Leading through change

While driving around the Net searching for some information on leading change, I found this recent ‘First Word’ in the October 2012 Air Force News. Pretty good stuff, I thought, on the effects of both leadership and individual initiative in fostering and maintaining a satisfied and thus effective and efficient work force which in turn fosters and maintains the delivery of critical outputs…

Does your Unit have a good reputation and is it one of the sought-after areas to work in? Is it judged as a critical Unit and the people within it as skilled and capable? Is it a ‘key’ capability in the RNZAF?

By ‘key’ I don’t mean as judged by the quarterly reports, not by efficient management processes, nor by the myriad of statistics required by higher command each month; these I would expect from any unit in the RNZAF. Rather, your Unit will be judged as the best to work in by two measures:

(1) by the other units (that is Squadrons, Joint Forces and so on) that you support, and

(2) by the individuals who work within the unit.

So what part do you have to play in all this?

If you are positive and enthusiastic about your job and the people around you, then this will set the tone for the Unit. People will want to work with you—they will seek positions in your Unit. Strive to make your unit the best organisation to work in, with emphasis on innovative policy, development, and capability for the RNZAF, and very focused programmes; focussed because we have limited resources.

I think we all need to be challenged and given opportunities. In order to do that you should encourage initiative and allow others to present and sometimes implement new ideas. Some ideas will work and others will not—but you won’t learn unless you try, and you must take calculated risks. An Officer, SNCO, or for that matter any staff member, who is afraid to make a mistake or to present a counter view is not contributing to the team. Remember, fear stifles initiative, imagination and ideas—and the organisation will inevitably stagnate.

We are “beings in process,” forever developing, learning and adapting. I encourage you to challenge what you do. So let’s think about how we can change and improve the work we do. Think about the future, and use all those bright young men and women who work in your unit—that’s you—to move ahead. I challenge you to improve the products we produce, to improve the processes used to get there, and to make your Unit an enjoyable and rewarding work environment. The latter point is important to our success. Everyone should be provided with an environment in which they can work with little constraint. I want you to create a climate where someone’s worth is determined by their willingness to learn new skills and grab new responsibilities.

As stated in the Better Public Services Advisory Group Report, “…the single most critical driver of successful change is leadership.” I would add that this leadership must come from all levels in the organisation. And here I’ll take a leaf from GEN George Patton. He said: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” I expect to see lots of ingenuity.

Remember that we are not at war, but those in uniform can expect to be deployed for operations at any time, so balance your job and home life with appropriate priorities. I want you to be in the military for the long term, so keep your work effort and priorities balanced. There will be times when you will be required to work long hours, or be away from your family—for training, conferences, project activity, exercises and the like—and this is when the RNZAF will be first priority. 

I also encourage you to set yourself some personal goals. Everyone in the RNZAF has integrity, judgement, energy, balance and the drive to get things done. don’t just use these assets at work; apply them to your private life as well. 

You are the people who make the Unit function. You make it happen and you set the example for others to follow. I expect you to provide guidance, direction and oversight to your personnel and to others in the RNZAF so that they may also succeed. So take responsibility for, and ownership of, your particular area. Make your Unit a great place to work and be effective and enjoyable.

When Field Marshall Slim made his so-often quoted comment about the relationship of morale to materiel being as ten is to one, he was referring to far more than simple materiel, I’m sure. Today he probably would have specifically targeting the metric mentality that thrives within modern organisational communities…i.e. the “I’m OK because I’m achieving my targets and completing my directed tasks” philosophy…you might be a lumberjack too but, trust me, anyone hanging their individual or collective  hat on THAT philosophy is NOT OK!

The leadership and learning relationship is not new but this article draws in a couple of other themes that aren’t as common in the discussion. The first of these is initiative, specifically personal initiative. It’s all very well being the best leader in the world but not worth a stick of old rhubarb if the rest of your organisation are content to just follow your awesome leadership example. YOUR people must not just feel empowered but they need to be motivated to dive in and take a (considered) punt to make things that need to happen, happen. The old catch-excuse of “No one told me to” (Why didn’t you do something) is almost as bad as the Nuremberg “I vas only following orders” (Why did you do something?). Individual members of a successful organisation should be applying ‘so what, then what, now what?‘ thinking all the time – and where they may occasionally, perhaps, get it wrong or not fully right, the ‘system’ should be there to assist the learning process. If we don’t screw up from time to time, how to we get better…?

When JFK said “Ask not what your country can do for you but rather, what you can do for your country” he wasn’t meaning that the two questions are mutually exclusive. The other theme that is blended in nicely in this challenge is that of ‘balance’: work/life balance, balance between those things that have to be done and those that you can simply do, balance in looking after yourself and looking after the job (hint: the job may not reciprocate). People crack funnies about the US Army’s long standing (1989-2001) recruiting logo “Be all you can be” but it probably endured for so long because it appealed so directly to a fundamental aspect of what the military is meant be all about: regardless of someone’s roots or background, a fresh start offered exactly that opportunity to ‘be all you can be’. But it doesn’t just stop there – it can and should extend out into the broader relationships of families, friends and communities.

Many years ago, decades actually, I read a comment (on paper – it was so long ago that this interweb thingie wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s Astounding Stories!) that, contrary to the popular perception of Vietnam veterans in the US being burned-out, drugged-up no-hopers, that many of the 2.7 million Americans that served in uniform in Vietnam actually came home and become leaders and forces for positive change in their communities. Being all they could be because their experiences had given them a new perspective on what was really important – and that wasn’t some clipboard-mounted tick-and-flick philosophy focussed on just doing the bare ‘minimum’, of perception-polishing than actually doing the job. As as stated in DCAF’s Challenge, it’s about extending that balance and perspective into our family and community lives as well. Of  gripping up challenges and doing those things that need to be done but always maintaining that awareness of ‘balance’.

So taking that closing sentence “…Make your Unit a great place to work and be effective and enjoyable…”, if your work place or your home or your community doesn’t feel like a great place to be, if it doesn’t feel effective and enjoyable, rather than just sit around and bitch into your milk about it, perhaps it’s time to consider what changes may be needed (noting that YOU may be the one that needs to change!) and applying some personal individual leadership, initiative and balance yourself. While it is true that good things rarely come without hard work, it is equally so that they rarely come without someone making them happen.

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