History and leadership examples matter!
I recently completed reading Jeff Shaara‘s captivating book on the Korean War, “The Frozen Hours.” The author is renowned for his insightful storytelling and offers more than just a historical account. I was honestly embarrassed by how little I knew about the Korean conflict and how brutal it was to all involved. Sadly I am not alone. To quote a historian, Allan Millett, referenced in the book, “In terms of the collective memory of the American people, the Korean War is not just forgotten. It was not remembered in the first place.” I will never look at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the same way again.
Shaara provides profound leadership lessons that apply not only in the heat of battle but also within the walls of any organization. I’ve summarized my leadership takeaways into the following categories:
Developing Core Leadership Qualities
- Harness Potential in Everyone: Recognize that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things, especially under difficult circumstances.
- Bring Emotional Intelligence: Learn to interpret emotional reactions not as personal attacks but as natural responses to stress. It isn’t always about you.
- Value Experience: Understand that everyone was inexperienced at some point and appreciate their growth journey. See people from where they are, not where you are.
- Adapt the Strategy As Needed: Be willing to change plans when necessary; avoid rigid adherence to failing strategies. Know when to pivot!
- Respect Individuality in Leadership: Allow team members to express their unique management strengths instead of conforming to a singular leadership approach. Value substance over manufactured style and artificial rhetoric.
- Communicate Your Boundaries and Stick to Them: Your people should always know where you stand and what is non-negotiable. You set the standard of behavior.
Building Team Dynamics
- Prioritize Collective Good Over Individual Desires: Prioritize the welfare of the group above individual needs, including your own.
- Ensure No One Is Left Behind: Foster a culture of loyalty and teamwork, ensuring everyone feels included and supported. And make sure you bring those who made the ultimate sacrifice back home.
- Practice Empathetic Leadership: Balance authority with empathy, understanding the team’s needs and challenges. And, don’t forget that context matters.
- Find Respect and Pride in Work: Create an environment where team members feel respected and take pride in their contributions.
- Question Authority, but Do It Wisely: Encourage critical thinking, especially when instructions seem flawed or risky. Don’t blindly follow strategies destined to fail. Push back professionally.
- Protect the Vulnerable and Tend to the Injured: Not everyone can be a hero or play the full game, but they matter regardless. They are on their own journey; help them on their way and get them where they need to be.
Resource Management and Planning
- Simplicity in Needs: Cultivate personal resilience by focusing on essential needs rather than getting everything you want. We can all get by on a lot less than we think (especially if we have to).
- Provide Adequate Resources: Ensure the team is well-equipped to handle tasks effectively. Deal with resource gaps as promptly as possible, and don’t overextend yourself unnecessarily.
- Situational Creativity: Sometimes, you just need to make the best of what you have and think outside the box to form new solutions. You may even need to co-opt your competitor’s tools and resources.
- Use Contingency Planning: Always have a backup plan to maintain flexibility and preparedness. All plans change once they confront reality.
- Focus on Quality Over Quantity: Emphasize well-trained, well-equipped teams over larger, less prepared groups. Size and power can lead to misplaced confidence, rigid viewpoints, and an underestimation of the competition.
- Leverage Your Resource Advantages: Always play to your strengths and put your best foot forward.
Communication and decision-making
- Know When to Speak or Listen: Balance providing guidance with actively listening to team feedback. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you should be the best listener. And, sometimes, the best response is no response.
- Encourage Collaborative Ideation: Involve team members in idea generation and problem-solving processes, especially when the decision or plan directly affects them.
- Leverage Personal Communication: Opt for direct, in-person interactions for important messages. People need to see and hear you directly when it counts.
- Have Backup Communication Plans: Prepare for communication breakdowns with alternative methods. Don’t assume you’ve been heard.
- Respect the Chain of Command: Stay in your lane and trust your boss knows what he or she is doing until proven otherwise. If you have doubts, ask questions respectfully. Be open to the fact that someone else may know better.
Leadership Philosophy and Ethics
- Grounded Leadership: Stay connected to the realities of the team and the environment. Don’t view their challenges from too far a distance.
- Embrace Emotional Diversity: Respect individual emotional boundaries while keeping communication channels open. People grieve and respond differently in emotionally charged environments.
- Results Over Pedigree: Focus on achievements and outcomes rather than background or status.
- The True Reward of Leadership: Find fulfillment in the act of leading others to a meaningful purpose/objective rather than seeking external recognition for yourself. Fulfilling the mission should be enough.
- Avoid Misplaced Ego and Politics: Steer clear of detrimental egos and politics at the top. Don’t engage in interpersonal dynamics that don’t serve you well.
- Resist Seagull Management: No one likes leaders who pop in and pop out and offer strong words or criticism without fully grasping the situation.
Organizational Impact and Legacy
- Remember the Sacrifices of Others: Acknowledge the sacrifices of others who paved the way for your success.
- Display Gratitude and Humility: Show appreciation for contributions from all team members, visible or not.
- Offer Meaningful Recognition: Offer thoughtful accolades to maintain their significance, but be wary of overdoing it for show.
- Honest and Constructive Upward Communication: Encourage speaking truth to power with tact and wisdom. Don’t surround yourself with “yes” men (or women).
- Every Leader Needs Checks and Balances: Recognize that no one is infallible, and accountability is key. Don’t fall in love with your own ideas; stay focused on the ultimate objective. It’s more important to achieve the right outcome than to be right.
- Be a Servant Leader: Make it about them, not you. The right people will remember what you did and why.
Jeff Shaara’s “The Frozen Hours” offers more than a historical narrative; it’s a treasure trove of leadership wisdom. By drawing parallels between military leadership and organizational management, Shaara provides valuable insights that are as relevant in boardrooms as they are on battlefields. As leaders or aspiring leaders, embracing these lessons can guide us toward more effective, empathetic, and successful management styles.
A final quote from the book, “The campaign is perhaps the most brilliant divisional feat of arms in the national history. General Oliver P. Smith made it so, through his dauntless calm, tender regard for his regiments, and his unshakeable belief that rest when needed, rather than precipitate haste, was the only thing which would bring his men through the greatest of combat trials. In battle, this great Marine had more the manner of a college professor than a plunging fighter. But our services have known few leaders who could look so deeply into the human heart… His greatest campaign is a classic which will inspire more nearly perfect leadership by all those who read and understand that out of great faith can come a miracle.” – Brigadier General A.L.A. “Slam” Marshall