In 1985-1986 when I was a student at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, I had the privilege along with three other peers to conduct a study to identify the common organizational characteristics of the truly excellent brigades (units with anywhere from 2000-3500 soldiers) in our Army. Our study yielded eight "pillars of excellence": Focus on Mission, Power down, Teamwork, High Standards and Discipline, Caring, Consistent Excellent Performance, Winning Spirit, and Positive Command Climate. The study was reviewed by leaders for over a decade.
I would like to share with you results of our study in what goes into a Positive Command Climate. Remember, 24 years ago we had no PCs, blackberries, or digital communication devices in our units. Leadership was exercised "up close and personal" either in person or on the phone or radio. Even with the advent of the internet age, the elements I am about to describe are still extremely important within an organization for it to excel above the rest.
In every high performing unit we visited, there was present what we called a "positive command climate". This "intangible" was a direct result of the influence and actions of the senior leader in the organization- the brigade commander. Soldiers who regularly interacted and observed brigade commanders frequently made comments like, "he always has something good to say and when things are not going well, he has a way of asking questions that cause you to think and learn," and "he's never condescending. " Another common response was made by a young leader, "I get energy being around him. He is calm, confident and always out front".
These leaders created a non-threatening environment where subordinates were permitted, and even encouraged, to use initiative and learn by doing. If mistakes were made in the process but led to learning and getting better-then so be it. Leaders never felt like they had to look over their shoulders. The great leaders were upbeat and had a way of making their soldiers feel good about themselves. They also provided more than positive affirmation. Let's look at the other ingredients that went into a positive command climate.
Senior leaders provided vision and clear direction to their leaders. They were the clear standard bearers for their organization. They provided realistic and attainable standards for all to achieve. They used a participatory process in deriving goals, objectives and policies. Each was described as an active listener who sought good ideas from anywhere within the command. These leaders had an ability to gleam from those around them in establishing the direction and the tactics to move toward it.
There was a clear focus on mission (combat). The mission (business plans flows out of the vision and direction of the organization. All of the high performing brigades had a clear picture of what was important. If something did not contribute to readiness for combat, it received little or no emphasis by the brigade commander. Leaders throughout the organization were proactive and not reactive. They were zealots about protecting precious resources that went into accomplishing their training mission. Leaders need to be sure that all the activity in their organization is focused toward achieving the goals and objectives that flow from the overall direction of the organization.
Power down was practiced by all. To a man, the immediate subordinate leaders (battalion commanders) felt they had the freedom to command their units. Their brigade commanders did not smother them with guidance. They resisted the temptation to go down to a battalion to fix a problem. They provided coaching to subordinate commanders when they had a challenge but otherwise allowed them the opportunity to find solutions for problems. They realized that their way was not necessarily the only way to solve a command matter. This healthy freedom to grow and learn was found throughout the organization because it was practiced at the highest levels. Regardless of the size or structure of your organization, there are opportunities to develop, delegate and empower people throughout your organization.
Teamwork was actively promoted and rewarded. There was a clear spirit of "we". Leaders were encouraged to cross-fertilize ideas, expertise and effort. The subordinate battalions were only measured against the standard- never against each other. When each exceeded the standard, it was given recognition and the brigade commander made sure there were enough rewards to go around. Willingness to help others seemed to be the norm. There was a "win-win" situation where one battalion did not have to one-up another to get ahead. We found a general attitude where soldiers of one battalion were equally proud of other battalions and their achievements.
Excellent work needs to be recognized and rewarded at the individual and team level. Organizations that recognize and reward for collaboration and teamwork are more likely to create a culture that is more productive and where people enjoy working together. The synergy and creativity that is created through a collective effort almost always outpaces individual effort.
Caring was exemplified by the brigade commander. His sincerity and emphasis on caring for soldiers and their families permeated the organizations. We knew because soldiers told us so. Brigade commanders set the tone for the positive versus the negative, making people feel important, and committing to the professional and personal development of every soldier... They set the example when it came to providing timely and meaningful feedback and coaching and teaching others.
The saying still holds that "people don't care what you have to say until they know you care". As leaders, we can never underestimate the positive impact that comes when we take an interest in and develop those around us. Not only do these people tend to be more motivated and productive, but a deep loyalty is often created as well when we sincerely take an interest in others.
They walked the talk. They understood how to maintain a balance between work and quality of life. They clearly had an ability to know how "full to keep the plate" and to recognize when it was running over. They also created an atmosphere of trust by allowing others to perform their duties. As leaders, we need to be developing others and delegating meaningful work for their development.
The senior leaders we studied over twenty years ago practiced SAM in their daily lives. They were masters at setting direction, aligning their team and its resources, and positively motivating their soldiers. Their organizations were the best in our Army during a critical period of transformation. They were high performing, winning units because they thrived in a positive command climate. Their legacy resulted in many of the senior leaders who are now excelling on challenging operations during our Global War on Terrorism.