Leading Your Army: Is This Really the One You Wanted?

If leading your army feels like a parade, you might be doing it wrong.

Appearances are important, and first impressions matter, but too often we can find ourselves overly focused on how things look at the expense of how well they function.  When it comes to leading your army, what others see isn’t as important as what your teams can do.  Here are six ways to build teams that win.

Leading Your Army - Is it Really the One You Wanted?

On Parade

It was one of those unplanned things that make travel fun.  My family and I were walking near the Royal Palace in Madrid last year when a growing crowd of camera-laden tourists caught our attention.  The echo of shouted commands on the plaza drew us in, and soon it was clear we had stumbled upon the monthly changing of the guard ceremony.

Blocks of sharply dressed soldiers marched about in blue coats.  They held ancient rifles at left-shoulder-arms with pristine white gloves, as red feathers bobbed in unison atop their gold-braided caps.  A perfectly matched pair of powerful steeds clopped past towing a brace of cannon, while a military band set a strict 120 beats per minute marching tempo.

It was quite a show.  They were good.

I hated it.

Got That T-shirt

I’ve marched in parades like these.  Even led a few.

To me, as a participant, they always seemed a huge waste of time.  To look as good as these Soldiers did required a lot of effort.  It takes hours of starching uniforms, polishing brass, spit-shining boots and inspecting equipment.  Then there’s the rehearsing – memorizing the sequence, getting everyone perfectly in synch, and executing every move with crisp immediacy in the prescribed sequence.

And what was the payoff? Sure, there was a certain discipline and teamwork involved.  But as an army unit, the pageantry didn’t help us fulfill our primary purpose.  It didn’t make us more physically fit, help us learn to shoot straighter, or operate more effectively.  Mostly it was a lot of standing immobile and unthinking in the hot sun, waiting for one person to do something.

Otherwise, all those minds and all that capability simply stood idle the whole time.

Of course if things went well, it would make the commander out front look good, and it would reflect positively on the team.  But to those of us in the ranks, it was just something to get done with.

After watching the show for a few minutes, we continued walking.  As we came to the edge of the crowd, something else caught my eye.

It made me smile.

The Other Army

What I saw was at the point just before the troops on parade emerged into public view.

Leading Your Army - A Study in Contrast

This photo catches the essence of it, and is one of my favorites from that trip.

Do you see it?

I’m not talking about the sharply dressed cavalrymen on matching bays.  I mean the three gentlemen in the background walking behind them.  The security team.

Behind the scenes, they were on the job, too; an army of a different nature.  The real one.  And while one army was on public display and focused on how good they looked, these guys were on duty, too.

They moved in small teams. They were equipped with high-end tools and were trained to use them effectively.  They had autonomy and freedom of action within their assigned sectors.  Their actions were integrated within a network of other teams.  And they were constantly aware of their surroundings – note the middle Soldier, taking care to “check six.”

To me this picture highlights the difference between “appearing” and “being.”

Which Army do We Want?

There’s a quote I came across long ago as a young army officer.  I liked it so much I copied it onto a 3×5 card and kept it with me for a while because it perfectly addresses this duality.

It was penned by a gentleman who fought as a commando against the occupying forces in France during World War II, and was later wounded at the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.  He knew something about military effectiveness:

“I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.” – Jean Lartéguy

The question is:  what army do we want to lead?  One to be put on display for a “modest fee,” or one that is prepared to face the impossible and has been taught how to win?

Teaching Them Tricks

If we want the latter, we have to spend less time spit-shining and more time in other areas.  Here are six things we can do to build an army like the one Jean Lartéguy is talking about:

Set the direction with a clear vision and a positive team culture.  When our team understands its purpose and intent, they can make smart, rapid decisions, even when things inevitably go wrong.

Teach them everything you can.  We want to get them to the point that they can function without us.  The goal in leadership is not to make them dependent on us for every order, but rather to teach them to function effectively when we aren’t around.

The goal of leadership is not to make others dependent upon us, but rather to help them become successful without us. Click To Tweet

Equip them with the best we can get.  If we want excellence out of our teammates we can help them excel by supporting them with the tools and technology that will magnify their talents and make the best use of their time.

Form them into small teams with clear leadership, specific tasks, and well-defined areas of responsibility.  As the size of teams grows, our ability to effectively lead them diminishes; keeping the span of control small makes teams more agile and allows better use of each person’s capabilities.

Integrate the actions of each small team with the other teams so that they are mutually supporting and mutually aware.

Give them the autonomy they need and trust them to do the job; forgive honest errors so they can focus on learning and growing, not avoiding mistakes and punishment.

Leading Your Army – The Takeaway

There’s a time and place for putting on a show, but the more energy we expend on appearance for appearance’s sake, the more we sacrifice the opportunity to become truly good at accomplishing our primary purpose.

After all, if the people on parade were truly a fighting unit, would they really need an armed security team to protect them?

When it comes to leading your army, give them a clear target, keep the teams small, get them the best, and teach them everything.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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