Without leadership, we would find ourselves living in a state of disorientation. Good leaders compass sincerity, while bad ones get lost in the field of technique. As a result of this, the leadership mission number one is to boost integrity, team excellence, and effective coopetition.
By Marco S. Maffei
Why is integrity vital for a good leader? Why is team excellence a precondition for managing complexity? Why is an effective coopetition a precondition for sustainable success? As the former director of various military training exercises, I would like to give you a practical example why character is more important than knowledge – wherever leadership is needed.
In the following article, I will be talking about the military training exercise MUTUAL TRUST. The purpose of this exercise was to test the meaning of its name in practice. An exercise is a unique tool to test participants ‚on the job‘ under high pressure and very challenging conditions. MUTUAL TRUST was set up in order to train and improve the staff’s ability to solve complex problems, and practice processes and leadership skills under prolonged high pressure.
Training exercise MUTUAL TRUST
Exercise MUTUAL TRUST was the main training event in that particular year. The exercise was spread out over half of Switzerland. Amongst the participants were: a command and control element, a support element, a reconnaissance element, and a combat element. An additional group was responsible for assisting in conducting the exercise and providing staff on the evaluation team.
Assessing the output and outcome
Let’s have a closer look at the benefits. First of all, it was a field training exercise. Field training means that everything that has been planned will be practically implemented, tested and evaluated by troops in the field. This allows to assess not only the output of the planning stage but also the outcome, i.e. practicability of the mission planned. The training scenario was fictional and designed in order to require and maintain high readiness levels at the troop level and an ability to deploy rapidly in response to various incidents. The exercise ran during 12 days on a 24/7 basis. This was a particular challenge for the planning staff because they had to ensure day- and nightshifts with limited staff available and during different phases of intensity.
Practice leadership skills under pressure
Overall 1200 people participated in the exercise, across six hierarchy levels and involving three essential partners: the Air Force provided air assets in the form of helicopters and drones, the Armed Forced Logistics Organization provided all the equipment and supplies, such as vehicles, arms, fuel and ammunition, and the Armed Forces Command Support Organization provided electronic warfare support as well as ensured the proper functioning of all command and control systems and communication networks. Almost all of the 1200 participants were in a situation, where they depended in various degrees on each other. This held true during all four phases of the exercise, planning, preparation, execution and debriefing. The staff members had to work with other staff and teams, the reconnaissance teams not only provided real-life eyes on target, but also had to work with the raid forces, i.e. by scouting them safely through enemy territory close to their designated targets. The commanders had to prioritize, synchronize and execute their missions not only with their own assets, but also by including assets and services provided by other elements like for example the Air Force. Last but not least, 60 training assistants had to ensure not only the evaluation, but also make sure that all safety regulations were properly followed.
Fast moving environment
So what were the leadership challenges? The main challenge was certainly to cope with changing dynamics, such as fluid paramilitary cells striking in ever-different places and using different approaches, changing weather conditions, and deteriorating mental and physical readiness of the personnel involved at all levels. All of these parameters not only had to be monitored, but also taken into account in the decision making processes at various levels. It was not a question of: „Do we have enough information?”, but rather one of: „Do we have the right information and is it still current – and what does this imply for our intended course of action?”. This setup of the exercise led to a climate of uncertainty and high stress levels. We all have been affected by stress at some point in our lives, but in this particular situation hustle and bustle is the most effective antagonist of precision and high performance. So leaders not only had to deal with the challenge of their own stress levels, but more importantly manage the stress levels of their superiors, comrades and subordinates as well. The key questions were: „How can I get the best from them even if they are tired, hungry or demotivated? At what level are they currently able to perform the intended task necessary?” Training exercise MUTUAL TRUST was highly effective in creating such an environment and provided invaluable lessons regarding the ability of the staff involved to execute the mission assigned to them. All this helped to draw a number of lessons learned to be even better prepared for the time, when this is no longer an exercise. Below I will highlight five key insights.
I will now draw the main conclusions by explaining the lessons identified and the corresponding factors of success.
- You cannot succeed alone – We need teams of specialists contributing to the same overall objective.
First of all, you cannot succeed alone. This could be observed from multiple points of view: e.g. the reconnaissance staff could not deliver the information needed about a paramilitary cell without a ground team that would actually take the risk, go there and provide real-time, precise data. The ground team again was not able to provide such data on a 24/7 basis without night vision goggles, which had to be furnished from the logistics organization. A raid force was ineffective unless it had a clear understanding of the commander’s intent and how all the interfaces would play together in a properly timed sequence. A sniper could not support unless itself was supported, by having clear instructions what to hit when and again depending on the logistics organization to provide them with the proper rifles, scopes and special ammunition. The quick reaction force would be anything but quick unless it had the support from the Air Force, providing helicopters and crews, which themselves depended on a number of logistical services. In order to achieve an overall success in the mission, it is imperative to have a common understanding of the intended objectives and to have all contributors aligned around the approach how these objectives may be reached. This implies that the needed specialists are identified, selected and trained not only in their own domain, but then most importantly in how they will interact with the other players in the team in order to work effectively together.
- There are no better or worse contributors per se – We need complementary contributors acting within their area of competence and being open for coopetition.
There are no better or worse contributors to the overall effort. In the end the force succeeds together or fails together. Although the tendency exists, in the military as well as in the business world, to feel better than the others because of a particular capability, a history or the like, there is no room for that in a mission. Therefore we look for people who are proud to fulfill their particular task and take ownership in their contribution to the success of the overall mission, yet they are humble enough to acknowledge the valuable contribution of others and open enough to engage in a process of continuous improvement in order to get better and better within their units, but also at the interface with the other actors involved. Therefore, we need complementary contributors, who are absolute cracks within their area of competence, but at the same time open to a combination of cooperation and competition, also referred to as coopetition.
- If you don‘t stay within your area of competence you risk failure of the mission – We need to identify and jointly train the strengths under difficult conditions.
Another valuable lesson was that if you don’t stay within your area of competence and fail to integrate the people who really know, you risk a mission abort. E.g. a task unit commander wanted to employ snipers without integrating the chief snipers’ expertise. If they had followed this approach, the mission would have most likely been aborted, because the sniper team, a key element in the intended course of action, could not have shot from the position the commander suggested. This would have resulted in a loss of protection for the approaching raid force and possibly stopped the raid before it could develop its full strength. Fortunately, the task group commander recognized this missing link during a tactical dialog with the task unit commander and so it could be corrected in time. Bottom line is, everyone has his strengths and in the other areas it pays to involve the most competent people for the task at hand. Therefore, we need to identify AND train the strengths of individuals and teams under various, increasingly difficult conditions to validate the real strengths and recognize where more training or delegation to another person or team is needed. If someone knows and remains in his area of competence and is open to involve experts where needed is however rather a matter of individual character than just of knowledge or ability.
- You cannot get the best from people without mutual trust – We need leaders instilling trust, by acting as role models, always respectful but driven and consequent.
You cannot get the best out of people unless you trust in their basic ability and them trusting you as a leader. As soon as you and your people leave the comfortable operating zone, i.e. because of high pressure, unfulfilled personal needs such as sleep or food, the role of you as a leader becomes even more vital. For example, the best results came from teams where the leaders were both extremely demanding of themselves AND of their teams. But these leaders were not just demanding, but at the same time acted as role models, were respectful, consequent and shared the conditions of their people. From the author’s point of view, acting as a role model as well as being respectful, demanding and consequent has probably the largest impact on your credibility as a leader, and mutual trust is the essence to motivate people to perform incredible tasks even under the most dire of circumstances. Why? Because when you believe in what you are about to do and in your people, they will believe in what you are trying to achieve and make it happen. Especially in highly complex and mentally and physically strenuous missions you need the energy for the task at hand and really don’t have the time nor energy to deal with mistrust or personal issues.
- Under pressure you show your true colors – We need to screen (potential) leaders under pressure for integrity in order to know what they are truly worth.
At the beginning of the exercise, when most of the staff members were well-rested, they made only a few mistakes. Although making mistakes is a precondition for development and continuous improvement, there are areas with a zero-tolerance for mistakes, especially when it comes to safety. You never get a second chance to correct your error if someone is injured or dies because someone was careless in the planning process. That’s why leaders have to ensure that – especially under high pressure – that safety comes first and other mistakes are at least not made twice. As a consequence, screening of leaders for their integrity should be conducted also under challenging conditions and should become a standard procedure in leadership assessments and trainings.
Leadership mission number one is to boost integrity, team excellence, and effective coopetition
In essence compassionate leadership puts at least as much emphasis on character as it does on competence. In order to create a noticeable added value, leadership number one is based on the following mindset: first, integrity is a precondition for any good leader. Second, team excellence is a precondition for managing complexity. And third, effective coopetition is a precondition for sustainable success. In short, enduring investment in both the selection and development of leaders pays off!