Step 4: Conduct Reconnaissance

This diagram depicts the elements of military reconnaissance and, by analogy, those of business reconnaissance. The most important thing to understand is that reconnaissance must be mission driven.

The aim of reconnaissance is to generate mission and goal focused intelligence. In other words, you don’t just go off willy nilly trying to figure out what is happening and what the conditions you’re likely to face are.

You must start with you mission, which tells you the effect you want to create. You then develop a general idea of the courses of action you have open, as well as likely responses by your competitors, opponents, clients, suppliers, distributors, and other potential influencing actors. This gives you the proper framework for assessing the environment and finding competitive gaps that can be exploited for success. You can also potentially shape your competitive battle space when you know what it consists of.

The second diagram (below) shows how this relates to our eventual planning and decision-making. We’re not just out there looking around. We’re trying to seize opportunities, notice things others haven’t noticed, and, what’s often forgotten or avoided, protecting ourselves from the downside.


Business Readiness Process (BRP)
1.     Ensure vigilance through situational awareness.
2.     Do preliminary assessment of tasks and time.
3.     Activate organization or team.
4.   Conduct reconnaissance.
5.     Do detailed situational estimate.
6.     Conduct wargame and decide on optimal course(s) of action.
7.     Perform risk management and contingency planning.
8.     Communicate plan and issue direction.
9.     Build organizational robustness.
10.   Ensure operational continuity.
11.   Lead and control execution.
12.   Assess performance.


Did you know that an infantry battalion only needs about 3 to 4 hours of prep and planning time to be battle ready? What are you waiting for to get the same benefits for your outfit?

Feel free to contact me at any time to discuss your objectives and needs.

And remember… STAND TO!!!

My name is Richard Martin and I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Monday Stand To! by Richard Martin
Expert in Readiness and Exploiting Change

I once worked with a client on developing a new strategy and change plan to implement it. It was a wonderful plan. The only problem was that my client didn’t tell anyone on his team what he had in mind and why he was doing it. As a result, there was much more negative emotional reaction to forthcoming changes than necessary. Since then, I always remind my clients that they have an obligation to tell their team the basics of what is going on, to avoid needless worry and rumour mongering.

It is said that “nature abhors a vacuum.” In organizations this often translates to rumours. In the absence of validated, useful information about future intentions and operations, people will often rely on rumours and dubious information. Some people will actually craft stories and information in order to validate their fears or concerns. This tendency must be countered aggressively in order to ensure that the right information is getting to the right people about the right things at the right time.
Military leaders are taught to activate their troops with correct information on a regular basis by issuing Warning Orders. These aren’t a warning to stop rumour mongering, but rather a warning that there is a new mission on the horizon requiring preparation and planning.
We’re now at Step 3 of the Business Readiness Process (BRP) I’ve created based on military readiness procedures:
Step 3: Activate Organization or Team
You’ve maintained situational awareness and validated or confirmed your mission and goals (BRP Step 1).
You’ve done your preliminary assessment of readiness/preparation tasks and the time required to do so and confirmed that you can meet your priorities within the time available (BRP Step 2).
Now you must activate your team so it can prepare mentally, physically and materially for the upcoming mission or operation. At the very least this must include:
  • Quick update of the changing situation, including relevant new trends, threats, and opportunities
  • Description/confirmation of new/existing mission
  • Expected time and/or date of new mission start (can also be expressed as “no change before” a certain date and/or time)
  • Date and/or time that new plan will be ready and presented
  • Specific preparations that can be undertaken in anticipation of this new mission
  • What will likely remain unchanged and what will likely change
Business Readiness Process (BRP)
1.     Ensure vigilance through situational awareness.
2.     Do preliminary assessment of tasks and time.
3.   Activate organization or team.
4.     Conduct reconnaissance.
5.     Do detailed situational estimate.
6.     Conduct wargame and decide on optimal course(s) of action.
7.     Perform risk management and contingency planning.
8.     Communicate plan and issue direction.
9.     Build organizational robustness.
10.   Ensure operational continuity.
11.   Lead and control execution.
12.   Assess performance.
Did you know that an infantry battalion only needs about 3 to 4 hours of prep and planning time to be battle ready? What are you waiting for to get the same benefits for your outfit?
Feel free to contact me at any time to discuss your objectives and needs.
And remember… STAND TO!!!

My name is Richard Martin and I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is Chapter 2 of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter and Chapter 1 as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

Leadership is the same in the military, business… and hockey

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

What do I mean by leadership anyway?

Why the military approach to leadership is so powerful?

Military leadership works for soldiers, but surely not for civilians, right?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Are great leaders born, or made?

I wish now to explore the second principle of military leadership: to appreciate your strengths and limitations and pursue self-improvement. As with any domain, excellence in leadership requires concentrated effort, diligent practice, and varied experience. This principle is the oxygen that fans the flames of your passion for growth and excellence. Even more, it demonstrates the fundamental importance of self-development for leadership.

In his seminal work, The Practice of Management, no less an authority than Peter Drucker claimed, “leadership cannot be created or promoted. It cannot be taught or learned.”  Even more incredibly, he believed that classical Greek philosophy and literature as well as the Old Testament had said everything worthwhile on the topic! If the most famous management guru and business consultant of all time thought that leadership couldn’t be taught, then who am I to question it? Well, I do question it, because he was completely wrong about this.

Drucker’s beliefs about the innateness of leadership are representative of a fixed mindset. A leader with a fixed mindset will hesitate to get into risky situations where he may make mistakes and look foolish. He will be closed to criticism and feedback about his performance. He will stay within the bounds of what he perceives as his innate talents and preferences.

Needless to say, the fixed mindset is not conducive to discovering one’s strengths and limitations and reduces the opportunities for self-improvement and the pursuit of excellence. Someone with a fixed mindset will be intolerant of mistakes and sub-optimal performance in himself and others. For him, errors indicate limited talent and potential. As a result, failure or difficulty is viewed as permanent and unchangeable.

Luckily, many people exemplify the growth mindset. A leader with a growth mindset will see opportunities for learning and development all around her. She will accept prudent risk to acquire and hone her knowledge and skills in various aspects of leadership. She will be open to experience and feedback—both positive and negative—and will forgive her own mistakes and limitations and those of others. Perhaps most important, a growth oriented leader will view errors and mistakes as discrepancies and deviations from objective standards. She will see these as highly valuable feedback and information for getting back on track in order to achieve her goals and improve her leadership.

Know thyself: Overcoming obstacles to self-development

The fixed mindset is the main obstacle to self-development and usually comes from the wrong attitude to experiential learning. This attitude can in turn be attributed to prior disposition, temperament, inexperience or upbringing. The fixed mindset can also arise when someone lacks knowledge and skills. You’re off to a bad start in development if you don’t even know or believe that learning and growth are possible. If you’re thrown into the breach with inadequate training, inappropriate role models, and missing guidance and supervision, then it only makes the situation worse.

Ironically, quick and early success can foster the fixed mindset. We’ve all known children who are bigger and stronger than their peers, or who, for whatever reason, mature quicker than others of the same age. This gives them a marked physical or cognitive advantage. Children who grow up with this early lead often find themselves influencing other children simply because of their physical and mental capabilities relative to the other kids, not because of inherent competence, accomplishment, or “talent.”

This combination of childhood ease and success can also extend into early adulthood. Some people have simply been born into a favorable situation and fallen into leadership without earning their stripes. As the old saying goes, they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Million Dollar Consultant Alan Weiss uses a baseball metaphor: “Some people are born on third base but think they hit a triple.”

We grow by challenging ourselves and overcoming resistance and obstacles. If everything comes too smoothly or quickly we can easily slip into a belief that we’re predestined for greatness or just don’t need to school ourselves through intense study, practice, and criticism. Call it the “aristocratic syndrome,” a belief that one is not only destined to rule, but deserves to rule, that excellence and respect are one’s birthright, and do not have to be earned.

The entitlement mentality can also combine with a sense of self-satisfaction. “I’m already an excellent leader and don’t need to improve.” This attitude can arise when success and promotion come easily, or when someone has achieved their objectives with little difficulty, usually through the luck of the draw or early advantages. No one is immune from this syndrome.

Finally, the fixed mindset can also manifest as performance anxiety. Individuals with a fixed mindset are often afraid of making mistakes, thinking that they will look foolish or that others will think they aren’t smart enough. Let me be clear. It’s quite natural to feel a bit nervous whenever we take on new responsibilities. We’ve all been there. The difference is in how we deal with that anxiety. Butterflies are a sign that we care about our performance or the task to come. They’re a signal to take the task seriously and to do our best, not a brake to action.

The way to overcome the fixed mindset and its triumvirate of entitlement, smugness, and fear is to adopt a growth mindset. The growth mindset as applied to leadership has four main components. I call these the 4 Pillars of Leadership Excellence. They are pillars because they hold up the entire structure of leadership development and the growth mindset. They lead to excellence in leadership because they describe the goal of development (objective standards), the power of example (role models), along with an objective understanding of observable performance and behavior (self-knowledge) and the subjective awareness of performance and behavior in action (self-awareness).

Each of these pillars can stand alone, but also interacts directly and synergistically with the other three. For instance, access to role models strengthens learning on the basis of objective standards. Self-knowledge gives the leader a sense of how he is perceived by others against those standards. The developing leader can also assess his performance and behavior against those of his role models, while also adjusting them in real-time through self-awareness. Let’s look at these pillars in more detail.

Objective standards

Objective standards are… objective, and public. Standards are formal and informal expectations about behavior, thought, interaction, and performance. Standards can be universal and national, professional and social, gender-based and age-based, or fall under any number of other categorization schemes. The management competencies we examined in chapter 1 are just such objective standards.

As for inspiration and change management these vary from country to country, culture to culture, company to company, or even from team to team within an organization. For instance, my research and experience have led me to conclude that leadership expectations vary considerably across cultures. Leaders in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies (known as WEIRDs) are expected to be participative, democratic, inspiring and open to debate and questioning by followers. Conversely, leaders in more traditional societies are expected to be more autocratic, decisive, and directive. Followers in these cultures expect their leaders to know the answers to questions, to have solutions for problems, and to give them detailed direction and guidance.

Role models

Role models are people who are conceived worthy of emulation. They are public, because they can be readily observed and studied by others, but also subjective, because not everyone has the same preferences and needs. Someone can be a role model without realizing it. By extension, we all imitate others whether are aware of it or not. Either way, role models exist and they provide the concrete instantiation of the objective standards to which everyone strives in their development. Leaders are, of necessity and by nature, role models, whether they want to be or not. Followers and subordinate leaders tend to adopt the behaviors and attitudes of their leaders and superiors. The latter provide an example for how to behave, perform, think, and interact as leaders within society or their organization. Role models can be positive or negative, but never neutral.


Self-knowledge is objective and personal in nature. It represents the individual’s self-understanding and self-perception as seen from the perspective of other people. Consequently, self-knowledge covers the domain of objective, observable performance and behavior. Self-knowledge is gauged against objective standards. Self-knowledge tells a leader how she is viewed and evaluated by others, whether they are followers, peers, the public, clients, or superiors. It is the external, third person perspective on her performance and behavior. Self-knowledge allows a leader to self-assess competencies and performance against the objective standards of society, culture, organization, and profession.


Self-awareness is at the intersection of the subjective and the personal. It is the most powerful of the four pillars. No amount of self-knowledge, theoretical grasp of competencies and standards, and emulation of role models can lead to learning and growth unless they are internalized. Self-awareness is immediate and continuous consciousness of our thoughts, actions, attitudes, words, emotions, body language, etc., while we’re in action. While self-knowledge is our understanding of how others see us and evaluate us before and after we go into action, self-awareness is the process of self-observation and self-evaluation we go through in real time. It is moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, actions, and emotions from the inside. It’s like watching our selves in action on our own internal video monitor, giving us a near-instantaneous ability to use the resulting “mindview” and “mindtrack” as immediate feedback for further thinking and action. With self-awareness we become self-assessors and self-critics, not in a negative, self-defeating way, but in a positive, self-empowering way. Self-awareness is what allows us to turn our theoretical knowledge and understanding into practical and pragmatic results.

The following diagram summarizes the relationships between each of these four pillars of leadership excellence. The key is that self-awareness only occurs in the present moment, shown as “now” on the figure. “You Now” is you as you are immediately, aware of your thoughts, actions, etc., in the present moment, witnessing your self in action and adjusting how you think, interact, etc. on a moment-to-moment basis. You acquire self-knowledge by observing and evaluating “Past You” and “Future You” with the examples of “Past Role Model(s)” and “Future Role Model(s). Objective standards are always in the background, providing a point of comparison for your observations and assessments of your role model(s), your self-knowledge, and your moment-to-moment self-awareness. This is what enables learning and development as a leader.


Enhancing self-awareness

There are plenty of ways to improve self-knowledge and to incorporate new information and skills into our leadership repertoire. Many of these techniques are well known and I’ve also developed others that I’ve included throughout the book. So we’ve got self-knowledge well covered. With that said, you may be wondering how you can enhance your ability to be self-aware and “in the moment” as you lead.

Self-awareness—what it is, how to achieve it, how to use it—has been the subject of theorizing, debate, and wisdom literature for thousands of years. You may be surprised to learn that self-awareness forms the bedrock of meditation practices east and west. It is also fundamental to practical philosophy. This is the tradition that helps you live a better life and achieve your personal goals, as distinct from academic philosophy, which has evolved to become somewhat detached from real-life concerns.

Anyone who has read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s Euthyphro, or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius will readily understand that this philosophical tradition is much more about living a good and productive life, than just debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Though I’ve practiced meditation and other self-awareness exercises from so-called spiritual traditions, I don’t think they are sufficiently relevant in the context of leadership to warrant further consideration.

On the other hand, Western practical philosophy has been informed by cognitive and ethical questions from the beginning. Plato, Aristotle and the other great Greek philosophers wrote as much about leadership and psychology as they did about any other topic. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who applied the principles of Stoic philosophy and wrote his intimate thoughts in a diary, which has come down to us as his Meditations. You can’t get much more practical than that. I therefore propose the following three exercises for enhancing self-awareness. Each one corresponds to a different timeframe: future, present, and past.

  1. Rehearsal (future): Rehearsing the future and practicing what you have to do give you a foretaste of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior before it occurs. These techniques give you greater presence of mind once you go into action. They help you develop a baseline against which to compare your eventual performance. You can rehearse mentally or through simulated interactions with others. High-level athletes do such “visioning” to get into the right mind before performing. In the military, rehearsals are built into planning and battle preparation procedures at all levels. There are various approaches, such as war games, “chalk talks,” “walk throughs,” tabletop exercises, and many others. Imagine at least three different scenarios and their potential consequences. Picture the events or interactions, their surroundings, actors, possible action-reaction-counteraction sequences, decisions, obstacles, and outcomes. Develop “what if” contingency plans to deal with these. Practice the words you will use and your behavior; try to predict the emotions that will arise when you are in the situation. Consider how you will react in each step of the scenario. If you wish, you can do this alone, with one other person, or with your entire team.
  2. Breathe in, breathe out (present): This technique is useful for self-awareness when you’re in an actual leadership situation. It might seem disarmingly simple, but taking the time to breathe when you’re interacting with others, considering decisions, giving direction, etc., slows you down and creates mental space to gain more awareness of your surroundings as well as your internal dialogue and emotions. Slowing down gives you time to think, to consider various options, to appreciate what’s actually happening moment-to-moment. It might sound corny, but breathing reconnects you to your body, especially emotional states. I can remember a situation while on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. An officer with one of the belligerent forces said something to me and I can distinctly recall having a sinking feeling in my stomach. In hindsight, it was an instinctive fear reaction. As I breathed in and breathed out, the thought occurred to me that my nervous system was interpreting the words as a threat. I quickly recovered and was able to utter something humorous. This disarmed my interlocutor immediately and opened a window of opportunity to realize that I had reacted emotionally; it was, quite literally, pure gut reaction. Had I acted without rational thought I could have done something stupid which would have definitely exacerbated the situation.
  3. After-action review (past): Once an incident or event has occurred, you can go back over it in your mind to analyze it and draw out lessons for the future. The insight you generated during rehearsals and the awareness you gained by breathing in and out during the event are the information you need to generate self-knowledge. How did your actions and words compare to the baseline you established by rehearsing? Did you achieve your aim, or were you drawn off course during the interactions? Could you have done better? What worked; what didn’t work? I could go on and on, but the important point it to use the experience to enhance your future preparation, rehearsals, and in-the-moment thoughts, actions, and emotions. This exercise is even useful if you were surprised by the event or caught off guard, with little or no time to prepare beforehand. Whatever the situation, the lessons gleaned from your interactions will greatly improve your preparation and self-awareness in the future.

The learning process

This is not a treatise on learning, but it helps to have a model of how learning happens. One of the most powerful concepts in this respect is the “learning curve.” Learning occurs over time as we invest resources and effort in acquiring and honing new knowledge and skills. The learning curve follows the well-known “s-curve” form, which is how change tends to propagate through a complex system.

The important point to note is that performance improves slowly at first, despite a major investment of time and effort. If the investment is sustained, however, performance improves faster and faster until it reaches a maximum rate of learning. At some point, improvement slows until it plateaus. This progression through the basic learning curve is good for any particular set or sub-set of competencies, whether it be knowledge, skills, or attitudes. I’ve illustrated the phases of learning on the following diagram.


I’ve defined four main phases in this process. Learning starts when the subject becomes aware of a need for improvement or the potential to move to a new level. This is probably the most critical step in learning, and corresponds to the initial appreciation of strengths and limitations that forms the first part of the leadership principle under examination in this chapter.

Learning requires an open, growth-oriented mindset; the four pillars of leadership excellence support the growth mindset, as described in the previous section. Objective standards delineate the competencies that are required for progress. Role models demonstrate these standards in action for purposes of emulation. Self-knowledge is required to develop a keen sense of how others perceive one’s performance and behavior against these standards and in comparison with role models. Finally, self-awareness is needed to implement new knowledge and apply new skills with the right attitude.

The second part of the second leadership principle is critical for undertaking learning and development, as it advocates the pursuit of self-improvement. I can’t overemphasize how critical self-motivation is to learning. No amount of hectoring or goading can move someone to willingly undertake learning. If you want to improve as a leader (or in anything else for that matter), you must be motivated to embark on a cyclical learning process.

The rapid progress phase is encouraging because progress comes relatively easily. However, it can be some time before we start to move up the learning curve. This is why intrinsic motivation and persistence is key. After a time we reach the point of diminishing returns and, eventually, a plateau. The danger at this stage is that our competencies and associated performance start to decline. Motivation is required to maintain skills and knowledge in an attitude of constant and never-ending repetition and improvement. This is particularly important in the absence of further qualitative jumps in performance or competence. I’ll come back to this in the next section when I discuss prudent risk-taking.

Learning itself is a cyclical process based on feedback. We need to act in order to generate results that we can then observe and assess against indicators. These are the objective standards and role models. Self-knowledge and self-awareness underlie these steps of observation and assessment and, with the help of supervisors, mentors, and coaches, provide the inputs for adjusting our actions, plans, aims, and needs.

Life on the edge and the risks of learning

It’s become something of a truism that there is no reward without a commensurate level of risk. Acquiring leadership competencies and experience and developing as a leader are certainly no different. It’s critical to point out though that I’m talking about a commensurate level of risk, not foolhardiness. Prudent, calculated risk-taking is the motor of development. As shown on the learning curve, there always comes a point when the learner plateaus. If progress is to continue on the road to development, then he or she must jump to a higher learning curve. This is shown on the following figure.


As we can see, there are two ways to make the transition to a higher learning curve, with different types of risk. In the first type, the learner makes a performance leap to the next curve. In the second type, there is a performance drop. It’s natural to prefer the first kind, but it’s the second kind that usually prevails. In a performance leap, we’re trying to achieve a higher performance level from the previous plateau without falling below it onto the next curve. Overall, the new curve is higher, but it starts initially lower. This requires a scaffolding of some kind. That could involve training, coaching, and close accompaniment and guidance through the transition period.

However, if we try to make the leap without that scaffolding—or a safety net—then performance can actually fall until we find our legs (or wings). I will talk about how to erect this scaffolding and the underlying safety net in more detail in chapter 7, but for now we can see that the key to making this transition is to achieve a balance between the responsibilities, competencies, and authority of the leaders we are developing. Leaders learn and progress best when they have just the right level of challenge. Call that the Goldilocks approach to development: not too cold and not too hot. There is no point in throwing someone into the deep end of the pool if they can’t swim yet.

Playing offense: Exploiting your personal center of gravity

Playing offense is about seizing and maintaining the initiative in order to reach your objectives. When you play offense, you choose the time and place to act so you can maximize your chances of success. Just like an army on the offensive, you need a clear objective and mission. You also require a deep appreciation of your strengths so you can leverage them to the hilt, complemented by a realistic appraisal of your limitations so you can overcome or mitigate them.

Your most fundamental strength is your personal center of gravity. Physically, the center of gravity is the central balance point in the body. Many of the martial arts are based on using one’s center of gravity for leverage. In military strategy, this is also called the point of main effort. The idea is to put maximum weight behind the main thrust, so that it can literally punch a hole through enemy lines, thereby creating room to maneuver. It’s like trying to move a heavy piece of furniture. You are much more efficient and effective if you “put your back into it.” Putting your weight behind the structure makes moving it much easier, and safer. You’re combining your mass with the force of gravity and the momentum of the object. That beats trying to pull the piano or chest or whatever you’re trying to move from the front or from the sides using your arms.

From the perspective of leadership, strengths can be skills, attitudes, or elements of knowledge. Personality or character traits can also be strengths, as well as natural proclivities or talents, such as intelligence, visual and spatial abilities, and sociability.

Is There An Ideal Leadership Personality?

From my experience and research, there is no ideal personality type or temperament that is uniquely suited to the exercise of leadership. I’ve known leaders who were extraverts, highly talkative and social, but I’ve also known leaders who were introverts and kept mostly to themselves if given a choice. Neither orientation is inherently better. The critical factor is to know what your preference or tendency is and to use it to good effect.

For instance, a manager who is quiet and reserved will often be successful at drawing out the quieter members of his team so they can contribute as much as the more talkative types. This may be because he can empathize with introverts. But it can also stem from simply not talking as much. This can open a space for others to contribute their opinions and ideas. If you’re talking a lot or thinking about what you will say next, this isn’t necessarily conducive to a listening attitude. I have found more introverted leaders can also be much more thoughtful and rational in considering various options before making a decision. This is because they tend to talk only when there is a good reason to do so. I’m an extrovert myself, and I’ve had to train myself to wait and calm down before giving my opinion or making a decision, largely with salutary effects.

Conversely, extroverted leaders are quick off the mark and often make hasty decisions. I believe this comes from the feeling that they have to say or do something, anything, rather than sit back and think before moving. That can be a very strong trait in a crisis or emergency, when it’s time to “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” On the other hand, it can also be a hindrance when there is time available to make a rational analysis and then come to a decision after comparing courses of action.

How can you pinpoint those particular competencies, traits and talents that are strengths and that you can exploit to build your leadership?

  1. Passion: One hint is that you’re passionate about it. You know you’re passionate about something when you feel energized by it. You also know it’s a passion when you don’t really view it as work, and you relish the thought of getting down to business. For instance, I have always been passionate about analyzing process issues to find potential solutions. I don’t view this as work, but really more as a game, a way to challenge myself and to push my mind.
  2. Recognition: Another indication of a strength is that you are constantly recognized for that particular characteristic by others, and they trust your abilities in that area. Examples include the ability to communicate well, good speaking and writing abilities, analytic or synthetic skills, and even traits such as empathy, enthusiasm, humor, positivity, and resolve.
  3. Ease: The third sign of a strength is speed and ease of execution. When you’re good at something, you can do it quickly and relatively easily. You get on with the business without hesitating and are confident about producing favorable results.

There is no magic recipe or unique list of strengths. This is one reason why I’m not enamored of trendy topics in leadership. Whether it’s emotional intelligence, left brain/right brain thinking, generational awareness, or “servant leadership,” you must know what makes you tick and then how to use this knowledge to exploit your strengths and mitigate the effects your limitations. Each situation is different, as is each leader and follower (or group of followers). The ability to play the hand you’re dealt is basic to the growth mindset. You must accept that you have strong points and weak points and that you have to work with that from the start. Nothing is cast in stone and you can adapt your leadership to the needs of the situation, your followers, and your particular competencies, temperament, and personality.

Exercise—find your strengths

This exercise is to help you identify your most important strengths. I’m asking you to identify your strongest knowledge elements, skills, and attitudes/traits in the areas of management, inspiration, and change. We’ll be looking in more detail at inspirational and change competencies in subsequent chapters, where I’ll incorporate further exercises. In the meantime, just do the best you can so you can start to build your understanding of your leadership assets.

Strengths Matrix
Knowledge Skills Attitudes
Management Competencies
Inspiration Competencies
Change Competencies

Once you’ve identified your main strengths—those things you’re passionate about, you’re recognized for, and you find easy and quick to achieve—you can put them in order of power as personal tools. You can think of the elements contributing to each of the strengths you’ve included on a 5- or 10-point scale. Say you identify public speaking as one of your strengths. You can evaluate this strength in terms of passion/interest, ease/speed, and recognition/trust. Perhaps you are very passionate about public speaking, so you give yourself 5 out of 5 on that item. However, you acknowledge that you still need to acquire skill and experience in this area, so you give yourself 3/5 for ease/speed and, because you aren’t well recognized in this area yet, you see that others don’t fully trust your speaking abilities. You therefore assess your level of trust/recognition as 2/5. Meanwhile, you might discover that your much stronger in another trait or competency. In that case, you could have 5/5 in each of the three elements, a strong indication that this could be your center of gravity, or a constituent of it.

The idea is to find your center of gravity. If you recall, that is your fundamental strength, the one that gives you the most power to influence others and achieve outstanding results, as well as your central point of balance. Once you’ve identified your center of gravity, you must then exploit it as much as possible, in concert with your other strengths, so you can achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness as a leader.

Playing defense: Managing your limitations

Offense is never enough. You must also play defense so as to mitigate or eliminate your limitations and weaknesses. This is so they don’t overwhelm your strengths and make you ineffective. In simple terms, a limitation is anything that can hinder you from achieving your objectives quickly and effectively. Limitations can stem from lack of competence or inexperience. This can stem from inadequate training and developmental guidance, or simply because you haven’t had the time or opportunity yet to acquire them. Alternatively, limitations can be deeper, coming from poor aptitudes or inclinations in certain areas as well as inappropriate personality or character traits.

How do you know something is a limitation? Well, if strengths are at the intersection of passion, ease, and recognition, then it stands to reason that limitations arise from some combination of lack of passion or disinterest, difficulty and arduousness, and poor recognition or distrust by others.

Exercise—find your limitations

I’ve included the following table to assist you in identifying your limitations. It’s basically the same as for strengths, but with the object of highlighting areas where you lack expertise, skills, or the right attitudes and traits. I invite you to complete this exercise in the same way as the strengths exercise. Once you’ve completed each of the cells in the table, you should order the limitations in ascending rank, from ones that generate the greatest weakness and vulnerability, to those that are the least limiting. The obvious way to do this is to implement the same rating scale on each of the elements as for the strengths identification exercise. In the rating of your limitations, though, you would give yourself low points on passion/interest, ease/speed, and recognition/trust the more of a weakness or vulnerability is generated by that limitation.

Limitations Matrix
Knowledge Skills Attitudes
Management Competencies
Inspiration Competencies
Change Competencies

Combining strengths and limitations

When we combine the appreciation of strengths and limitations, we can see that they actually exist on a continuum, or spectrum. On one end of the scale we have our most powerful strengths, while on the other we have our most limiting weaknesses. Each of these characteristics can be viewed as strengths and limitations that vary according to the situation and the group one is leading. A trait that is a clear strength in one field of endeavor may actually be a major limitation in another. Take decisiveness as an example, which is highly prized in the military and other occupations that deal with danger and high levels of risk, but tends to appear in a negative light in a university setting, where collegiality and academic independence are the norm.

This is where the pillars of the growth mindset become particularly relevant. You need to know what the objective standards of behavior and performance are in any particular culture or setting. You must also emulate highly regarded role models, and acquire the self-knowledge and self-awareness to modulate your behavior, performance, and interactions as needed to adapt to the needs of the situation and the organization your part of.

Now, you might be thinking that the whole point of the approach I’m describing is to acquire the competencies needed to be an outstanding leader. This is indeed correct, but there will always be areas where we aren’t as strong as we could or should be. For one thing, there are never sufficient time and resources to develop all the competencies that could be required. Secondly, situations are constantly evolving. We gain new followers or collaborators, new competitors arise, stakeholder and client expectations change, and so on.

The trick is therefore to identify specific competencies for development and then manage all other limitations. I talk about managing limitations, because it’s probably impossible to eliminate them completely. All we can realistically do is contain them and mitigate their effects so they don’t hinder us excessively. I call this playing defense, because we don’t always have the initiative or the luxury to concentrate on all areas at once. This is why I emphasize the need to rely on your strengths, especially your center of gravity, to be successful and to grow as a leader.

Defensive principles to manage limitations

In my previous book, Brilliant Manoeuvres, I give a detailed description of the main principles of defense as used in military strategy and tactics. I also show how they can be applied in the context of competitive business strategy. However, these principles are also valid for leadership and other influence applications. As such, they provide an excellent framework for finding effective and efficient means of managing one’s leadership limitations. These defensive rules are synergistic; they are meant to build on and reinforce each other. The six defense principles are:

  • Position – building your leadership and influence on the basis of your center of gravity and your other strong points
  • Preparation – offset slowness and poor skills by starting early and preparing meticulously
  • Depth – assume that you may be wrong in your initial assessment of a situation and that you require contingency plans and other backup measures “just in case”
  • All around defense – while the main threat or danger may be identifiable, these may also come from out of nowhere
  • Mutual support – find allies or supporters to offset your limitations with their strengths; combine your efforts to maximum effect
  • Active defense – don’t wait for problems to occur or for weaknesses to undermine your efforts; take the initiative as much as possible through contingency plans, alliances, collaboration and preparation.

The Case of the Nervous Speaker

Let’s make it a little more concrete and imagine that you’ve identified public speaking as one of your limitations. You plan on taking a course on public speaking so you can improve in this area, but your fundamental weakness is your nervousness in front of groups. In the meantime though you still have to mitigate this limitation. You want to speak to your team about your new vision and plans to achieve it, and also to gain their input and engagement, but you can’t wait for the speaking course to do it. You decide to implement a number of the defensive principles to manage this potentially crippling limitation. Meticulous preparation and planning are your offensive center of gravity, so you begin by writing out your speech and reading it several times until you’re comfortable with your main points and message. You practice it in front of a camera and then watch the video so you know where you need to eliminate hesitation and distracting habits of speech.

You develop answers to potential questions and objections that may arise in the Q&A after your address to your team and rehearse these with your right hand man. You brief two experts on your team so you may call on them to answer questions about their respective areas of expertise so that you can provide the right answers, at least through them. Finally, you decide to make light of your need to practice the speech right at the start, in order to lighten the mood and to release the tension, especially yours. This will exploit your self-deprecating sense of humor (one of your strengths) and will get everyone in a good mood. By combining these measures, you’ll have applied the principles of position, preparation, depth, mutual support, and active defense. You don’t need all around defense, but your preparation provides an overall ability to meet any challenge that may result.

12 techniques to energize your self-improvement

  1. Endeavor to adopt and maintain the growth mindset.
  2. View your successes and failures as feedback for learning.
  3. Study the objective standards of your field, profession or organization.
  4. Observe and emulate positive role models.
  5. Practice the discipline of self-knowledge in order to assess your leadership against objective standards.
  6. Practice the discipline of self-awareness so you can witness your behavior, thinking, and performance on a moment-to-moment basis and adjust these accordingly.
  7. Create a vision of how you wish to lead in the future, and then determine what competencies and traits you will need to achieve that vision.
  8. Assess your past performance as a leader so you can draw lessons learned for now and the future.
  9. Identify where you are on the learning curve for the particular competencies you need in leadership. Are you at the initial awareness stage, making rapid progress, reaching diminishing returns, plateauing, or in decline? What is needed to move to the next stage of leadership competence?
  10. What is the next learning curve for you? What are the most likely risks and opportunities you face when making the leap to the next curve?
  11. What are your top leadership strengths and your center of gravity? Develop a strategy to exploit your center of gravity.
  12. What are your top leadership limitations and vulnerabilities? What is your strategy to manage these limitations, depending on the situation and the people you are leading?


  • There is no truth to the belief that great leaders are born that way and that you can’t really develop or acquire the competencies for leadership. This belief stems from a self-limiting, fixed mindset.
  • The growth mindset is essential for learning, growth, and development in any field of endeavor, and certainly this is the case for leadership.
  • The growth mindset as applied to leadership has 4 Pillars of Leadership Excellence. They describe the goal of development (objective standards), the power of example (role models), and the understanding of objective performance and behavior (self-knowledge) with the subjective awareness of performance and behavior in action (self-awareness).
  • One of the most powerful concepts for leadership development is the “learning curve.” Learning occurs over time as we invest resources and effort in acquiring and honing new knowledge and skills.
  • Prudent, calculated risks are the fuel of development. If progress is to continue on the road to development, then the learner must jump to a higher learning curve.
  • Just like an army on the offensive, you need a clear objective and mission. You also require a deep appreciation of your strengths so you can leverage them to the hilt, complemented by a realistic appraisal of your limitations so you can overcome or mitigate them.
  • Strengths come at the intersection of things you do quickly and easily, you’re trusted and recognized for, and you’re passionate about.
  • It’s not enough however to play offense. You must also be able to manage your limitations and weaknesses so they don’t overwhelm your strengths and make you ineffective.
  • I talk about managing limitations, because it’s probably impossible to eliminate them completely.
  • All we can realistically do is contain them and mitigate their effects so they don’t hinder us excessively. I call this playing defense, because we don’t always have the initiative or the luxury to concentrate on all areas at once.

My name is Richard Martin and, as indicated by the title of this blog, I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Monday Stand To! by Richard Martin
Expert in Readiness and Exploiting Change
We’ve all heard that refrain before. And it makes absolutely NO SENSE! If you find you have no time to plan, then you have to MAKE IT.
I’ve been discussing the steps of the Business Readiness Process I’ve devised, based on military readiness for operations and battle.
We’re at Step 2 of the BRP…

Preliminary Assessment of Time and Tasks

You must identify and assess the tasks and time required to complete them before you are ready to launch execution of your mission.
  • Start at the end: When must you kick off the execution of your mission, strategy, operation?
  • What tasks must be accomplished before you can successfully launch? List EVERYTHING you can think of. You can ask for advice from your team and colleagues. You can also create and refer to a standardized list.
  • How long does each preparation task take?
  • What tasks can be delegated and executed concurrently while you do your reconnaissance, estimate, and planning?
  • What is the sequence of events, including parallel tasks and activities?
At the very least, you should include items 3 to 10 of the BRP.
Business Readiness Process (BRP)
1.     Ensure vigilance through situational awareness.
2. Do preliminary assessment of tasks and time.
3.     Activate organization or team.
4.     Conduct reconnaissance.
5.     Do detailed situational estimate.
6.     Conduct wargame and decide on optimal course(s) of action.
7.     Perform risk management and contingency planning.
8.     Communicate plan and issue direction.
9.     Build organizational robustness.
10.   Ensure operational continuity.
11.   Lead and control execution.
12.   Assess performance.
Did you know that an infantry battalion only needs about 3 to 4 hours of prep and planning time to be battle ready? What are you waiting for to get the same benefits for your outfit?
Feel free to contact me at any time to discuss your objectives and needs.
And remember… STAND TO!!!

My name is Richard Martin and I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is from the Introduction of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

Leadership is the same in the military, business… and hockey

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

What do I mean by leadership anyway?

Why the military approach to leadership is so powerful?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Whenever I present the principles of military leadership and the related philosophy of leadership development, I often get skeptical responses. Some people tend to dismiss the leadership principles and philosophy enunciated above as too simplistic. One frequent objection is that these principles and this philosophy are okay for low-level supervisors or maybe middle managers, but that organizational and strategic leadership are too complex and critical to be reduced to such simple concepts. Others point out that there are different types of leadership for different situations. How can the military, which relies heavily on authority and discipline, have anything to teach “civvies” about leadership? The implication is that entrepreneurs, executives, and others have nothing to learn from military-style leadership. A third type of response is that the principles and philosophy might work well in Western nations, where there is a culture of openness and inclusion, but that they couldn’t possibly work in other cultures, such as the Middle East, Africa, or Asia.

I can address all of these objections with a simple question. Let’s take the principle to lead by example. Does this principle apply to all of the supposed exceptions cited in the previous paragraph? If we can honestly answer in the affirmative, then we have to admit that leading by example is not just a military leadership principle. We would have to conclude that leading by example is actually a universal leadership principle. Leading by example is (or should be) relevant and applicable to presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and COOs, doctors and nurses, or anyone else for that matter. Not just soldiers and their commanders.

By extension, whether we’re talking about business, government, politics, non-profits, Boy Scouts, health care, education, or whatever, can we honestly dismiss this principle as non-applicable and not relevant? And can we say that Asians, Arabs, and Africans also don’t appreciate exemplary leadership? More generally, can we say that all of the principles and philosophy described above are not relevant and applicable to all levels, fields, and cultures?

Which brings me to the final and most common skeptical objection, that this all quite self-evident and straightforward. After all, doesn’t everyone know that a leader must be competent, or lead by example, or should keep her followers and other stakeholders informed of the situation and in the loop? Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But the reality is that, no, a lot of people, leaders and followers included, don’t seem to know these most fundamental of principles. Or if they do know them, they can’t seem to apply them consistently and judiciously.

As I stated earlier in this introduction, I’ve broken every single one of these principles at least once, and in some cases multiple times. I usually didn’t do so out of malice and certainly not out of ignorance, although in some cases I conveniently “forgot” them. Any other person with leadership experience, regardless of the field of endeavor, will admit as much also if they’re honest.

The key question isn’t why the military believes in and teaches such simple and basic leadership principles, or why military leadership development is so focused on imparting teachable skills. It is instead why, despite these approaches being supposedly simple and self-evident, more leaders don’t use them. To put it in a different light, why do so many leaders falter in applying the basics?

So there you have it, the philosophy underlying the military principles of leadership and leadership development. And this is also why I have written this book and why you should read it and take in its lessons for your own leadership and that in your team, business, association, or organization.

© 2016 Richard Martin. Reproduction, forwarding and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is Chapter 1 of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

Leadership is the same in the military, business… and hockey

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

What do I mean by leadership anyway?

Why the military approach to leadership is so powerful?

People want to follow competent leaders

The first principle of leadership is to achieve professional competence. Competence, integrity, and accountability generate credibility with superiors, employees, peers, and the public. Credibility in turn generates respect, which then leads directly to leadership effectiveness.

Steve Jobs is the perfect example of what I mean by “competence is the heart of leadership.” By all accounts, Jobs was a very hard person to get along with. He could be moody, mercurial, and self-centered. One thing everyone agrees on though is that he was a masterful communicator and a technological visionary. He had an ability to draw the best out of the people around him, especially if they could put up with his demanding personality. Steve Jobs was probably the most admired and successful businessman of the Internet Age, at least up to his death in 2012. People didn’t work with or for him because they liked him; they did so because they knew he could lead them to perform beyond expectations and propel them to a whole new level of creativity and productivity.

Competence is the mix of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that is required to be an effective and efficient leader. Knowledge consists of theoretical concepts and technical data. It includes the information required to analyze situations, assess people, make decisions and plans, and understand when, how, and why to act in a timely, efficient, appropriate, and effective manner to achieve individual and organizational goals.

Skills are applied knowledge, the capacity to act according to learning and experience. Whereas knowledge is essentially theoretical in nature, skills can only be acquired through diligent and consistent practice until they become second nature. You can study the psychological aspects of leadership in scientific literature and books, but it’s only when you can translate that to action on the ground with real people that you can truly say you’re a skilled leader.

The technique of supplying corrective feedback illustrates well the relationship between theoretical understanding and practical application. Psychology informs us that people are more open to criticism when it’s constructive and couched in positive, growth-oriented terms. That’s the knowledge part. One of the corresponding techniques on the practical side of the equation is to provide feedback through the “sandwich” technique. You start by giving an overall positive assessment of the subject’s progress and performance. Then you point out the two or three areas where he or she needs to improve. You then assure them of your availability to provide timely advice and the training or coaching to improve. Finally, you reiterate the overall positive assessment, and gain their commitment to specific and measurable improvement goals.

The third component of competence is attitude, which includes all of the dispositions, traits, and beliefs that are required of a leader. At first, an individual must want to take the lead, to be out in front, take risks, and assume responsibility. After that, he must have the right mindset to continue leading, to be accountable, and to have the integrity to influence and inspire others. At one point during his presidency, Barack Obama was criticized from all quarters for saying he preferred to “lead from behind.” Most observers sensed, correctly, that this is an oxymoron. To lead is, by definition, to be out in front, taking hits and risking your reputation. You can’t do that with a wall of people in front of you to protect you from the harshness of reality.

By the same token, leaders must be willing to accept a certain amount of conflict and questioning from their advisors. Otherwise they risk getting lost in a miasma of sycophancy and adulation that cuts them off from reality. To counter this, Abraham Lincoln intentionally forged a cabinet that was, as aptly named by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a “team of rivals.” He wasn’t afraid to accept various points of view and challenges to his thinking and plans. As a result, his policies were stronger and bolder, and he is recognized as one of the greatest political leaders in American—and world—history.

Leaders must excel in all three forms of competence, and these must be in balance as much as possible. Someone who has knowledge and the right attitude to be a leader, but who doesn’t know how to lead, influence, and inspire others, is either ineffectual as a leader, unqualified, or simply inexperienced. Someone who has knowledge and skills, but lacks the right attitudes and dispositions to lead with intention, integrity, and a sense of responsibility will often display a lack of accountability, unpredictability, moodiness, as well as egotistical, vainglorious behavior. Someone who has the skills and the right attitudes will know how to influence and inspire others, but will lack the wisdom to apply these abilities in a timely, effective, and ethical manner. Such leaders can often be highly charismatic—think of Adolf Hitler … or maybe that crazy boss you once worked for—but they can be extremely dangerous and even destructive.

At this point this probably all seems a bit abstract, so allow me to make it more concrete. Back in 1981 I was a cadet at officer candidate school. Our captain explained the nature of leadership to us. She said that leadership consists of two key areas of application: management and inspiration. It’s not enough to be inspirational. An effective leader must also work to become a good manager, which in turn contributes to his or her ability to inspire and influence.

Now, I have to admit that this goes against one of the most common beliefs about leadership and management. I have often heard executives and entrepreneurs go on about how you can be a good leader without being a good manager, or vice versa. In actuality, they are confusing inspiration—an aspect of leadership—with leadership as a whole. This can make some sense if we’re only speaking colloquially. However, we must be precise with these terms because they each have a specific meaning. If we’re truly serious about understanding and acquiring the competencies we need to lead, then we must analyze all the requirements of competent leadership.

The Case of the Harried Manager

Mike was recently promoted to the position of section head and reports to you. He is in his early 30s and this is his first real supervisory/managerial position in the organization, although he has been in charge of the section for short periods of time on an interim basis. He is also a volunteer on the executive of the local marina and helps to organize the annual regional race. You assume he knows a thing or two about planning and organization. That’s one of the reasons he was promoted, right?

You have noticed over the last week that the quality of his written reports has deteriorated and that he is often late for meetings. This morning you saw him in the parking lot as you arrived about 45 minutes earlier than usual and as he was rushing into the building. You asked him how things are and he mentioned that he had a lot of work to do and needed to get in early. You noticed that he is looking increasingly harried and very tired. You also recall him yelling at one of his subordinates last week for what appeared to you to be a very mundane matter. You tell him to come and meet with you at 3 pm in your office.

You are an experienced executive and have seen this type of thing before. In fact, you can recall your own first experience being in charge of people and how you ended up working very long hours and making unreasonable demands on yourself and your subordinates. You also recall that no one seemed to care when you were at that point in your life and career. You would like to help Mike, but you also want to empower him. He needs to work on his time management and work prioritization skills and also his overall planning and organization competencies. In other words, he needs to develop his managerial competencies.

Mike the Harried Manager was increasingly ineffective as a leader because he was disorganized and managed his time and priorities poorly. During my army career and my ongoing coaching consulting practice, I have found that poor leadership is often attributable to ineffectual management. I once had a prospective client who ran a small business installing and maintaining surveillance and security alarm systems. He was driving his employees and partners to distraction because he rarely made definite plans, much less communicate his intentions unambiguously. They constantly had to react to his last minute requests and mitigate the confusion of clients and suppliers. The company administrator and bookkeeper was the entrepreneur’s sister. She firmly believed that the company could grow and be much more profitable if her brother were to focus on providing more concrete leadership and direction to his team. Unfortunately, I was never able to pin him down for a serious meeting where we could discuss his objectives and needs. He and his company are still struggling because of his lack of organization and inability to focus on clearly articulated and communicated priorities and objectives.

Inspiration and management are clearly fundamental. However, we miss a big piece of the puzzle if we limit ourselves to these two dimensions because they only present a static picture. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my years of practicing, researching, and reflecting on leadership, it is that it should be viewed through the lens of time and change. A leader must be able to provide guidance, interpretation, perspective, and understanding as situations flow through time. No organization or environment ever stands still. Needs change and competitors adapt to the new reality; threats appear and disappear; opportunities come and go, as do people. The one constant is the leader’s vision and guidance and his or her ability to adapt and get others to do so as well. There are three aspects to the time dimension in leadership:

  • The first is developmental: We must be able to grow; we must be able to help our followers grow and develop as potential leaders; and we must be able to steer our organizations through growth, change and evolution.
  • The second aspect of time is that the world evolves and revolves. The external and internal leadership environments are always in flux. We need to adapt to and, better still, shape it to our advantage. Failure to do either entails irrelevance or worse.
  • The third aspect is that events are just instantaneous; they also occur over periods of varying duration. Nothing happens in the blink of an eye. A prudent leader must therefore envision different end states, outcomes, and results, as well as different options to achieve her objectives.


The Leadership Competency Pyramid illustrates the fundamental importance that the military and I give to management competencies for leadership effectiveness. If we view leadership competencies and their resulting effectiveness as a house, then we can see that the ability to manage effectively is the foundation. It provides the underpinning to all other aspects of leadership. Moreover, when I wrote in the Introduction that military forces take a competency-based approach to leadership development, this is what I meant. You create junior commissioned and non-commissioned officers (NCO—roughly equivalent to a foreman or front-line supervisor in an industrial setting) by giving them highly pragmatic skillsets and tools to manage their own work and that of their team. As a matter of fact, effective management builds confidence and confidence provides a platform to be more inspirational.

Military forces grow leaders by breaking leadership into teachable skills followed by diligent practice and critique, not just classroom learning. The focus is on mastering specific behaviors and techniques to analyze combat situations, make quick and appropriate decisions, and give clear and confident orders. It is only with experience and emulation of positive role models that the “softer” skills of inspiration and change management are developed.

Furthermore, as the soldier and officer progress through the ranks, they are given more demanding training that is then supplemented with a more “philosophical” educational approach that relies on readings, reflections, and discussion. Professional development acquires nuance as the individual progresses in responsibility and effectiveness. Ethical issues and complex ramifications are increasingly the focus of analysis, study and debate as each person becomes better able to relate acquired skills, new concepts and their experience to the exigencies of complex modern warfare and leadership.

Overcoming the obstacles to competence

At first, many people react to the military principles of leadership by dismissing them as self-evident or too simple. However, this is actually a sign they are confusing “simple” with “simplistic.” Complication is not necessarily a good thing, and human interactions and group dynamics are already complex and difficult enough without adding complication to the mix. The more revealing question is why we often fail to apply them despite of our appreciation and awareness for them.

I was on my first major exercise as a newly minted platoon commander. I had about 20 men under my command, plus NCOs and an experienced platoon sergeant. After about a week on exercise, I was tired and started to ignore what I had learned about planning and giving clear and direct orders to my troops. Quite frankly, I think my company commander had noticed that I wasn’t as effective and energetic as I should have been. He got my platoon sergeant to give me a good “pep talk.” It was one of the best things that could have happened, because he told me I needed to start using my platoon commander’s handbook. This is a pocket-sized compendium of checklists, mnemonics, and templates for analyzing the tactical situation, making plans, and formulating orders. He also reminded me that the troops were looking up to me to do my job in the most exacting manner possible. Incidentally, this shows how pairing a promising young officer with an experienced deputy has benefits beyond just providing a back up in case of emergency. The NCO can act as a mentor for the inexperienced junior officer.

This was a real wakeup call for me. After that, I got into the habit of following the procedures and using the techniques I had learned on my officer training to do my job, the job that was expected of me by my commander, my NCOs and my troops. I also realized after a few days that I was the best tactician in my platoon. This might seem a bit obvious to someone who hasn’t been in that position, but in retrospect it is fundamental.

The platoon commander’s first responsibility is to command his platoon tactically. That means making sound tactical decisions and plans, and then giving orders and following up to ensure they are carried out properly and adjusted to the realities of the tactical situation. Once I started doing that, everything fell into place and I became much more effective in command. My NCOs and troops gained respect for my abilities and I, in turn, was grew in confidence. When you look at it dispassionately, the most important thing for a military leader is to manage his tasks and those of his troops so as to achieve the mission while managing the risks and not squandering the lives of his soldiers.

It’s very important to grasp what I’m saying here. A platoon commander isn’t the one who drives the vehicles and fires the machines guns. He is, however, the one who must make the plans, assess the enemy and terrain, and then give the orders. He’s like an orchestra conductor, getting all his instruments to play in harmony. The same philosophy applies to any form of leadership and management, whether we’re talking about the coordinator of a team of design engineers or the foreman in charge of a manufacturing section. At a minimum, they must understand the technical basis of the team’s work and its role in the organization. Even more critical, though, is the ability to structure the work and manage the team to achieve desired outcomes. From foreman to CEO, the leader’s number one job is to structure work for his or her followers, to provide the framework and resources that allow them to perform to their full potential. And what can be more inspiring than knowing your job, providing the wherewithal for your team to do theirs, and then doing it with enthusiasm and excellence?

When I look back at my initial experiences as an infantry officer, I realize that my failure to be serious about achieving professional competence and applying all of the knowledge and skills I had learned over the course of my training and education was attributable to two distinct, yet related, factors: lack of self-respect and poor self-efficacy. I believe that many leaders fail to be as effective as they could be because they don’t pursue professional competence with enough enthusiasm and energy. They either rely on what they believe to be their natural talents, or they don’t truly believe that they can become better leaders through practice. Even worse, they want to be friends with their followers and perceived as just one of the gang, as opposed to being respected for their competence and exemplary behavior. The result is that they fail to live up to their full potential as leaders and miss the mark in mission accomplishment.


Self-respect is the genuine belief that you deserve the regard and admiration of others. You’re not entitled to respect because you have the right name, or rank, or background. Rather, you earn it by being competent, knowing what needs to be done and how to do it, and getting others to buy in to your plans and follow. You also act in a manner deserving of consideration and regard. As a friend put it, you have to be respectable if you want to be respected. And that starts with self-respect.

I once worked for a company commander who got completely drunk during a winter exercise. He had apparently decided to polish off the company’s rum ration the night before the battalion’s mock attack on the “enemy’s” main positions. He got up late and was still drunk as the operation got underway, attracting much derision from the troops. Our commanding officer (CO) was furious and relieved him of his command on the spot in favor of the company second-in-command. Not a pretty picture, and surely not a sign of self-respect.

That same commanding officer was one of the army’s high flyers. He was admired, feared, and perhaps even liked as a CO. But most of all, he was respected. Once, he gathered all of the officers in the battalion together in the mess to give us a talk on his philosophy of command and leadership. Though I can’t remember 98 per cent of what he said, the one thing that has stuck with me through thick and thin is that a leader isn’t there to be liked; he’s there to be respected. This idea has become a core belief for me and guided me through my subsequent military career and since I’ve retired from the army and operated my consulting business.

One of my clients—I’ll call him Ed—was the founder of a business with about 75 employees. Over the years he had acquired a number of smaller companies in his niche and kept the previous owners on as minority partners to manage the branches. The situation eventually became a bit of a mess. The sector took a nosedive in 2009, and his business was hit hard. Ed knew he had to make major changes to his strategy and structure, but the resistance of his minority shareholders hampered him. In particular, he was letting the most influential of his partners control the agenda. Ed had to regain the initiative and steer the business through the storm with a steady and uncontested hand on the helm. The last thing he needed was someone undermining his authority.

The first thing I noticed when I started working with Ed was that he was overly concerned by his partners’ feelings and opinions. He was letting them and their concerns dictate the company’s strategy. I told him he had to exercise his authority and regain the respect of his business partners. It was okay to ask for their advice and input on decisions, but he had to make the final call. Also, he had to respect himself as the main leader of the business. After all, it’s his name on the company. He founded it and built it. He controls it and has the biggest financial and personal stake, so he is entitled to impose his will. The time for consensus decision-making had come to an end, but Ed also had to deliver the goods as company president.


Self-efficacy is the deeply held belief that you achieve your mission and goals in spite obstacles, resistance (from self and others), and setbacks. It comes from knowing that you can fill your role and fulfill your mission no matter what happens. It’s about having the faith in your ability to do what you set out to do.

Self-efficacy—as well as self-esteem and self-worth—is related to our basic beliefs about talent and learning. Educational psychologist Carol Dweck has developed a theory contrasting the growth mindset with the fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset tend to see ability as static, something you’re born with, and that stays constant throughout life regardless of effort. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe it is possible to acquire new skills and knowledge and get better with practice and experience. They seek growth opportunities as well as constructive feedback.

It stands to reason that someone with a fixed mindset will have low self-efficacy and will tend to believe that leadership is a natural talent that can’t be developed. From that perspective, you’re either a leader or you’re not. On the contrary, someone with a growth mindset will have high self-efficacy and believe it’s possible to become an excellent leader through hard work and practice. In that view, leadership is not innate; it is grown.

Confidence building measures

Self-efficacy impacts learning and performance in three ways: goals, effort, and persistence. If you want to develop your competencies as a leader, or help others develop theirs, you have to select goals that get you out of your comfort zone. Such goals provide just enough challenge to push you but not so much that you’re left wondering what to do. You must also put in sufficient effort to learn through observation, trial and error, and feedback. Finally, you must persist in your efforts until you get things right. This approach can be applied to a job, specific tasks, or individual skills, knowledge elements, and attitudes. We can think of it as a stepwise approach to acquiring and honing leadership competencies.

The Case of the Young Over-Achiever

You have just hired Feria, a 26-year-old woman with a MBA. She emigrated with her family from Iran when she was 15. She learned English in about 6 months and was able to win numerous scholarships and bursaries. In fact, she is quite brilliant. She completed her masters in record time, winning a record number of academic prizes. She was hired 3 weeks ago to lead a three-person team working on a special project for the VP. She reports to you. She tells you that her team does not respect her and that she now realizes she can’t really lead. She wants to be reassigned to a research job with no supervisory responsibilities.

What do you think the problem is? Do you think Feria has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? Are her self-respect and self-efficacy high or low? What clues do you have? How could you help her increase it? What would you say to Feria?

Attitudes are competencies just like knowledge and skills and are just as important. That’s what the case study of Feria exemplifies. She has always been talented and a high performer. However, for the first time in her life, she really needs to buckle down and work to improve her leadership competencies. Your role as her boss is to get her to accept this and to break down her challenge into manageable steps, so she can learn and grow. She has to internalize the fact that her attitude is key.

Do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? Can you identify the associated beliefs and behaviors in yourself and others? Do you know what to do to improve your mindset or adopt a better one? Can you see how your self-efficacy directly depends on your knowledge and skills, and your consequent ability to get results? Finally, can you see how all this creates a virtuous cycle, as shown in the following figure?


In the following table I’ve combined the three levels in the leadership competency pyramid (management, inspiration, change) with the three types of competencies (knowledge, skills, attitudes). The resulting matrix gives an idea of the full range and scope of capabilities that are required for effective leadership. We could develop this type of matrix for every leadership position within an organization, starting with direct supervisors, team leaders, and foremen all the way to the highest levels, chairman and CEO.


Knowing what to do and getting on with it inspire confidence and respect

It’s interesting to note that the first person to come up with a fairly elaborate understanding of modern management was Henri Fayol. Fayol’s conception of management is still the best one I know. As general manager of a mining operation in France in the late 19th century, Fayol was the first to identify the specific components of management: planning, organizing, directing, and controlling. Also of interest is that he based much of his thinking on military concepts of command and control.

Planning: Seeing beyond the next hill

Planning involves seeing beyond the next hill and getting everyone in your team to appreciate the situation. A military leader is expected to manage the current mission while looking out for potential threats and opportunities down the road while making allowance for various contingencies that could crop up. For a leader like you, your plan details your general intent, vision, and mission. It is the basic scheme of maneuver that tells all the members of the team where they fit in and what is expected of them, including their roles, specific tasks, and resources at their disposal. The same applies to leadership in all other fields. By extension, the leader must also provide guidance and direction to his or her followers and subordinate leaders so they have clear boundaries to frame their own planning. Here are the three questions you must answer for your plans to be effective.

Why? Asking why is about determining the aim or purpose of your plan. To do this, you must be capable of analyzing and evaluating the environment and the situation. The aim is to develop as clear an understanding as possible within time and resources constraints so you can determine your ultimate aim. You must observe conditions with a view to identifying risks, threats and opportunities that can hinder or aid you. You must also weigh various scenarios against a number of factors and make a decision about the most likely evolution of the current situation, including competitors’ and other stakeholders’ most likely actions and reactions to your moves.

What? The answer to the what question is the mission you set for yourself and your team. You have to determine what your boss, the organization as a whole, and your peers throughout the organization expect you and your team to accomplish. Additionally, you must also incorporate the needs and concerns of customers (if you have any) and any external stakeholders.

How? By answering the how question you are creating the basic outline of your plan. You must be willing to consider a range of options before deciding which to pursue. Assuming there is sufficient time, this may be an opportune moment to gain input and suggestions from followers and collaborators. Encouraging participation in decision-making and planning is an excellent way to gain commitment from your team and to ensure that you are incorporating all of their expertise and information. By fostering participation in planning and decision-making you are also accelerating your followers’ understanding of the situation and mission and giving them a head start in their own planning process.

Organizing: Building and structuring a cohesive unit

Organizing is about building the team, tasks, and capabilities to achieve your mission and objectives. To do this, you must generate or modify existing structures, systems, policies, procedures and resources to make your plans executable. Organizing is the act of finding and using the tools at your disposal to meet your aims. In addition, it is the process of estimating and matching resources to tasks and goals.

I once had a commander who said, “A vision without resources is a hallucination.” Realistically, there are never enough resources for everything you want to do. As a result, requirements and tasks must be prioritized and sequenced so as to achieve maximum effectiveness and efficiency. The principles of economy of effort and concentration of resources govern the choices one makes in organizing for action. You must decide which tasks and responsibilities to assign to each of your followers or subordinate leaders, as well as the resources they will need to execute them. Finally, you must match the right people to the right task at the right time with the right tools and inputs.

Directing: Communicating the plan and the parameters for its execution

In my experience, this is where many excellent plans and structures start going off the rails. It’s one thing to figure out where you want to go and the roadmap to get to your destination. It’s a whole different ball game to actually execute successfully.

I worked with a client and his senior management team for over six months on a new strategy and the plan to implement it. The only problem was that he failed to communicate it to his employees. This generated needless turmoil and worry in the company. The only thing the rank and file knew was that a consultant (me) was working with the company owner. The rumor mill started chugging away and next thing we knew, employees started fearing layoffs. I told my client to get everyone together and let the entire team know what the plan was, and that there was no intention of letting anyone go, which he promptly did. Still, my client’s failure to communicate his intent through clear direction led to needless worries and mistrust.

Sound execution starts with sound direction. You have to communicate your plan in a clear and direct manner, while ensuring that everyone understands your intent, vision, and mission. All members of the team must see how they fit into the scheme of maneuver and what is expected of them. Subordinate leaders and managers need to grasp the big picture, as well as the strategic, operational, and tactical success metrics, so they can make their own plans in a timely manner and communicate them in turn to their respective teams. A well-articulated and clearly communicated plan provides a framework for exercising judgment and initiative throughout the operation by everyone involved. This way, when inevitable changes occur, your followers can make the necessary adjustments to their plans and adapt quickly to the evolving competitive and environmental conditions.

Controlling: Making adjustments and staying on track

In common parlance, “control” has a connotation of micro managing to ensure implementation to exacting standards. Think of a pilot in a cockpit, acting on the flight controls so that the plane stays on course at the right altitude and the right speed. This is indeed one of the meanings of the term, but it also refers to the cybernetic mechanism whereby a system is more or less kept within certain bounds by feedback. This is the sense in which control is used in management, and certainly in the military, where it is often used conjointly with “command,” as in “command and control,” or C2.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower is reputed to have said, “A plan is nothing, but planning is everything,” or words to that effect. He was referring to the fact that planning provides a good starting point for action; but that reality inevitably upsets our best laid plans. Those executing the plan have a common framework for analyzing the evolving situation and can make adjustments on the fly, reacting to the enemy’s (or competitor’s) actions. It’s a never-ending cycle of action-reaction-counteraction. The only thing keeping the organization on track and operating cohesively and with unity of purpose is the original framework of mission, objectives, and general intent as well as the leader’s resolve and influence. Control feedback is the main signaling mechanism of the organization, conveying information to make adjustments to plans in a fast-moving and risky situation.

12 techniques to boost your leadership competence

  1. Set clear overarching objectives for you and your team.
  2. Analyze the internal and external environments, as well as the evolving situation.
  3. Consider multiple scenarios and courses of action before making a decision.
  4. Formulate a clear and direct mission and communicate it openly to your followers.
  5. Surround yourself with the right people and involve them as much as possible in analysis and decision-making.
  6. Ask for advice from followers, peers, and superiors and consider multiple perspectives in your analysis and decision-making.
  7. Break your plans into actionable steps and tasks and assign these to specific individuals on the basis of their competencies, talents, and developmental requirements.
  8. Ensure your subordinates have the resources needed to do their respective jobs and support them in their tasks.
  9. Communicate your plans and intentions clearly and directly.
  10. Question your followers frequently to know what they know, understand, and believe.
  11. Designate priorities and the focus of effort for all your plans and intentions.
  12. Follow up to ensure effective and efficient implementation of your guidance and direction.


  • Competence is the heart of leadership.
  • There are three types of competence: knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  • People want to follow leaders who are competent and able to lead them to victory and achievement.
  • The Leadership Competence Pyramid three levels: management, inspiration, and change.
  • Management often gets short shrift or is seen in opposition to leadership, but it is an integral part of a leader’s competence toolkit.
  • The idea that you can be an effective leader while being a so-so manager is a myth. Leaders must be effective at planning, organizing, directing, executing, and controlling.
  • Knowledge is fairly easy to acquire, but what differentiates truly competent leaders is the ability to perform at and beyond expectations. This requires diligent and constant practice and skill development.
  • You need a growth mindset and a commitment to learning to lead and to develop your leadership competencies.
  • We can’t earn the respect and confidence of followers, peers, and superiors, unless we believe in ourselves and are truly committed to growth and improvement.
  • We need self-respect and self-efficacy to overcome the roadblocks to becoming truly effective leaders.
  • Confidence and respect are built over time by competent performance of our duties as leaders.

My name is Richard Martin and, as indicated by the title of this blog, I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Last week I introduced the concept of self-similarity and showed its relevance for power law distributions. In this post I discuss the applicability of self-similarity in S-curves.

To recap briefly, self-similarity implies that a structure looks essentially the same at all levels of “magnification” or scale. You can zoom in on any part of a “power curve,” and it will look like… a power curve, with basically the same appearance as at the higher scale.

The same phenomenon can be seen in s-curves, with the difference that the scale invariance is less apparent, at least initially. The following diagram shows how each phase on an s-curve can be broken out into smaller, constituent s-curves at the next lower level. By extension, each of these subordinate s-curves can be parsed in the same, self-similar way. The structure is recursive and nested. If you want to grow, develop, or improve in any way, you must see it as a succession of s-curves at all levels of scale.


This is why I’ve titled this post “Growth is a stairway, not a high jump!”. You make progress in increments, climbing from one step to the next in a succession of achievable bounds. This breaks progress and improvement into (to paraphrase Neil Armstrong) a series of “one small step” moves so you can make “one giant leap” for your bigger purpose… or goals.

This is more manageable from a psychological standpoint as well as logistically. It also makes risk more manageable. As I illustrate in the following diagram, there are risks at each transition to a succeeding s-curve. Risk can arise from making a jump–even a small one–to a higher level of performance and engagement. It can also arise from a drop in performance at this critical juncture. We can seldom know and do everything that is needed at the new level. We need to learn–which is why progress is depicted as an s-curve in the first place. We start out with low performance at the new level and a high potential for mistakes. If we’re focused on learning from our mistakes and on improvement, we get progressively better until we hit the rapid growth stage, and continue up the “learning” curve from there on in. When we hit the inevitable plateau, we must jump–or drop–to the next curve.


The final point is that performance or growth can bog down or slip at any point, for any number of reasons. We can stop or slip back down the curve we’re already on. I call this regression. Even more consequential is when we drop back to a previous curve. I call this retrogression, and I’ve illustrated it in detail in the following diagram. It shows how you can fall from any performance level to any other, usually through neglect, over-confidence, smugness, or simply through inattention to changing conditions in the environment. For instance, new technology, new competitors, changing demographics, all these can make our current success or standing shaky or even irrelevant.


I don’t say this to be overly pessimistic, but rather realistic. Stasis is death. Movement is crucial. Business, life, performance, everything, they are what is called a “red queen” race. You have to work just to stay in place and work even harder to make progress, grow, develop, get better.

We’ll address these issues and many more in my coming posts under the topic of “Ideas,” so stay tuned to this space.

My name is Richard Martin and, as indicated by the title of this blog, I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.