Can your People Act Independently?

Leaders and managers need to help their subordinates to grow and develop into people who can use their thinking abilities. As I hinted in the posting on using your brain cells to think, this is not a natural tendency.

I want to start in the military domain. People mistakenly use the military world as an example of an industry where you are not required to think, but to shut up and do what you are told. No doubt there are militaries where this is the case. However, we have very good examples where it is not the case.

Helmut von Moltke, the creator of the German General Staff, is known to have said the following to an officer: “His Majesty made you a major because he thought you would have the good sense to know when to not follow orders!” This was in the mid-19th century.

The Germans developed a philosophy known as “auftragstaktik,” or mission-oriented tactics. This enabled the junior officers and enlisted men to act independently when their senior officers were killed. It also enabled them to deal with the situation on the ground as it presented itself to them.

Given the uncertainty associated with war, one could never plan in detail to the end of the envisaged battle or campaign. One needed, at some point, to be able to trust that your officers and men would be able to deal with whatever situation presented it after first contact had been made.

In order to thrive on this system, they needed to appoint officers who developed their people to implement this system, and then train their people in this philosophy. In using this system, the commander’s intent was sacrosanct. His orders could be adjusted, but never his intention. Constant communication to head office also enabled the senior commanders to know what the situation was. Control was therefore still important.

The fact that the German military system was very effective cannot be disputed. Amongst others its success could be attributed to the effective utilisation of the philosophy of mission-oriented tactics. In the world of today, the USA also uses this approach. Using this approach enabled one to deal with the paradox of control whilst providing autonomy.

In the world of business, this approach is equally important. You want your managers to deal with the environment and the stakeholders in it (customers, suppliers, competitors, shareholders, etc.) without having to run back to a senior manager every time a decision had to be made. The latter situation does not create a good impression of the organisation. One could forgive a customer/client should they rather ask to deal with the decision maker instead of the person they were dealing with. The obvious question that goes with this is what happens to the organisation when this decision maker is no longer there. Does a light shine upon the remaining managers to empower them? Or does the organisation go the route of self-destruction?

Getting your people to take decisions at the level where the solution was required, does require a similar approach as in the case of the military. You need to employ the right kind of people. As Jim Collins says, “It’s first who, then what!” The following issues also come to mind:

• You need the right kind of people.
• You need to train and educate them constantly.
• You need a climate of trust, where subordinates feel themselves safe to make decisions without fearing for their jobs should they make a wrong decision.
• You need a learning culture, where people do learn from their mistakes, which in its turn, again requires a certain kind of leader that can provide direction and keep the people on board.
• It requires control measures that liberate and not constrain the people.
• It needs a vision and mission that will complement the control measures, and actually minimise such measures to the essentials.

Such people would require the following:

• The requisite cognitive competencies. You do need some degree of IQ! Mental agility always remains important.
• However, you also need oodles of EQ and SQ. IQ gives you the right to be taken into consideration. Do you have the required brain cells and are they aligned? It they do, let’s see to what extent you exhibit EQ and SQ. They tend to be the true explanatory factors of successful managerial performance.

Although the experts tell us that IQ is more or less fixed, EQ and SQ, the important factors, can be developed, should you have the required IQ.

What’s the bottom line? Developing an employee force that can adjust to the circumstances in the field, is not an easy task. It can and should, however, be an important objective of senior management. This is what Level 5 leaders do, as Jim Collins tells us. This is what the War for Talent is about.

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11 Responses

  1. This blog is spot on. The military as a source of business talent is big in the US. Fortune Magazine had this as their cover story about 3 editions back. The likes of WalMart, P&G, GE, Hewlett Packard and others have set up special recruitment offices to find and hire officers from the various branches of the US military system. Its brilliant! Ready made leadership with the IQ, the EQ and the flexible skills any corporation would die to have. This is not new as this has been the practice in Israel where the top leader echelons in government, business and academia are commonly ex-military officers.
    Could this be model for SA?

    • johanhburger says:

      Thanks Larry. I touched upon the essence of this point of yours when I answered Jaco above. Do you perhaps have a reference to the article in Fortune you referred to above? I think some of the readers might like to get hold of it. I for one would like to read it. Regards.

  2. Abel says:

    In my own studies I identified four building blocks of auftragstaktik that provides an in-depth understanding:

    Obiedience – or a strict adherence (as you rightly indicated) to the intention of the next higher commander Proficiency – the inherent competence of leaders on all levels. Of course, in the business/management environment this relates directly to the quality of people that a company appoints.
    Independence of action – subordinate leaders are allowed a great deal of latitude in the execution of a mission.
    Self-esteem – a high degree of self-confidence rooted in a feeling that the superior commanders have absolute confidence in the ability of subordinate commanders. This is speaking towards the EQ and SQ of both the superior and subordinate commanders / managers. Subordinate commanders should have the self-esteem to exercise initiative grounded in an understanding that he will not be penalized if his initiative fails – that he is not made to feel that he is personally a failure. He acts in good faith that if he fails he knows his superiors will analyse his actions, identify his shortcomings, and from this, a lesson is learned. Honest mistakes are survivable and accepted as part of the development of leaders on all levels.

    It is interesting to note that the German Army’s training system used two simple criteria to judge whether the subordinate leader did well: the timeliness of his decision and his own justification for it. Timeliness impressed him with the need to act quickly while justification required him to reflect on his action and gain insight into his own thought process. Since he had to justify the decision in his own mind before implementation, imprudent decisions and rush actions were less likely.

    Keep them coming. One day you’ll put all your ideas together in an international best seller on management according to Johan Burger.

    • johanhburger says:

      Hi Abel, this for this information. It does help to clarify the concept of auftragstaktik. For those of you who do not know Abel, he is a strategist of note and teaches military strategy at the Faculty of Military Science at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. He regularly publishes on the topic and delivers talks abroad.

  3. Jaco Griesel says:

    First, on a personal note: I had the honour to be a student of Johan Burger, and what a privilege and experience that was! Hallo “Colonel”! Just like years back, I’ll be listening and learning here again.

    I’ve just finished reading “The Business General – Transform your Business using Seven Secrets of Military Success” (Deborah Tom & Brig Richard Barrons), and once again I’m astounded at the way private enterprises in SA ignore, and even down-right frown upon, the knowledge and experience military personnel has to offer. Maybe this starts at the recruitment phase, and is then handed down to the rest of the business. About a year ago I spoke to a recruitment consultant for a large company in SA, and out of hand she discarded military experience and training as irrelevant to any position in the private sector! Proper proof that IQ (she had a PhD!) isn’t everything…

    Being ex-military, it sometimes (OK, on a daily basis!) astounds me how companies are micro-managed and how little room for manoeuvre even senior personnel (don’t even mention the “lieutenants” and “sergeants”) are left with. One often gets the impression that nobody’s thinking is aligned, nobody knows the mission objective and the guy captaining the boat also has to decide how the potatoes will be peeled.

    We certainly need more teachings such as Johan’s to get through to the private sector, and I’m looking forward to endless visits here. Keep up the good work, Colonel Burgs!

    • johanhburger says:

      Hi Jaco, good to hear from you again. You touch a point that Larry also touched upon. It is not only the USA that have realized that military personnel frequently have great skills that are directly transferable to the world of business. These are skill such as the willingness to take charge, to organise, to lead. The willingness to be flexible and adaptable. The UK have also realized this and we frequently find captains of industry coming from the military. In South Africa I can think of a number of senior people that have their roots in the military, roots that transcend the compulsory military service everyone had to go through. Part of the reasons for this is the extensive training and development military personnel have to undergo. The military does not assume that a light will shine upon you when you are promoted, but that you need some kind of training to prepare you for the new position. It is when this fundamental principle is ignored that militaries start to suffer.

      Steven Drotter highlighted this point in his book, “The Leadership Pipeline”. He identified 7 levels of leadership and identified “transition points”, where you had to undergo training and development to help you to move from the one level to the other. In this transition point, the training had to help you to identify what you now had to stop doing, and to identify what you had to start doing to be efficient and effective at the next level.

  4. Jan says:

    Good article. I am still amused by the fact that most/all? people we employ are very independent individuals in their own right filling amazing positions in the communities they operate in. They coach /mentor children, manage budgets, care, respect……etc. so yes I agree they can act independently if the environment allows or are there other issues? Maybe how each one dfine indepedance?

    • johanhburger says:

      You are right! Left to your own, people do exhibit some form of independence. The question we need to address is why do these people, that frequently exhibit great behaviour in their sport and families, become so much less indepedendent when they enter the realms of business? What does it say about us as leaders? Can we still call ourselves leaders when this is the case? I remember way back when it was said that you don’t have bad troops, but bad corporals and lieutenants! What is the truth in this?

  5. The Fortune article is Meet the New Face of Business Leadership, vol 161, no. 4, March 22, 2010.
    I can make a plan to share my copy with anyone who wants it.

  6. johanhburger says:

    Larry Lincoln referred to the phenomenon in the USA where junior military officers with combat experience are highly sought after by commerce. Here is a link to the article: Enjoy the read.