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The Greatest Leadership Article I’ve Ever Read


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There's something for all military leaders in this one :)

The Greatest Leadership Article I’ve Ever Read

Recently, my friend Carl got a new job with the task of quickly building a 600-person pharmaceutical sales team, and leading that team as the company enters a new therapeutic market. He’s an industry veteran who excels at strategy, execution and motivating his team. But he gave me a call because there was one leadership area he wasn’t as comfortable with: diversity & inclusion.

“My CEO is big on culture and this place is very different than all the other companies I’ve worked in,” Carl explained. “He told me that he expects me—from day one—to walk the talk on inclusion and to create a strengths-based culture. How do I do that? How should I start?”

We agreed to meet up for coffee to talk about it, and the first thing I did was hand him a printout with my scribbled notes in the column.

“What’s this?” Carl asked.

“This,” I said, “is the greatest leadership article I have ever read.”

The 5 Elements of Great Leadership

I originally found this article on the military leadership blog, From The Green Notebook, and it’s called “The Map on the Wall.” I encourage you to click and read it in full, then return here for my break down.

#1) Tactics That Work In The Real World

Part of why I love this article so much is because of who didn’t write it. It seems like popular leadership gurus today are the ones who repackage old concepts and who write social media messages that could have been found inside a fortune cookie. Yet these gurus have never built or led a team larger than their public relations staff and video crew. I’ll admit it—I’m partial to leadership advice from people who are actually doing it: leading large teams, day-in day-out, in the real world.

The Map on the Wall was written by Jack “Farva” Curtis, a U.S. Navy aviator who is currently the commanding officer of a Navy EA-18G squadron based at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington. I personally have no affiliation with the U.S. Navy and have never met Commander Curtis. I did reach out to him via email in the course of writing this article.

2) Culture Comes First

Don’t make a new employee fill out paperwork on their first morning at work. Don’t immediately jump into your quarterly town-hall meeting with a review of financials. Instead use the power of first impressions, and the time when attention is at its peak, to focus on what really matters, which is culture. The first priority of any great team is actually the health of the team itself.

In the article, Commander Curtis explains that he has a large map of the United States on the wall of his office, with dozens of push pins stuck in it. Each pin represents the hometown of someone in the squadron. He explains:

“When a new member joins our team, regardless of rank or time in service, they go through a standardized check-in process that culminates in a one-on-one conversation with both the Executive Officer (XO) and the Commanding Officer (CO).

When we sit down for our first conversation, the first thing I ask them to do is take a pin out of the jar and place it on their hometown (or as near as they can get)...I point out that we come from different cultures, different values, different educations, different family dynamics, different spiritual or faith traditions, and many of us have different motivations to serve.”

Curtis chooses to use the valuable “first conversation” to focus on diversity & inclusion. I’ve known CEOs who open every meeting with a comment about safety, others always start by talking about a particular value, there is no one right answer. The point is to put attention on culture from the very start.

3) More Conversations, Less Rules

In my book, Great Leaders Have No Rules, I explain that even the best rules typically crowd out conversation. Rules imposed by others—rather than being co-created—drive engagement down. Commander Curtis put a focus on inclusion, but he could have still messed it up by pushing it through rules—the classic authority model of leadership (which quite frankly emerged from the classic military command and control system). He could have given a mini-lecture on the consequences of harassment and discrimination; he could have had new team members sign a personal conduct pledge.

Instead of dictating diversity, Curtis uses an interactive exercise. He kicks off the conversation by making it about them. “Take a pin out of this jar and place it on your hometown…” He then continues with a conversation about differences, in an environment with high psychological safety. He writes:

“These conversations have proven humorous, enlightening, and more often than not, encouraging. I recall one recent check-in with a Sailor who told me he’d never worked with a black person before joining the Navy. Not alarming, he’s simply a product of where he was born and raised — and there just weren’t many black people where he grew up. Another Sailor I spoke with told me he’d never met a gay person prior to joining the Navy. Now, chances are high that he had and just didn’t know it, but the point was clear — he was in uncharted cultural waters.”

4) Focus on Strengths

Strengths comes into play in two powerful ways in Commander Curtis’ article. First, he rightly frames his diversity conversation with the perspective that diversity and inclusion are assets, they’re force multipliers. Inclusion isn’t just about being ethical, fair or because it’s the law. He explains:

“I point out that we come from different cultures...But, and this is the key, now we’re all here — at this squadron — which means we now have a shared purpose, and all those differences…they’re features, not flaws...we’re better because we’re different. We’re stronger because we come from everywhere. And, we’re much more dangerous to any potential adversary because we don’t all approach difficult problems the same way.”

Additionally, outside of the domain of inclusion, leaders need to do more to practice strengths-based leadership. In a large study conducted by Gallup, they found that organizations that implemented a strengths-based approach to employee development achieved:

●    10% to 19% increased sales

●    14% to 29% increased profit

●    3% to 7% higher customer engagement

●    6% to 16% lower turnover (low-turnover organizations)

●    26% to 72% lower turnover (high-turnover organizations)

●    9% to 15% increase in engaged employees

●    22% to 59% fewer safety incidents

The research is clear, high performing leaders individualize their approach to management and focus on team members’ strengths.

#5 Physical Objects As Cultural Reminders

The worst place to depict your company’s values, is in the list of values that hangs in your lobby and conference rooms. The best way to remind people of values and shared purpose, the best way to recognize examples of cultural excellence, is with physical artifacts.

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle analyzes some of the world’s most successful organizations—including Pixar, the San Antonio Spurs, and U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six—and shares the common ingredients behind their success. In his “ideas for action” he talks about using physical objects to make the statement: this is what matters. At Navy SEAL headquarters you’ll see the gear of soldiers killed in action. At Pixar you’ll see original hand drawn sketches next to Oscar trophies. Instead of a list of generic words that people neither remember nor live, the right objects can convey a powerful message without words.

In my favorite leadership article of all time, the pin-filled map on the wall is far more than just a map. It’s a symbol to all who encounter it, and even serves as a reminder to Commander Curtis himself.

“...It will always serve to remind me during my most frustrated and cynicism-filled moments how those little pins came together from everywhere to accomplish something seemingly unimaginable in today’s environment — unity of purpose, unwavering commitment, and courageous service from, and for, Americans of widely disparate backgrounds.”

The Final Lesson: Leadership, and Inclusion, Can Be Learned

I reach out to Commander Curtis to ask whether he was always an inclusive leader; I would have guessed something in his own upbringing enabled him to be more aware of issues around belonging and privilege from the start. But that wasn’t the case. He told me:

“Was I always so inclusive as a leader...? No. I came up in Naval Aviation (early 2000s) when there weren't many female aviators, this was also prior to the repeal of don't ask don't tell, and the number of racial minorities in the officer ranks was as small then as it remains now. A significant "assist" in my development was marrying one of the few female aviators where I was stationed. We could go on for days about how that shaped (and continues to shape) how I view things today.

Being in the Navy for the repeal of don't ask don't tell was formative. It was the biggest non-event ever. We all just woke up the next day and came to work.

Where it all really came together for me was in the weeks prior to becoming the XO of my current squadron, as I would walk around the hangar meeting people. We really came from everywhere!  That's something that we can embrace and "weaponize" as an asset, or it's something that can divide and limit our capabilities. My organization has one mission -to win in combat. That's it. If we don't find a way to get the best out of everyone - truly everyone - then we're like a football team taking the field with 10 players - it's gonna be hard to win. And, like I said, our mission is to win.”