One of my findings whilst conducting research for my book, How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World, was that we all have a foundational assumption about the balance of power we have with our world.
In the second episode of my podcast series, the balance of power I met with lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. We discussed how his childhood lessons impacted his leadership methods in the military.
Going into this interview, I had many preconceived notions of military leadership. I had thought of the military as being largely hierarchical and unquestioning of its leadership. I couldn’t imagine junior officers seriously challenging their superior’s conclusions. And when you come to think of it, isn’t the military’s sole purpose conflict, opposition? Aren’t they, in fact, the epitome of the oppositional stance?
Someone who I thought was ideal to answer that question was lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. Ben retired from the US Army in 2017. He is currently the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European policy analysis. Before that, he was commanding general of the US Army in Europe, a top adviser to NATO, and worked, and served, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here I’ll share a few of the topics Ben and I covered. You can listen to the full podcast “Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida” for more details on how to be an effective leader.
What makes a good leader in the military?
Ben: “So my experience is that the expectation was for me to use initiative to take risks, to accept responsibility. The times I got in trouble were usually when I failed to do that, not when I failed to follow a specific order… So that’s always been the expectation. That does, in a way, seem at odds with the stereotypical you know, Prussian “we all follow orders, unquestioning obedience”, that sort of thing but actually, that’s the opposite of the training.
My favourite, Clausewitz quote is “happy the army where ill-timed boldness occurs frequently; it is a luxuriant weed that indicates the richness of the soil.” So even Clausewitz, the ultimate Prussian, advocated, you know, young leaders who were willing to take a risk, and you just had to help that mature”
How the military’s role within a nation can remind us of the importance of purpose and responsibility to be effective leaders
Ben gives a more in-depth explanation in the full podcast, but here Ben shares what he saw as the role of the military within a nation.
Ben: “The Trinity, of course, you know, the state, the people, and the military. It’s had a role for thousands of years to protect, of course, it can be misused as a weapon. And so, as a member of the United States Armed Forces, in our history, our founding, if you will, the army is actually one year older than the country. The army was officially started one year before the Declaration of Independence, and without an army, the Declaration of Independence would have been an empty political statement.”
The action of declaring an oath to the constitution is actually something we can carry into the corporate world. As leaders, we have responsibilities and duties. When we feel out-of-balance with the world, as I discussed in Episode One: The Balance of Power, we can feel at odds with the world, and those around us. We feel in direct conflict and unable to work with, or for, them. Keeping a focus on your true goal, whether to uphold the constitution or support your employees, helps you step out of the every day to focus on the larger picture.”
The importance of scenario planning in military leadership
The military is well-known for its tactical planning and wargaming. I asked Ben to discuss it in more detail and how it helped him become a better leader.
Ben: “We were constantly Wargaming courses of action. As technology improved, for example, we were preparing for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a Brigade Commander and by this time, we had a visual methodology that you could actually see the terrain. Now, this is 2003, obviously, it’s a million times better now.
There’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong. The Wargaming, going through the planning process, was necessary to number one, figure out the timing, the logistics, what would be required? And then to figure out, you know, what do we want to do to have the best chance for success?
At the end of the day, it was gonna be a lieutenant with a group of sergeants and soldiers that were going to be the key on the point so it had to be something, they couldn’t be long you know, obviously, they would rehearse multiple times but at the end of the day, it needs to be something that they understood when they get there and if the situation looks different from what we thought they still knew what the end state was.”
The opportunity to train leadership from an early stage
While I discuss the importance of a partnering start in my book; it is true that not all of us had what can be described as a partnering start. I am a firm believer though that we can learn these skills later in life. Ben explains the military’s focus on leadership development.
Ben: “The training that we did all the leader development was based on that. My goal was always that lieutenant sergeants and captains would say “if Colonel Hodges was here, and he knew what I knew, and he saw what I saw, he would probably tell me to do X, so I’m going to do that.””
How to nurture a future leader by removing yourself from the center of attention
I asked Ben the practical ways in which the military helped to develop leadership skills in younger recruits.
Ben: “In modern warfare, you have to be able to conduct distributed operations. You’ve got young leaders all over the place. They’re out interacting whether it’s with the local populations, their own soldiers, Allied, or in partner formations… And, of course, the enemy. And so they’ve got to be confident. Able to act independently. Which means you’ve got to communicate to them in such a way that they feel confident. So that they can make decisions and take risks in order to carry out their assigned purpose.
The Importance of Investing time
Now, of course, they don’t come in a box like that. You have to invest time in that. And so one of the things that I think the leader has to be conscious of and prevent is the gravitational pull of his or herself.
The norm in a headquarters, when you issue the order, the staff would always set up the briefing room where you, the commander, are sitting right in the middle, and you’d become the focus.
And I remember looking at that, like, wait a minute, I’m the one issuing the order. This is my order to my subordinates. Why is the room, or if when we do it outside on a training model, why is it set up so that I’m the centre of attention?”
So by a simple technique of putting everybody, my subordinate commanders, in the front row, and I would sit off at the end, would number one, it would cause the staff to brief them because they’re the ones that have got to execute it. And then also I can kind of look down the row and watch their faces, and I can see… Mark, he doesn’t get it, or she doesn’t see what it is that’s expected, or okay, they got it. And it was a completely different dynamic and made us, I think, much more effective and, and also these guys, I mean, they were all now on it. I mean, I’ve just been told what I’ve got to do. I’m the centre, I’m the centre of attention and I own it. And those are simple techniques.”
Listen to the full podcast to learn more about Ben and military leadership. We discuss how Ben’s childhood readied him for military life. The importance of freedom at a young age. Plus, a more in-depth look at the purpose of the military within the US.