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Unexpected Leadership Lessons: Effectiveness Through Humility & Common Ground

November 27, 2010

Won the Battle -- Lost the War by Elph

I recently discovered more than a few surprises when reading a newly-published article in the Harvard Business Review by a Wharton School management professor who details the insights and impact acquired when Penn’s MBA students took part in leadership training through the U.S. military. While the article’s lessons for leadership were straightforward enough, my own response taught me a thing or two about leadership theory, my own misconceptions, and the need for a more inclusive lens.

In “Four Lesson’s in Adaptive Leadership” Professor Michael Useem makes the case that the highly competitive and unpredictable environments encountered in many organizational settings present leadership challenges not unlike that found on the battlefield.

Useem’s thesis is sound, for sure, and his account of the lessons he and his students acquired through undergoing actual field training exercises is compelling.  As a result of this process Useem posits the following 4 principles of leadership that are applicable under almost any conditions:

  1. Meet The Troops: Creating a personal link is crucial to leading people through challenging times.
  2. Make Decisions: Making good and timely calls is the crux of responsibility in a leadership position.
  3. Focus on Mission: Establish a common purpose, support those who help, and avoid eschew personal gain.
  4. Convey Strategic Intent: Make objectives clear, but avoid micromanaging those who will execute on them.

Good stuff that can be applied across a broad spectrum of settings and styles–and, with all due respect to Dr. Useem–I am a bit embarrassed to now admit how surprised this made me. You see, I consider myself a fairly open-minded, intellectually-balanced sort of guy. But approaching Useem’s article I found myself locked and loaded to find fault. (Well, you know what I mean, right?)

Over the past several years I’ve developed what I consider a strong preference for the more humanistic and cutting-edge approaches to leadership–such as social identity theory and complexity leadership theory. In my view, these approaches helped to ensure effectiveness and productivity by acknowledging the intrinsic value of each individual (in the case of the former) and then empowering each person with a map of the organizational landscape that more accurately reflected the complex and disruptive nature of adaptive systems.

What I did not fully recognize was the extent of my growing distaste and intolerance for the traditional mechanistic and hierarchical models of leadership practice. My assumption was that Useem’s account of lessons from military leadership would simply affirm my negative preconceptions about the inherent rigidity and oppressiveness of hierarchies.

I was, of course, surprised to find that it did not. (In addition, I must also admit that this is not the first time my unschooled misconceptions about military life have been proven wrong either!) The lessons Useem distills from his students’ experience with combat training were based on core principles of effective human interaction under complex conditions. As such, they were just as humanistic and adaptive as the models I had been favoring.

And, for me, this realization speaks to the deeper lesson.

So often my most meaningful learning experiences have occurred when I was shown that some strongly-held conviction was, in fact, not accurate at all. So I ponder: how frequently do we find ourselves fighting to maintain some core “truth” about leadership or organizational life, only to find out later that our presumptions actually limited–rather than broadened–the empowerment of those around and, thus, the course for effective action?

If, like me, you’ve visited this place more than once, it is a genuinely humbling experience. (And who can say that is a bad thing?!)

In this case of the HBR article, I saw not only my unwarranted presumptions, but also the tendency toward “silo-ed” thinking when it comes to leadership ideologies. I recently wrote about the tendency for a new movement to reject all that came before it. My most recent lesson with Professor Useem’s article has helped drive the point home to me even further by helping me to remember that the real journey of leadership is to hold a place of balance.

In this case that balance is between the strength of one’s convictions and the humility to constantly look for the valuable lessons and common ground to be found within both old ideas and new.

So in the spirit of soliciting both old ideas and new,  what’s your take on all this?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2010 2:09 pm


    Love this piece, broadening of scope and understanding, questioning own perspectives, seeing the value and similarities in what we consider the opposites of our own views – and also your wonderful sense of humour shining through as I peeked at some of your links. I will share this. Kathy

    • December 11, 2010 9:42 pm

      Wow, Kathy I’ve been so negligent in responding to your kind and supportive comments. (Phooey on me!!) But–a very belated–thanks so much! Writing for this blog has offered many unexpected gifts–including the opportunity to look at my own process from a very different angle and question that which once seemed so certain.

      Thanks for sharing the excitement of the journey with me!


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