Leadership is an important and relevant skill to develop for anyone–across all industries, across all corporate functions, both in and out of the office. Michele Sancricca is uniquely qualified on this topic, having spent several decades as a leader in both the military and corporate worlds. He also published an in-depth 9-module series on Leadership (available on Flevy).
I am privileged to have Michele as a personal friend. Recently, I took the opportunity to pick his brain on the topic of Leadership. Leadership topics discussed include leadership tools, leadership mistakes, and ethical leadership.
Is leadership experience in the military easily transferable to the corporate world?
One of the masterpieces of the military leadership literature, The Art of War by the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, has been adopted as a textbook in several Business Schools. Indeed, this is just an example on how military leadership influences the business world and therefore the corporate one. Therefore, at least academically, the answer is that leadership experience in the military should be easily transferable.
However, my personal experience is that there is a significant cultural and psychological gap between the civilian (corporate) world and the military, which makes the military leadership experience valuable only if a proper translation process is put in place. Here, the problem is that people coming from a military background are used to a world of symbols (uniforms, medals, ranks, ceremonies) and a clear hierarchy that is a kind of catalyst for leadership enablement. Furthermore, people in the military–who share the same system of values, training, education, and ideals–are trained and expected to follow leaders (to the regards of their superiors) and to act as leaders at the same time (with respects to subordinates).
In the corporate world, and this boils down to my personal experience, the situation is different and much more complicated. In a large corporate office, you have people with completely different educational and cultural background, perception of leadership, expectations, ideals, dreams, perception of hierarchy. Moreover, there are very blurred symbolisms and hierarchical systems in place. These factors bring more complexity to the corporate environment and require the military leadership skills to be properly translated, as mentioned above. There is more need for communication, reciprocal comprehension, and empathy than in the military environment, also more room for an open dialogue between a leader and his/her team is needed.
To summarize, I would say that empathetic dialogue and comprehension are the two most important instruments that could help in translating very effective, but sometimes too bold military leadership skills, into successful corporate leadership tools, adequate for a less standardized and structured environment.
What are some useful leadership tools you learned from your military experiences?
I would list the following as the most important ones:
- Leading by example.
- Being able to say no even when it hurts.
- Giving honest and sometimes tough feedback.
- Translating strategic mission (corporate level) into tactical actions (at department or team’s level) effectively.
- Creating strong teams bonded by the “band of brothers” legacy.
Is leadership an innate, natural skill or is something that can be taught?
I believe that leadership can be taught, but good leadership is innate. A real, self confident and effective leader can be recognized already when he/she is playing with other babies at the kindergarten. Having said that, leadership courses, seminars, books, talks are all very useful instruments to improve and to add more flesh to the bones, but you still need bones.
What type of personality does a good leader have?
There is no perfect personality for a successful leader. There are two many possible situations where he/she has to act, too many possible combination of personalities and problems he/she has to face in a team. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Rather, I would say that the more flexibility to adapt his/her personality to people and situation a leader has, the more effective he/she will be. Therefore, the key characteristics are: empathy, to understand the surrounding environment, humbleness, to tame his/her ego, emotional intelligence, to understand how to modify his/her behavior so as to lead effectively.
What does “ethical leadership” mean?
Leading by example and providing a role model for other people are the two most important pillars that support any leader’s actions. The more ethical is the behavior of a leader, the stronger those pillars and the the more effective the leader. There is no sustainable leadership without pristine personal and professional ethics.
Could a person like the Mexican drug-cartel leader “El Chapo” being considered a true leader? Probably not, because he leads by inspiring terror rather than by setting an ethical example. What about people like Maria Teresa of Calcutta? Although being a humble, apparently powerless nun, she was and she still his a powerful example of ethical leadership, able to positively change and save hundreds of thousands of lives.
What are some common mistakes new leaders make?
Just to mention the most important to be avoided:
- Failing to set the example.
- Being unable to foster and sustain the team (for instance by gossiping, not being loyal, being too hands-off, no making time for your people).
- Not walking the talk.
- Failing to listen to the surrounding environment.
- Not thinking outside the box.
- Creating a vision for his team that is not in line with the corporate big strategy.
It is often difficult to translate leadership theories and models into the real world. Can you offer advice on implementing leadership theories?
From my perspective, only experience can help in properly implementing leadership theories. There is no silver bullet here, since even though a theory could be extremely valid on paper, its applicability in the real world has always to be matched with thousands of human variables. Empathy is the key in order to understand what theory could suit the environment and the members of a team.
What are some ways to motivate your team?
Leading by example, showing integrity, and embodying respectfulness are the basis for motivating a team to follow you. Beside these ethical motivational assets, it is paramount to foster motivation through practical actions such as:
- Delegating responsibility;
- Avoiding micromanagement;
- Inspiring a common sense of purpose;
- Giving hope and never showing discouragement;
- Empowering people by giving them the chance to express their skills;
- Letting you people know that one day you’ll be done and one of them will inherit your place;
- Disclosing to your team the big picture and making the part of it;
- Giving freedom to self-manage time and other resources; and
- Never playing the blame game.
Understanding each person’s dreams, personal goals, inner motivation, and purpose are the further steps to be done in order to adapt in an effective way the above-mentioned tools to every member of the team.