Part of the Series: "Leadership Principles For Young Professionals & Millennials
A leadership principle that you will find very familiar is being technically and tactically proficient. In today’s business world, certifications, degrees, and experience are of the highest of emphasis. Knowing your craft or skill is paramount to being productive in your profession. As a leader, knowing the craft or skills your people must perform and be productive in is just as critical. Since this principle is relatively common knowledge compared to the other leadership principles in this series, I’m going to share a couple tips to keep in mind in regards to this principle, as well as pitfalls to avoid.
Know what’s in the book, but learn how it’s done.
On the day that I graduated from the Basic School in the Marines, a sergeant I knew at the school gave me a tip as I was walking out the door. He said “Sir, all that stuff you learned in your books, throw it in the garbage, find yourself sergeants, staff sergeants, and gunnery sergeants and learn from them.” (all enlisted Marine ranks that tend to have experience ranging from five years up to twenty plus years) Now, I did not take him literally and throw my books away, but I did take his advice. Knowing what was in the books, and what was taught in our classes was important to know for a frame of reference, how things should be done in ideal conditions. Also, what was in my books was also critical in recognizing when things are being done wrong.
Book knowledge is a critical foundation to build on. Without it, you have nothing to grow from. There will also be times when your people may try to take a shortcut, or just have a lapse in how to execute in their profession. Without enough experience, you have to fall back on book knowledge to guide your judgement. But there is something to be said about learning from those who have been doing it daily and in the real world.
When you’re humble and build rapport with those you lead, but they have more experience, you will find a very willing teacher and mentor. Align yourself with experts who have made the mistakes already. Though, we may learn a lot from our own mistakes, there is no rule that says you can’t learn from other’s mistakes and successes, for that matter. Be a sponge. Be willing to learn. You will find people eager to teach and share what they know, and at the same time, know what is in the book, so you can make judgments and decisions for yourself.
You have to know why the rules were written in order to know the right time to break them.
In 2003, I was a platoon commander of a convoy security team in Iraq. I had been trained in the conduct of proper convoy security. I studied the enemy’s history and tactics they had implemented in the past and noticed that their tactics exploited many of the convoys rules I had been taught. Knowing the enemy’s limitations, I changed the rules my Marines and I would follow in the conduct of our convoys; to the point that it made those who did not know we were doing it on purpose very nervous. I even received a good butt chewing from a more senior officer on one of my convoys when my Marines and I were moving him and his Marines closer to the front units, but I did not wavered from what I knew was working and keeping us safe. The result of executing those unorthodox tactics was that my convoy security team was the only team in our company not to get shot at or ambushed, even when we passed through known ambush zones that other teams received fire from.
The lesson from that experience is that I studied my butt off. In the conduct of reviewing everything I was taught as standard convoy tactics, I began to question why those rules were in place in the first place. In bouncing those rules off the enemy’s past tactics, I was confident in my judgment and decision to make changes and quickly train my Marines on what those changes were. I didn’t break the rules in order to be a rebel. I broke them because I knew why they existed and recognized that those reasons did not apply to the situation we were about to enter.
When you know why the rules exist, you have the knowledge to know when to break them, and for the right reasons. When you experience success in this regard, you find a level of influence that even draws people who you have never led before.
If you are surrounded by experts, you don’t have to be one.
As you progress in your leadership journey, you will find yourself in roles where you only know enough to be dangerous. It’s in those roles where I have seen may leaders make a critical error. I have witnessed leaders practice the old mantra “fake it until you make it.” They believe that in order to be seen as a leader, they have to be the expert. This is always an accelerated path to losing trust and respect with the people you lead.
Remember, leadership is about influencing people in an effort to accomplish a common objective, goal, mission, purpose, or vision. It’s not about you proving your level of expertise. The best leaders I have had the privilege of working with surrounded themselves with experts who advised them. As the leader, they were responsible for making decisions, and were accountable for their outcomes. You must be technically and tactically proficient enough to make sound decisions. That is the intent of this principle
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