Leadership Experience: the Canadian Armed Forces Way

Okay, so it’s been quite awhile since my last blog. One of the reasons for this is the time I spent in February and March on an Advanced Geochronology course taught by my supervisor, professor Bruce Eglington and professor Camille Partin from University of Saskatchewan. Absolutely great course, and well taught. Also something I’ll have to blog about later! The second reason was my adventure in learning leadership.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists…when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: We did it ourselves.”

Lao-Tzu, an ancient philosopher and founder of Taoism

This second reason for my complete absence in April and half of May is my training and completion of the basic military officer qualification (BMOQ) course for the Naval Reserve. Working for half my career as a quasi-solo consultant, I was looking for more opportunities to diversify my leadership skills. I was also looking for more opportunities to develop my data analysis skills. This lead me to join the Naval Reserve as an Intelligence Officer, and ultimately to my decision in March to attend basic training.

This certainly was a decision that I made half heartedly. Forty-one years old and going to boot camp!? I must be crazy. But I was quite surprised when I arrived. I was probably slightly older than the average age. There were quite a few people in their late 40’s and early 50’s. That said, the course was very difficult. If you are ever thinking about this, prepare yourself physically and mentally. It’s not for the faint of heart.

BMOQ first teaches you how to follow. Nobody can be a leader, without first knowing how to be a follow. The first 3 weeks of the course are primarily focused on following. With this post, I’ll be focusing on the last 3 weeks, where the focus becomes leadership. I’ll discuss the 10 critical requirements for leadership.

Responsibility and Accountability

Part of being a leader, is showing others that you want to be a leader. Some personalities have a natural talent for showing this enthusiasm. I’ll focus on my personal experience as being someone who has had problems showing this level of enthusiasm for a leadership role. My advice is to look for opportunities to be a leader and jump on them. Expand the comfort zone, and push yourself to be in the spotlight. Know you’re going to make mistakes, and of utmost importance, own your mistakes.

Perform Effectively Under Stress

Well if there was one thing that was abundantly clear during basic training, it was the instructors intent of putting the candidates under stress and then analyzing their decision making. Sleep deprivation was one of these tools to induce stress. First step, make the candidates do 20 hours of missions, a few night watches, and 43 minutes of sleep (an accurate measurement based on the tears falling on my watch blinking 1:43 late in the course). Second step, have them perform a test, or clear their rifle, and watch many of them make one too many shortcuts and fail. This course is sometimes facetiously called “Failure Camp”, and that has some merit. How do you react to failure?

This particular skill requires a lot of practice and emotional intelligence. Remain calm, and control your reactions. It certainly has applications to civilian life. Is a client screaming at you because something out of your control went wrong? Or was it something in your control? We are all human, but a simple excuse are rarely acceptable. Offer solutions.

From my experience, emotions are contagious. Remaining calm and composed until others catch your emotions is a much better option than matching others anger or frustration.

Skills and Knowledge

There is no doubt to be successful in leadership, you need the overall skills and knowledge required to accomplish the task. Now I didn’t know a thing about military tactics before this course. A lack of knowledge certainly cripples you, but being a leader is also about identifying the people in your team that have the skills and knowledge required. I was fortunate enough to be in a section with a lot of those skills.

Give the people with the skills clear objectives. Explain why and how the task will be achieved. By providing overall command and control, you can leverage the skills of your team to its fullest.

Initiative and Decisiveness

A big part of decision making involves having a strong knowledge base and knowing the time frame required for your decisions. You are typically never going to have the full picture before you make your decision, but subjectively speaking, about 70% is reasonable. Once you make that decision, have confidence in it. If the decision doesn’t work out, you can briefly and internally analyze what went wrong with your decision making process, but it’s much more important to focus on what your next decision is.

Seek Advice and Constructive Criticism

Growth comes with being able to identify where you are going wrong. This can be a very difficult pill to swallow sometimes, but if you don’t remember the last time you learned a fundamental truth about yourself or the world around you, then you don’t remember the last time you’ve grown as a person. Leadership requires swallowing this pill sometimes.

One other tip I have in this area, is to turn negative criticism into constructive criticism. I would love to say that the world is filled with people that are trying to make you better, but more often than not people are a little more self centered. But you can choose to ignore negative, unhelpful criticism, or try to reform their criticism in a positive way and grow from it.

Inspire Performance and Cooperation

The best way to inspire is through example. If your team isn’t communicating with you or each other, then communicate with them. Make them feel comfortable by taking the first steps. Another pitfall in inspiration is trying to get off to a good start, but forgetting to continue on. Inspiration must be continuous, throughout the entire project.

Plan Effectively

Ah, organization. An Achilles heel for me if I ever had one (actually I’m pretty sure I have about 4 Achilles heels… or maybe 2 Achilles heels and 2 Achilles elbows???). There are a number of LinkedIn courses that can help with planning, along with a number of tools like Gantt charts that can turn planning into a more logical process. I encourage anyone to look online for these free courses. The time invested in them will be returned.

Communicate Effectively

Communication needs to be clear and concise. Confirmation questions are great ways to make sure your instructions have been understood. I also suggest following up verbal conversations with emails to ensure everyone is on the same page, especially if those instructions are slightly complex or high importance. It allows people to return to the email to reread the directions if their memory lapses over time.

Supervise Effectively

Often watching new supervisors you see a lot of “firefighting”. By this I mean they tackle each task one by one directing their team members with one task at a time, and then refocusing to other tasks. Good supervision requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. Give your team members multiple instructions, and leave them to do the job. After this, you should be monitoring and ensuring standards, and making sure everyone has at least one, preferably more tasks on their plate.

Delegate Effectively

Know your teams strengths and weaknesses so you can delegate the right tasks to the right people. It’s also important to remember the overall goal of the project. While the team works on their individual tasks, you have to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

If you are interested in taking this journey yourself, I highly suggest you take that challenge. The HMCS Unicorn’s contact information can be found here.

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