It is a privilege to join Leader to Leader readers in the study and sharing of lessons learned and advancements in leadership development. I am a recently retired colonel from the U.S. Army with more than twenty-five years of military service. As a graduate of the United States Military Academy, the principles of leadership espoused and practiced in the military have significantly shaped my professional life.
Over the course of my military career, I have had the distinct privilege of working with diverse populations of professionals, including fellow Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy military members, Department of Defense civilians, and hosts of nonmilitary professionals, such as contractors, scientists, engineers, researchers, corporate leaders, and academics. To be expected, the heterogeneity of my teammates grew as my rank and responsibilities increased. When I began my career as a second lieutenant, I was responsible for a small group of truck drivers—all military and of lesser rank and longer military experience than me. Twenty-two years later, my command responsibilities as a colonel included leadership of a matrix organization of military, Department of Defense civilian, and contractor personnel entrusted with the provision of advanced target acquisition and laser equipment for military members. Once again, my workforce possessed greater experience than me in the technical development of the command’s commodities.
At first glance, one might question the wisdom of this leader development model. Why not just have the in-house subject matter experts lead the organizations? After all, wouldn’t they best know how to manage product development? Notice that I’ve used the terms of “lead” and “manage” as if they are interchangeable. From my understanding of the study and practice of influencing the actions of others, leading and managing are different yet complementary disciplines. I align leadership with the character of an organization—its climate, demonstrated goals and values, treatment of its people, and dedication to its mission. Similarly, I correlate management with the competence of an organization—its structure, governing processes, efficiency and effectiveness, stewardship of resources, and accountability to its stakeholders. Optimal organizational effectiveness results from the marriage of wise leadership and management. The skill sets supportive of both disciplines are forged in the laboratories of professional development and training, mentorship, experience, lessons learned via trials and triumphs, and time. Cognizant of the time constraints associated with the timeline of a twenty-year career, the Army typically grows its officers through progressions of career-broadening assignments anchored in expansion of leadership responsibilities, opportunities, and prowess.
As a generalization, I would say that Army officers specialize in leadership. Much is learned and refined in a military career’s duration of leadership experience, yet I don’t think that one ever gets to the place of perfected leadership practice. Though the rhetoric of leadership principles is often common sense (Treat others the way you want to be treated, lead by example, be professional at all times, to thine own self be true, and so on), the reality of the practice of leadership is quite different. No leader, follower, teammate, or partner is perfect. Our engagements with each other chronicle the need for continued vigilance in the exercise of interpersonal relationships, which undergird leadership actions. During my final days of active duty as a colonel, I unexpectedly relearned the importance of positivity as an intentional leader bias.
The catalyst for my relearning was a simple decision. I had successfully completed my time in command, and the change-of-command ceremony would mark the leadership transition. I was proud of my unit and wanted to show the unit’s impacts and accomplishments with a movie clip that would include the voices of soldiers supported and videos of the target acquisition and laser equipment in action. I wanted to immerse the audience of senior leaders, peers, team members, industry partners, soldiers, and family members in my unit’s work and thought a movie clip would best support this aim. To me, it was inconsequential that I made the decision of movie clip inclusion the day before the ceremony. Yet as I will describe in detail later in the article, this decision had profound impacts.
Related Leadership Rhetoric
As a leader, problem solving and decision making are constants. You are expected to solve problems of all sizes without the benefit of complete knowledge of all the factors influencing the various circumstances. Sometimes you can proactively predict problems to overcome, and sometimes you are just blindsided. Sometimes you have extended amounts of time to formulate your decisions, and at other times the duration is substantially shorter——days, hours, or mere minutes.
A common denominator in problem solving and decision making is the leader. His or her mind-set is tremendous. How does the leader assess his or her abilities and those of the team? I have experienced and witnessed leaders’ positive assessments that foreshadow resolute, responsible, and inclusive strategies worthy of emulation. Conversely, leaders deeming individual and team abilities to be deficient are particularly vulnerable to adoption of strategies of questionable credibility. Please know that I am framing my broad comparison upon a difference in leader perception and not on significant variances in leader and team abilities.
Perception is important. I’ve teamed with leaders who inspired my greatest loyalty, and I have survived those who seemed blind to or intimidated by their team members’ abilities. Both types of leaders had similar intellectual capacities yet drastically different interpersonal sensitivities, guiding them toward inclusive, positive relationship building or morale-draining marginalization of team members.
I choose to be a leader who brings out the best from my team members. I choose to recognize my team members’ abilities and build high-performing teams composed of team members with complementary abilities. Accordingly, I choose positivity in my thoughts and actions toward myself and team members. In other words, I embrace positivity as an intentional leader bias.
I have found that starting my day with a few positive actions powerfully prepares me for the rest of the day. The acronym of SEIZE forms the framework of my morning routine.
S (see myself through eyes of appreciation): I look in my bathroom mirror at myself in a nonjudgmental way. I focus upon what is right with me. Eyes that see, ears that hear, a smile that dazzles. My body has supported me through so much and is deserving of my gratitude. Most important, I am alive for a brand new day!
E (express affirmations of my person through a voice forged in kindness and acceptance): I look beyond my physical features and think about my inner self. What do I like about myself? Let me recount my attributes. Similar to the scene in the film, The Help, I call out the good in me—“I am smart,”—“I am responsible,”—“I am tenacious”—you get the idea. Sure, there are areas I need to improve, and I am by no means perfect. However, I am striving to do the best with what I have and who I am. I approve of, like, affirm, and love myself.
I (inspire myself by reflecting on my goals): What are my near-term goals? I close my eyes and visualize what my goals look and feel like. I open my eyes and touch articles representative of my goals (like tassels for a graduation cap). I then challenge myself by asking, “What will I do today to take me one step closer to my goals?”
Z (zeal—do something that I enjoy): What is something I can do right now that puts a smile on my face and/or makes me feel happy, loved, protected, alive? I take time to pray, exercise, and move to inspirational music. No matter what the day brings, I will have already experienced things that make me feel good.
E (embrace loved ones and expect the best of team members): Before I leave my home, I make time to embrace my husband and tell him something uplifting (love you, proud of you, you’re awesome). It feels good to put a smile on his face, especially knowing that he will likewise confront challenging circumstances during his day. As I travel to my office, I think about my team members and affirmations representative of their strengths. What are their strengths and what are some of their most recent successes? As John Maxwell asserts, I need to see each one with a “10” on her or his forehead. I smile to myself as I reflect upon my unique team of 10s.
Reality of Leadership Dynamics
I arrived at the ceremony location about thirty minutes prior to the ceremony’s beginning and learned that my graphic artist, Terry (not his real name), had returned to the office location looking for an alternative version of the movie clip we had planned to show that didn’t require Internet access. It seemed there were compatibility issues between the original movie clip and the conference room’s capabilities. I told myself to be calm and began to think about how to engage the audience in the absence of the movie clip. I knew my leadership team would be present and the individual leaders could speak to different aspects of our unit’s mission and accomplishments. Their participation would also give them more active roles in the ceremony and the opportunity to speak for themselves and be heard in an unfiltered manner. I knew this approach would work well (days earlier, I had forewarned my leaders that they might be called upon to address their areas of expertise), yet I still held out hope that we could get the movie clip to work.
Minutes before the ceremony’s start, Terry was feverishly working in a corner to get the movie clip to work. I knew he felt badly, and the din of the standing-room-only audience seemed to increase his anxiety and that of my operations team. I was disappointed and wondered if I should take the situation to an extreme—go through my presentation as originally planned, give the verbal cue for the movie clip, and see what happened. Would that be the desired example of expressing trust in my team members, or would it be a passive-aggressive way of putting my team on notice? Did I really want to risk embarrassing my team and self that way and on this special day? Numerous team members, including the incoming commander, knew of Terry’s struggles with the movie clip. I felt the intensity and weight of their thoughts as they waited for me to address the audience and explain the presence of the huge projector screen that now stood blankly by my side. Though unsaid, I could sense the question in the air—How is she going to respond? I also sensed the incoming commander’s interest as he intently watched from his position.
My Reconciliation of Leadership Rhetoric and Reality
I faced the audience and focused upon the right front row in which my husband, parents, sister, and cousins sat. Their faces shone with pride. My leadership team and team members sat in the next few rows. I felt their support as I scanned their faces. I chose not to look at Terry to see if there was a last-second breakthrough. What now? I knew that the audience members whom I cared about were for me and wanted the best for my unit. With that thought and in that moment, I chose to confront the situation with humor and practicality.
I welcomed all to the ceremony, walked into the audience, pointed to the empty projection screen, and shared how I wanted to shock and awe the audience with a fast-paced, creative movie clip of our high-technology equipment and high-performing team. Audience members nodded their heads in understanding and then roared with laughter when I invoked the reality that “life happens.” In stressing the importance of having plans B, C, and so on through the alphabet, I then called upon team members to tell our story and had a great time playing up and building upon their comments and engaging the audience. I was proud of my team and wanted everyone to know it.
Although it hadn’t seemed so at the beginning, the movie clip problem presented me a gift. This gift took the form of a mirror into my leader’s heart. How would I respond and treat my team members when things didn’t work as planned in front of a large, influential group? Would I use my position as a platform to demean or uplift my team members? Concurrently, what could I have done differently to mitigate the problem? Was it fair to make such an important change so close to the ceremony? Upon reflection, I realize that I didn’t ask whether inclusion of the movie clip would be problematic, especially considering the laundry list of other actions the operations team and Terry had to complete—I just directed it to be done.
It’s amazing how we are apt to judge ourselves leniently while judging others harshly. In facing myself, I had to recognize my contributions to the problem and derive an appropriate solution consistent with my beliefs. I believe the trajectory of decision making flows from one’s beliefs, values, and behaviors. In this situation, I’m thankful for that morning’s routine of invoking intentional positivity—returning to the acronym of SEIZE, my thoughts included:
S (see myself through eyes of appreciation): I focus upon what is right with me. I have completed my command with excellence, and I have the opportunity to present my outstanding unit to the incoming commander with the utmost professionalism.
E (express affirmations of my person through a voice forged in kindness and acceptance): I accept myself and my performance—I have nothing to prove to anyone else. I am resourceful. I will do the best with what I have and who I am. I aim to do no harm to my team.
I (inspire myself by reflecting on my goals): My faithful stewardship of my command will prepare me for increased levels of responsibility and influence.
Z (zeal——do something that I enjoy): I pray.
E (embrace loved ones and expect best of team members): I feel my family’s love and pride as we drive to the ceremony location. I know that the ceremony will be professionally executed because my team takes pride in all that it does. It has been an honor to serve with my team members.
Confident in the abilities and intentions of myself and team, I was predisposed to positively deal with the movie clip problem. Such an intentional leader bias of positivity served me well that day.
Because I chose to see myself, team members, and problems constructively through a heart of gratitude (which has an important place in leadership), my team and I experienced and demonstrated unity. Such unity stirred my heart, empowered my team members, and culminated the unit’s leadership transition. This experience also reaffirmed my conviction that leaders’ exercise of discipline to lead beyond their own interests will have profound personal and organizational impacts.
The exercise of leadership is a work in progress. My recommitment to positivity as an intentional leader bias is just such a reminder to me.
Dr. Stephanie L. Foster is a retired colonel from the U.S. Army with more than twenty-five years of service and leadership. An educator, motivational speaker, and philanthropist, she recently became a John Maxwell Certified coach, teacher, and speaker. Fulfilling her life philosophy to “Do something about it!” she looks forward to continued empowerment of others in their development as leaders of purpose and intentionality. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, she has earned a master’s in procurement and acquisitions management from Webster University and a master’s in biochemistry and a doctorate in science education from North Carolina State University
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