as discussed in an article available at Foreignpolicy.com. “If the most important verb and the most important noun should be found for the U.S. Army and the Wehrmacht according to the vast amount of manuals, regulations, letters, diaries and autobiographies I have read they would be ‘to manage’ and ‘doctrine’ for the U.S. Army and führen (to lead) and Angriff (attack) for the Wehrmacht. Such a comparison alone points out a fundamentally different approach to warfare and leadership.” So, according to Mr. Muth, history and our own writings show us that it was the Germans, not the American army who were masters of chaos and the Americans who were rigid and inflexible. Muth’s thesis is supported by the older and very widely read research and writings of both Martin Van Crefeld and Trevor Dupuy.
So, what are your organizations “words”? Do those words indicate an organizational focus that matches your brand?