Leadership – Life Experience

Introduction

Leadership is a vital part of the business world; it can be the difference between the success and failure of any business entity, from the individually run sole proprietor, to the vast, publicly traded corporation. The ability to understand and utilize the intricacies of group processes, motivation, communication, decision‐making, the use or abuse of power/politics, and conflict resolution skills is imperative in the process of leadership development.

 

Concrete Experience

Over a period of 4 and half years, I managed from a team of 2-4 (in my first year), to an entire platoon (roughly 30 individuals) in the subsequent years, molding the intricacies of the group process into a disciplined, efficient system.

Additionally, I lead 4 teams of 20 personnel in a Marine Corps Special Forces company, where I developed a sense of motivation in my teams to keep them operating in a positive manner despite adverse and dangerous situations.  My responsibilities involved training, and leading physical training sessions, in which it was my duty to instill motivation and increase morale by regularly encouraging individuals to push past their mental limitations, and praising them for accomplishing this. In order to allow this motivation to pass from myself to the rest of the platoon, it was necessary to teach the leaders of the group how to motivate and encourage their teams, as well as to encourage them to make the upkeep of their team’s motivation and morale a priority.

Physical training included leading hikes, sprint work sessions, endurance runs, ground fights, pack runs, and obstacle/confidence courses. I was typically able to push individuals past normal limitations by inspiring them with choice words and action on my own part, but the highest form of encouragement came from their own sense of accomplishment in digging deep inside of themselves and producing the drive and courage to surmount the obstacle their mind deemed insurmountable.

Guiding teams through tactical decisions, enforcing rules and regulations, and inspecting the platoon’s weapons, gear, and overall combat readiness was also a regular part of my job. In order to complete these duties correctly, it was imperative to take quick, decisive, and smart action. My decision-making abilities played an important role in these areas of responsibility.

The way I directed Marines was by verbal communication, either directly to the entire group, or indirectly, by giving orders to team leaders, who then relayed the orders to their respective teams.

I was responsible for training Marines in a wide variety of skills, including rifle marksmanship, hand to hand combat, machine gun drills, weapon statistics (maximum range, maximum effective range, velocity, rates of fire, and rounds per minute), proper weapons handling, weapons cleaning and care, squad tactics, drill, patrolling, and convoy operations. Training required concise communication with the students, to avoid confusion, and ensure understanding of procedures.

Guidance through tactical situations was usually conducted during missions, typically overseas, but sometimes in the states as well. I was responsible for leading my team, squad, or section of Marines through combat patrols, raids, convoys, and security convoys (escorting friendly non-military through combat zones). This included both communication of specific responsibilities, regular inspections to ensure combat readiness, and constant observations to ensure duties were being carried out properly. After planning, inspecting and communicating, the mission was carried out; communication was constantly maintained via headsets and/or hand signals, depending on the situation, and when the mission was completed, a meeting was held to report the outcome of the operation, reviewing key points of success, as well as areas that needed improvement.

Upon Honorable discharge from the military, I managed a warehouse for a period of three years, which consisted of a full-service department of 16 staff members encompassing Shipping & Receiving and Driver Routing.

During this time, I undertook the responsibility of making key decisions regarding the assessing and delegation of work assignments to ensure a sound and productive work environment. This typically consisted of analyzing the warehouse situation early in the morning or in the evening prior, in order to pinpoint and prioritize the duties that needed to be carried out.  Once the activities were sorted out, and the warehouse workers came in, I communicated the responsibilities to each of the warehouse leads, who took their responsibilities and divvied them up amongst their teams. To the shipping and receiving lead, I would review the number of damaged in shipping parts, as well as the number of parts shipped to the wrong address. I would also review the audit of receiving work. During the review I would commend them for good work, and correct any mistakes, teaching them how to avoid the same mistakes. I would do the same for the router, who was the driver routing lead.

As the work commenced, I maintained communication with both the leads and the members of their teams in order to keep up morale and motivation, as well as to observe, correct, and make important decisions as needed. Wherever a team was lacking, I would assist to make up for their lack of personnel.

 

In addition, I used my power and politics in training and dismissing personnel, performing evaluations and deciding on pay increases and promotions, and enforcing policy as necessary. In the rare event that an employee did not work to satisfactory levels of output, I was responsible to work with them to help them get to where they needed to be. If they would not maintain a good level of work, I had to let them go. The pay increases and promotions I gave were the result of a good evaluation. These evaluations consisted of the employee, and myself. We would discuss specific areas of duty that the employee was responsible for; what they did well, what they excelled in, and what they did not do well. If an employee achieved a certain level of exemplary work, he/she would be rewarded with a pay increase, and potentially, depending on the openings in the company, a promotion.

I negotiated with vendors to ensure cost effective transport of orders, which involved a good amount of conflict resolution between myself the company I represented, and the vendor.  If there were any conflicts amongst the employees during the day, I would mediate and de-escalate the situation. I would often take action to improve relationships that I saw to be potentially volatile, as a preventative measure against future conflict.

 

Reflective Observation

I observed connections between key individuals within the platoon, as well as within the warehouse I worked for in subsequent years. There were friendships and favoritism that resulted as an outcome of these relationships. Many times, an individual was promoted, or given a raise almost purely because of these relationships, which made me realize the importance of political alliances and connections, though the abuse of such connections were, and are against my morals.

I pinpointed a wide variety of inefficiencies in the warehouse to include communication breakdowns, faulty training, and poor attention to detail. Many employees failed to communicate the plan properly, which resulted in confusion, poor morale, and overall, weak output. The training that was in place when I began managing the warehouse consisted of an individual telling the new person how to do the job, and then letting him/her go at it without continuing training. The only way for the newcomer to actually learn was to either figure it out him/herself, or to continually come back to ask questions.

I watched conflicts between both employees and superiors, and noted the different ways people dealt with conflict. I noticed certain individual’s reactions to positive reinforcement and criticism.

Different individuals responded to criticism in differing ways – one person might become outwardly angered at a blunt remark, while another person would not be bothered at all, and still another person might seem to not be bothered, but over time will bottle up the negative communication until he or she explodes in a completely unexpected rant that had been building up since day one. Positive reinforcement was typically taken well, but some employees, usually the A-type or “natural leaders” seemed to feel that they were being patronized, or looked down on. On the other side of the matter, some employees thrived day to day on compliments and positive reinforcement. Having an understanding of this part of the group process helped put together the overall psychology of the group.

I discovered that the speed and accuracy of decisions leaders made resulted in a higher sense of trust and confidence in the individuals under that leader’s command. A leader who would take his/her time in responding to a problem, or seemed to be indecisive instilled the exact opposite of what he or she wanted to: a lack of trust.

I noticed a lack of incentives in employee’s activities, which contributed to a lack of motivation, as well as low morale. Whenever there was a lack of incentive, there was a lack of motivation and effort. Discipline and reprimanding was never enough to achieve positive results. Rewards and incentives needed to be in place in order for the highest quality of work to take place. A good example would be working in the Marine Corps compared to working in the warehouse. The Marine Corps had a rigorous system of negative reinforcement and discipline that was heavily supplemented by a strong and clear rewards system. For instance, his direct superior on his performance in specific categories graded each individual, and the point grade that was received was the deciding factor of whether or not they would get rewarded with a promotion and/or pay increase. The warehouse on the other hand, was severely lacking in incentive because of a low budget. None of the workers received raises, unless they had been there for years, and had taken on many additional responsibilities and duties. Even then, the discussion of a raise had to be initiated by the employee. The result of this was a general discontent in the employees that had been working there for years, as well as an early realization of this in new employees because of the complaints of the workers that had been there for years. The turnover was high, and morale was low, therefore output, and quality of work were low.

 

Abstract Conceptualization

General Sun Tzu, military strategist and author of the “Art of War” writes of the need for discipline, and teaches that a lack of discipline will be regarded as weakness. He continues in his leadership theories by concluding that the leader must have love for his troops as well, and must be able to show that love by treating them well and giving positive reinforcement. Having only one of these qualities will result in either the appearance of weakness, or embitterment and hatred. (Tzu) I knew that positive reinforcement often needed to be supplemented with discipline, and that the use of positive reinforcement was vital to the drive of the group process. I have learned that positive reinforcement used in conjunction with a good incentives plan is the main source of fuel for the modern employee.

The implementation of positive reinforcement has been one of the most effective strategies I have discovered in my leadership experience. The most effective form of reinforcement took place when I had the full respect of the individual I was encouraging. John C. Maxwell, author of “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, gives a list of the qualities that help a leader gain respect:

  • Respect for others
  • Leadership ability
  • Courage
  • Success
  • Loyalty
  • Value added to others

(Maxwell)

I realized that the time-tested principle of sowing and reaping comes into play here, as my sowing of respect toward subordinates resulted in reaping respect from them. (Bible Gateway)

As noted earlier, I discovered that giving incentives was an essential component of the solution to fueling employee’s drive to work well. I believed that increasing motivation and general morale could only be done well by increasing incentives along with positive reinforcement. Achieving one without the other was never enough. If an employee received substantial praise, encouragement, and recognition, but was never paid, that individual would not likely achieve his or her maximum potential. In the same way, if an employee was paid well, but received no praise, encouragement, or recognition, that employee would not likely reach his or her full capabilities. Self-actualization, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is: “The realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, esp. considered as a drive or need present in everyone.” (Merriam-Webster) I believed that people need this self-actualization to reach their full potential.

The equation for motivation/morale that I learned was this: Motivation/Drive = Positive Reinforcement + Incentive. Money incentives have proved to be highly effective, and come in many forms such as: bonuses, commission, raises, and competitive prizes. According to the psychologist Robert Eisenberger; “Based on seemingly overwhelming empirical evidence of the decremental effects of reward on intrinsic task interest and creativity, the use of reward to alter human behavior has been challenged in literature reviews, textbooks, and the popular media. An analysis of a quarter century of research on intrinsic task interest and creativity revealed, however, that:

  1. Detrimental effects of reward occur under highly restricted, easily avoidable conditions;
  2. Mechanisms of instrumental and classical conditioning are basic for understanding incremental and decremental effects of reward on task motivation; and
  3. Positive effects of reward on generalized creativity are easily attainable using procedures derived from behavior theory.” (Eisenberger)

I learned that having the ability to make a fast and intelligent decision instilled confidence in my leadership, and rarely, if ever faltered in making a decision. However, making a quick decision is only half of the solution, and I found that some of my decisions were not as ideal as I would prefer for them to be. If I had ensured that I had been better informed these decisions would have been much better.

I analyzed the different styles of communication, and realized that they often coincided with Dr. Gary Chapman’s teachings. Dr. Chapman is a counselor with over thirty years of marriage communication and counseling experience. According to him, there are four different love languages: quality time, gift giving, acts of service, and touch. (Chapman) These “languages”, I realized, were not just ways people communicated love. There was a substantial amount of overlap in how they gave and received communication, and the languages. While the language of “touch” was rarely demonstrated in the work environment, the other three forms of communication were present on a daily basis. One of my employees was a roller coaster ride of emotions that could not perform well when he was feeling down. I found that his language was quality time. Spending a little extra time with him, asking about his personal life and listening, resulted in improving his mindset, thus, his performance. Another of my employee’s language was “acts of service”. Instead of approaching her with a dominate, alpha attitude, I would ask her how she was doing, and ask if there was anything I could do to help her, and if there was, I would make it happen, as long as the time and situation allowed for it. In this way, she felt respected, and not looked down on, and increased her output. If I had any employees that had the language of gift giving, I did not know. This is unfortunate, because there were undoubtedly many individuals under me that communicated well in this fashion, and I did not recognize this because I did not give gifts.

I came to the conclusion that though key friendships and alliances are not to be ignored, they should not be abused. Watching leaders promote and demote, basing their judgment entirely on their feeling toward the individual in question, raised ethical questions in my mind. Teaching to evaluate on performance only, but making decisions based on political alliances, emotions, or any other reason for that matter, seemed hypocritical. While political decision-making and alliances were heavily discouraged and looked down on in the Marine Corps, it frequently occurred. I noticed that some leaders even did it without realizing that they were doing it. Favoritism was one of the most obvious forms of politics, to everyone but the person playing favorites. It was natural for a leader to get along with some better than others, as his personality meshed with some personalities, but clashed with others. The group that was favored typically received better proficiency/conduct marks, because the leader could not put aside his own personal convictions about his friends to grade objectively.

Although I concluded that playing favorites and using strategic friendships to advance my career was unethical, I also found that ignoring the phenomenon was not the solution. Ignoring the situation only lead to less than ideal decisions, due to the fact that they were uninformed decisions. Making decisions without forcing myself to be aware of the underlying political implications was like butting my head against an invisible brick wall. It didn’t matter that I had chosen to ignore it and pretend that it wasn’t there – it was still there regardless, and the resistance was strong.

I found that there are different types of business politics strategy, and while most are unspoken but obvious “unwritten rules”, there are some strategies that are well known, practiced, and verbalized. The “divide and conquer” strategy is a good example of this. It is simply causing employees to turn on each other, or causing key individuals to oppose each other in order to maintain power. Causing others to oppose each other keeps the negative attention off of the leader, and provides ample opportunity to appear as the mature peacekeeper. This strategy clashes with my set of ethics, as I believe that leadership should revolve around nurturing and guiding individuals, and helping them develop to their full potential, while the “divide and conquer” mentality is to keep the subordinates at a controllable level of ability, and even purposely decreasing potential, in order to maintain power.

I learned ways to manage conflicts by:

1.     Making relationships the number one priority

2.     Listening first, then talking second, and

3.     Exploring potential options as a unified team.

News author Rachel Zupek notes “Fifty-three percent of workers said they lost time at work worrying about a past or future confrontation with a co-worker, according to a recent survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina.” (CNN)

The best conflict resolution technique that I learned was preventative maintenance. This involves spotting potential conflict before it happens, and taking action to prevent the conflict from taking place. For instance, if two members of a team have a history of competing for power with each other, placing them on separate projects may be the best solution to prevent conflict. If this is not possible, they can always be taken aside to discuss their differences and come to a decision that will keep them from each other’s throats. This could be achieved by reviewing their negative history with each other, and the consequences of the lack of productivity due to conflict, as well as naming incentives for working as a team.

Active Experimentation

I implemented a system of positive reinforcement, which resulted in additional efficiency. The reinforcement that I gave consisted of a few choice and direct words commending the employee or Marine on their performance. A person who fully respects their leader greatly values just about any word given, but especially prize a word of affirmation or encouragement. I also offered positive reinforcement by allowing employees or Marines to speak freely, on equal grounds, without having to worry about repercussions. This not only allowed them to express their thoughts, opinions, and frustrations, but also showed my respect for them.

I changed our incentives to increase motivation and general morale. Though I was able to offer pay increase and promotion, I was unable to utilize any other form of incentive, unless the incentive to not get punished as a Marine can be considered. So I trained my team leaders to create a positive, ordered, and motivating atmosphere. This was done by:

1. Giving substantial encouragement to their Marines for good work

2. Ensuring that the living environment was kept clean and organized

3. Leading by example in everything they did.

General Sun Tzu states “Law is organization, the chain of command, logistics, and the control of expenses.” He emphasized the importance of morale and maintaining organization. He also noted that a lack of duty or work will lead to a lack of morale, so it would seem to be wise to keep people busy as well. (Tzu)

Another form of incentive that I desired to utilize was a prize such as gift cards, coupon books, vacation trips, and many other items of value. These forms of incentives not only increase the employee’s ambition because of the desire to win the prize, but also improve the employee’s attitude toward the company to an even greater degree than cash or money incentives do. I did not participate in any type of prize incentives, though the desire for the ability to was certainly there. If I had been able to employ these forms of incentive, the opportunity for building a tighter knit, unified team with stronger drive and ambition would have been greater.

Although incentives are usually viewed as some form of reward for good performance, this was not always the case. Incentives were often provided by simply treating the employee well. An organized, clean, and safe working environment, and an optimistic, respectful, and professional atmosphere increased motivation in leaps and bounds. These incentives were not rewards that were given because of good performance, but were simply an up front advantage of working at the company, that resulted in a heightened sense of morale and motivation. I introduced these forms of incentive to alleviate the lack in my incentive tools. I made it a point to keep the environment clean and safe, and kept everything organized by keeping notes of activity and progress, and ensuring that everyone was well informed. I also instilled an optimistic, respectful, and professional atmosphere by discouraging negative attitudes, cursing, and disrespect toward anyone, as well as encouraging positive attitudes, respect, and courteous language.

I began making quick, well informed decisions by knowing the information ahead of time, and asking quick, pointed questions if I didn’t. This technique benefited me in my personal life as well. My leadership in the business world did not stop there. Leadership amongst friends, family, and even strangers was improved by my ability to make fast, solid decisions. For instance, when my wife shops, she is often very indecisive, which burns time that could be spent on more important things like quality conversations and other enjoyable activities. When she asks me however, I often have made a decision before she asks, and have laid out the reasons in my head. This usually increases her confidence in the decision, and time is saved, to be used for better things.

I developed a system of communication that helped mend the gaps in it. I implemented the most effective technique in regards to communication, which was listening instead of just hearing. I often heard my subordinates or superiors talk, but did not listen to them. I had made a decision in my mind and was determined to follow through on it despite their opinion. Whenever this was the case, it was unlikely that the conversation would achieve anything, as proper communication had not commenced. When I began to listen however, results greatly improved. A person can usually sense if they are being listened to as opposed to just being heard, and although it often seemed to take more time (because I was not the only one talking), listening to that person made them feel respected, valued, and important, which resulted in them being able to listen to my side, and work with me toward achieving the common goal.

Another way that I increased communication was by utilizing team meetings to give the overall agenda, so that everyone was well informed and on the same wavelength. I also used the loudspeaker to keep the workers informed, especially when time would not allow for face-to-face discussion.

I tried to maintain a respectful attitude toward both my superiors and their relationships within the organization, and developed friendships with like-minded individuals. It became clear to me that using political tact was necessary, making note of key “alliances” and favorites, and sidestepping the conflict that I knew would occur if a decision were seen as an attack on a friend or ally.

I revised my opinion of politics and used the power that was given to me in a fair and subjective manner, while being keenly aware of the politics of the platoon or company, as well as making friends with like mind individuals for mutual benefit. While I was unable to become fully aware of such politics, and use the knowledge to my advantage, I established an awareness of politics in the workplace as essential part of  my leadership ability development.

I reprogrammed our conflict resolution by taking a portion of the day to listen to frustrations and complaints in order to solve the issue before it became a serious problem. This process became a part of my marriage life as well. We found that taking a day a week (or more or less as needed) to discuss whatever bothered us about each other (in a tactful and respectful manner) improved our marriage greatly. It helped because it decreased the amount of deep conflict by dealing with the root issue; the “scratch” before it had the chance to grow into a infected, festering wound that would take much more time and effort to resolve. A good example would be my wife telling me that she felt undermined by my decisions regarding finances. I had no idea that this was the case of course, and had assumed that she appreciated my ability to take charge of the bills and investments, and resolve budgeting issues without soliciting her help. The fact that she felt this way made sense to me though, when she brought it up in one of our “conflict preventing discussions”, and it enabled me to not only respect her by including her in whatever financial decision that needed to be made, but to share some of the workload as well. If we had not resolved this root issue, a number of big problems would have resulted. For one, she might have become bitter against me, and this bitterness would affect other areas of our marriage. Perhaps she would have decided to take matters into her own hands, by creating her own budget, which would result in bankruptcy thanks to her shopping habits. Whatever the case might have been, our relationship improved, and conflict was prevented by taking an hour or two to discuss potential problems in the relationship.

Conclusion

Understanding of group processes, motivation, communication, decision-making, power, politics, and conflict resolution is the ability that I have learned and used over the past seven years of my leadership experience. The ability to understand these things has enabled many leaders to excel in their careers, as they have and will for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Chapman, Gary D. The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Chicago: Northfield Pub. 1995. Print.

 

Eisenberger, Robert. “American Psychologist.” Vol. 51. (11) (1996): 1153-1166. Print.

 

“Galatians 6:7.” Bible Gateway. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. http://www.biblegateway.com.

 

Maxwell, John C. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998. Print.

Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary.

 

Sun, Tzu. Art of War. S.I.: Pax Librorum H, 2009. Print.

Zupek, Rachel. “Six Tips to Managing Workplace Conflict.” CNN. 31 Dec. 2007. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. http://articles.cnn.com/2007-12-31/living/cb.work.conflict_1_conflict-resolution-workplace-stress-worker?_s=PM:LIVING.

 

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