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Military leadership prepares us to embrace the change we did not expect

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Chad Storlie

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Chad Storlie

Monday, March 5, 2018

One of the most overused business expressions is, “Embrace the Change!” This, of course, is the change that we as leaders want to occur. Usually these changes are one’s as leaders that we want to happen for our own personal benefit or for reasons that we believe are “right own conception of the future. This style of “leadership” is really careerism.

True change leadership is when we stand up, help others become successful, and truly lead when we embrace and confront the change that we do not want or did not expect. This type of change leadership is especially common in the military when seemingly great plans fail in an instant and leaders emerge with their own personal greatness to confront adversity head on. True change leadership — overcoming the change we did not want — is a hallmark of military leadership styles. 

Military skills and training embrace the concept of embracing the change that we did not ask for using personal integrity, professionalism, a focus on people, planning, initiative, and honesty to triumph during adversity.

1. Your goals of the future may never happen but you can still be successful. At the end of 1950, U.S. Marines in Korea were nearing the end of a long fight up the Korean Peninsula where they expected to reach the Yalu river separating North Korea and China. Instead of victory, the Marines were attacked from all sides and had to retreat from the Chosin Reservoir under intense attack and sub-zero weather. The Marines did not run. Instead, they recognized that the situation had dramatically changed and they needed to “attack to the rear” instead of attacking the other direction. The Marines made an expected military catastrophe into one of legendary performances that they still celebrate and honor today. True leaders and organizations, lead, react, re-plan, and care for their teams when the completely unexpected occurs. The Marines at the Chosin Reservoir did not expect a major attack and transformed an expected failure into a Marine Corps legend.

2. Voice your opinion when times are bad. During the beginning stages of the Iraq War in 2007 a bright US Army officer, Lt. Colonel Paul Yingling, wrote a scathing article on the lack of quality general officers leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yingling believed in his soldiers, he believed in the U.S. Army as an institution and he knew that the complexity of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan was challenging the U.S. military strategy. Yet Yingling chose to voice his dissent as a leader and state that the U.S. Army can and must do better with its senior leadership. In the military, not all heroism is on the battlefield. Speaking up to have open, critical, and honest conversation during times of unexpected change is critical to finding and implementing successful solutions to critical problems.

3. People before plans. The U.S. military is a planning organization. Yet, before any planning happens, the military believes in its people: soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. The very first thing to show the appreciation of military personnel is to send everyone to difficult and complex training with standards of performance that must be met before that person leaves training to join a deployable military formation. Much has been made of allowing women to join direct ground combat units. However, the real discussion needs to be that the U.S. military maintained standards and expectations for combat units that women then met to be allowed women into those units. Strong, confident, and well-trained people are the foundation of any successful plan.

4. Create strong plans that allow for individual initiative. During the twilight hours on June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy, France, American and other Allied airborne forces parachuted and rode gliders into the French countryside. This mission had been planned, rehearsed, and resourced for months. Yet, in the first few hours, all was chaos and confusion. Units were parachuted into the wrong areas, critical leaders were killed, and some critical equipment was lost in the darkness. Yet, hours after a confusing night, the Allied airborne forces were attacking Nazi German reinforcements, holding critical bridges, and helping the seaborne landing force get ashore. The Allies started with a strong plan, and then when confusion took over, their soldiers at all levels were trained to act with initiative, confidence, and resolve to get the plan back on track. Initiative plus strong plans are a winning solution in even the most chaotic events.

5. Humility, honesty, decency and generosity are key leadership traits. Pick a great U.S. military leader of World War II? I’m going with Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin, one of the youngest U.S. Army generals, and the commander of the famed 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin to his soldiers, because of his four combat jumps and that he always jumped like a regular soldier with pack, rifle, and grenades — just like the rest of his military unit. Gavin was incredibly successful, yet he was humble, honest, decent, and lead by example in all things. Even in conflict, Gavin represents that great leaders are caring, humble, and respectful leaders.

Military leadership consistently demonstrates that true leadership during times of chaotic, unknowing, and challenging change is one that quickly recognizes and reacts to unexpected events, allows open and honest communication, focuses on people, creates strong plans that encourage initiative, and applies a humble leadership style that is decent and generous to others. No matter the type of change, we can and should chose attributes of military leadership that embraces success during chaotic events.

Chad Storlie is the author of two books: “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with more than 20 years of active and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States.

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