What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

The modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is both an engineering marvel and a triumph of human organization. Its 3,000-member crew—plus up to a few thousand more staff personnel and aviators when fully outfitted—run a massive, nuclear-powered machine that simultaneously functions as a busy airport for fighter jets and a floating city. 

It can seem like a maze of passageways and a blur of activity, but everything and everyone has a purpose—a role that aligns with the overall mission. They routinely engage in dangerous work, yet they experience far fewer than their fair share of accidents. 

It’s fitting, therefore, that scholars often cite naval aircraft carriers as prototypical examples of “high-reliability” organizations. Such organizations, they suggest, are able to engage daily with risky technologies in a remarkably safe manner because of the ways in which people interact, communicate, and adhere to common principles. These “hallmarks of high reliability” are (1) preoccupation with failure, (2) sensitivity to operations, (3) reluctance to simplify explanations, (4) commitment to resilience, and (5) deference of decision-making authority to those with the most expertise. 

Such principles are worthy of exploration and hold numerous lessons for leaders in non-military contexts. 

Here, however, I’d like to share a number of other key insights that emerged during a recent tour of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) that I had the privilege to accompany. I was helping with a two-day session for high-potential leaders at a Fortune 50 company,

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Agile HR: Trends and Opportunities

Agile HR: Trends and Opportunities

The future of human resources (HR) lies at the intersection of strategy, data analytics, design thinking, and a new set of practices and mindsets ushered in by the world of agile methods and organizational agility writ large. 

And the time is ripe for HR professionals to have the bandwidth necessary to devote themselves to such matters. Numerous HR services—particularly those that are more compliance and administrative in nature—have been prime candidates for outsourcing for years. Automation, furthermore, has the potential to eliminate or reduce further many repetitive HR tasks.

In the March-April 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis outline a number of ways in which HR is adopting agile principles. In their article, “HR Goes Agile,” Cappelli and Tavis highlight how HR practices are beginning to trend away from the old approaches governed by rules and plans. Taking cues from agile, they contend, HR is increasingly moving toward a feedback-driven approach characterized by simplicity and speed.  

Here are some highlights

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The Big Lie That’s Hindering Your Agility

The Big Lie That’s Hindering Your Agility

I’ve seen it in almost every work-related team—both those in which I’ve been a member, and those I’ve coached or led. 

It’s a blind spot that we all have. It’s a big lie we all tell ourselves.

It makes us feel good, secure, worthy. It’s psychologically soothing; it’s comfortable.

But it’s blocking our access to the truth. It’s hurting our ability to make optimal decisions. And it’s certainly keeping us from sensing and responding rapidly to change, which is the essence of being an agile leader. 

This big lie that we all tell ourselves is as follows:

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Military Veterans and Employment: Four Hidden Issues and Potential Solutions

Military Veterans and Employment: Four Hidden Issues and Potential Solutions

Making the leap from active-duty military service to successful civilian employment is hard. 

I know. I did it in 2005. 

Despite my best efforts, I ended up in a dead-end outside sales job for which I was unprepared and in which my employer left me to sink or swim. 

After about two months, I sank. 

I got a better job, one that better fit my skills and abilities. But I was still underemployed. Thus began years of clawing with my fingernails for something better, pushing my way through graduate school and into what has become a fabulous career. 

Things worked out. But it was unexpectedly hard—for five reasons. One of those reasons is commonly discussed. Four of those reasons are hidden, or at least in my experience, they’re less frequently discussed. 

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Good Managers Do These 102 Things

Good Managers Do These 102 Things

I teach a “managerial skills development” course, in which I attempt to share research-based insights on what it takes to be a good manager of people. 

I recently changed one aspect of the course by highlighting important concepts—or “keys” to being a good manager. In most class sessions, I introduced anywhere from five to nine such keys. By the end of the semester, I had 102 “Keys to Being a Good Manager.”  

It’s important to note that these aren’t meant to be the only actions one must take to manage people in a way that unlocks their potential and inspires them to be their best at work. Furthermore, when I teach these, I include quite a bit of amplifying information and context for each of these points. I also didn’t get too hung up on the distinction between management and leadership, because great organizations have both. 

That being said, there’s no harm—at least none that I can imagine right now—from sharing these 102 items as standalone concepts. 

So here they are: 

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Harvey Weinstein, King David, You, and Me

Harvey Weinstein, King David, You, and Me

People who have power without oversight are likely to abuse it. Such has been the case throughout history. Not all people in power are abusive or unethical, yet power itself increases the probability for wrongdoing. 

Recent examples include Harvey Weinstein, whose reportedly habitual repugnant, criminal behavior against women is—appropriately—shocking.  

And every day, it seems that more reports of similar behavior surface.

One explanation for such behavior is that

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On the Origins of VUCA and How it Affects Decision Making

On the Origins of VUCA and How it Affects Decision Making

It’s not just you; it’s not just me. The acronym VUCA is more popular than ever. 

According to Google Trends, interest in the term is at an all-time high, following a distinct trend upward in the past several years. 

Like many ideas, however, VUCA as a framework for understanding turbulence in one’s environment wasn’t an overnight sensation. The acronym—which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—began decades ago with attempts to help develop strategic leaders at the U.S. Army War College.

One of the earliest references to VUCA that I’ve found is in a 1992 article in the Journal of Management Development by Herbert Barber titled, “Developing strategic leadership: The US Army War College experience.” In the article, he describes how the U.S. Army War College and The Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences sponsored a conference in February 1991 that 

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When Brutal Honesty is a Brutal Mistake

When Brutal Honesty is a Brutal Mistake

Some people wear it like a badge of honor, something that’s part of their identity. 

“I’m brutally honest.”

“I say it like it is.”

I get the appeal. We generally appreciate honesty and candid communication. We sometimes equate “brutal honesty” with strength of character or integrity.

But the truth is much more complicated. 

Sometimes—many times, I’d argue

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Leading Collaboration and Disaster Response

Leading Collaboration and Disaster Response

Rescue and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey, which struck the Texas coast on Aug. 26, are likely testing the ability of numerous organizations to coordinate or collaborate effectively. 

People within all of these organizations—including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, state and local law enforcement, the fire service, and many others—have undoubtedly been working around the clock to help those in need. Like those professionals whom I’ve had the pleasure to know in these and similar areas of public service, these people are selfless, hardworking, and well-intentioned. 

With any massive event like this, however, there are

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Accidents at Sea and Human Behavior

Accidents at Sea and Human Behavior

When I heard about the collision involving USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) on June 17, 2017, my heart sank. For me and other Navy veterans who have served aboard ships like Fitzgerald, the feeling is rather personal—we’ve driven ships, we’ve been in situations that are tough to navigate, and we can imagine fairly closely the moments before and after a collision. 

Then, only about two months after Fitzgerald, came the news that USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collided with a vessel on Aug. 21 near the Strait of Malacca. Because it connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s a high-traffic area, one that puts many large ships within relatively close proximity of each other. Of the many tough waters in the world to traverse, this one is somewhere near the top of the list.

My heart—and, I’m sure, the hearts of many others—sank again. 

First, of course, I think of those killed and injured. My thoughts and prayers are with them and their families. 

Second, I wonder:

Why?

What happened? 

Myriad explanations abound, and

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On Learning Strategic Thinking

On Learning Strategic Thinking

Some people, it seems, just “get it” better and faster than other people. They understand how what other people do influences their options, they consider what incentives are at work in complex situations, and they think through the possible consequences—intended or unintended—of numerous scenarios. 

They think critically. They challenge assumptions, including their own. They do all of these types of thinking, which roughly fall under the umbrella of “strategic thinking.” 

These strategic thinkers, we hope, are among those leading our organizations. 

We hope that leaders think strategically because our world is continually changing. Many argue that the pace of change continues to accelerate, and increasingly rapid technological innovation combined with globalization suggest that this is the case. 

We need leaders who think strategically because the success of their organizations in the long term depends upon it. 

Therefore, many are investing in developing the capacity for strategic thinking within their organizations. They wonder, with good reason,

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Human Resource Management and The Great Unlearning

Human Resource Management and The Great Unlearning

Exciting changes in the world of human resources (HR) abound. As noted by Stephen Barley (University of California Santa Barbara), Beth Bechky, and Frances Milliken (both of New York University) in their recent article in Academy of Management Discoveries, 

“Few people would deny that the nature of work and employment has changed over the last four decades, not only in the United States but in many countries worldwide. Moreover, the nature of work is likely to continue to change as we move further into the 21st century.”

Such changes make HR work continually dynamic, with evolving practices with regard to new technologies, the increasing prevalence of contingent workers, and more. Barley and his coauthors also mention the rise of artificial intelligence and the rise of project-based work as fundamental shifts that will influence careers and even how people think about themselves in relation to their organizations and society. 

These changes alone are enough to keep HR leaders and other executives up at night. 

Yet I wonder

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Wellness? How About Comprehensive Employee Fitness

Wellness? How About Comprehensive Employee Fitness

Within the military, attention in recent years has been shifting among senior military leaders toward a model of health for service members that included the idea of resilience. Notably, in 2011, a whole special issue of the high-visibility journal American Psychologist focused on the U.S. Army’s idea of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” or CSF. In the opening article, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Casey Jr. described it this way:

“… the Army is leveraging the science of psychology in order to improve our force’s resilience. More specifically, we are moving beyond a “treatment-centric” approach to one that focuses on prevention and on the enhancement of the psychological strengths already present in our soldiers. Rooted in recent work in positive psychology, CSF is a “strengths-based” resiliency program that shows promise for our workforce and its support network so our soldiers can “be” better before deploying to combat so they will not have to “get” better after they return.”[i]

Although I’m a Sailor (i.e., in the Navy; more specifically, the Navy Reserve) and not a Soldier, the notion of resilience has seeped across the branches of service. And while most of the personnel burden for the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen upon the Army, the Navy has also begun to appreciate the notion of resilience. That’s good, because resilient service members will be better equipped to handle the increasingly dynamic nature of their work, and, when they eventually leave military service, they’ll have yet another skill that transfers to the civilian workplace.

It’s also a concept that’s critical for leaders working in any industry that’s either beginning to experience—or is in the throes of—what’s becoming the turbulent, modern business environment. Work organizations that embraced a concept of “comprehensive employee fitness” would surely benefit through the more engaged, more motivated workforce that would result.

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Leadership and Deviance

Leadership and Deviance

One of the many interesting things about leading a team or an organization is that it inherently involves being a social deviant. 

Left to their own devices, most teams and organizations tend to follow the path of least resistance, with members generally figuring out what’s expected and doing that—but not much more. That would be fine if we lived in a static world, one in which change was rare. 

But we don’t. 

Change is ever-present, and our teams and organizations must continually evolve. Otherwise, they become irrelevant, even obsolete. And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all recognize those moments in which other people—leaders—have pushed us to do and become more than we thought was possible. 

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Take the High Road in Office Politics

Take the High Road in Office Politics

If you haven’t worked in the military or alongside the military as part of a larger operation, you may think that the danger of being in a warzone or the importance of the overall mission may supersede the political games people often play in organizations.

I wish that were true. 

I was part of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) from December 2012 to December 2013. I quickly learned upon my arrival was that NTM-A comprised myriad types of people

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The Death Star Aimed at Your Scrum Team

The Death Star Aimed at Your Scrum Team

I worry about many companies that are starting to use scrum for project management or product development. 

I worry not because scrum doesn’t work. It surely can, and when done right, it can be a highly invigorating and effective process for all involved. 

I worry about companies that are starting to use scrum for two reasons:

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Leadership Lessons from the U.S. Navy--FREE ebook!

Leadership Lessons from the U.S. Navy--FREE ebook!

Examine virtually any big problem in a team, an organization, or even society at large, and somewhere you’ll find a leadership vacuum—a space where people simply aren’t closing the gap between the status quo and a better alternative. 

And if being a commissioned officer in the greatest navy to ever exist on planet Earth has taught me anything, it’s that maintaining and improving any organization—regardless of its strong core values or technological superiority—requires people to step up and lead, every single day. 

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The Best Organizations Have No Heroes

The Best Organizations Have No Heroes

What are some of the ways you recognize superior performance?” I asked. 

“Well, we used to have ‘The Hero Fund’,” said one of the executives.

“It was a pot of money we set aside for people who really went above and beyond the call of duty, helping the company in a crisis.”

The rest of the executives started to get excited, apparently remembering The Hero Fund in all its glory. 

“You know, we should bring that back,” said another. 

The excitement continued to build. Finally, I couldn’t help myself.  

“Hold on a second,” I said.

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