What a joy spending time with a young military officer over the holiday. An instructor who teaches the principles of warfighting to young, green lieutenants, he has some interesting stories about developing young leaders. Listening to his insight into “education and learning” it struck me that leadership development concepts are really no different for military or civilian leaders.
Basic officer training is the place that new officers try, fail and learn. Young kids right out of college don’t really like the “fail” part; it’s not a word that has been allowed in their vocabulary. They have spent 16 years of their lives striving to ace exams and earn good grades. Marines are selective, and they wouldn’t be military officers if they hadn’t learned how to be successful in school.
Mock battles are, in essence, simulated learning. The instructors create a realistic scenario, and provide roles, situations, and play the bad guys. The students use concepts learned in class to develop their operational plan, and the student leaders carry out the work of executing the plan.
Of course, as they say “life happens” and rarely do plans ever succeed perfectly, no matter how carefully the contingencies are addressed. The instructors insert “life” in a series of unexpected obstacles, probably similar to those they have encountered in their personal experience. The lieutenants have to react; their carefully planned strategy is totally upended by the unexpected. This is the way it would work in real life; “life happens.”
He told a story about one of the student lieutenants who was serving as the commander for a training exercise; the student had worked meticulously on his plan to defeat the enemy in mock battle. The student lieutenant was, as many are, cocky and brash and full of himself. The plan worked until the instructors threw a curve ball and the students had to adjust.
After the mock battle is complete, instructors debrief with the students, and discuss what worked and what didn’t. The cocky young lieutenant told our visitor, “Sir, my plan would have worked if only you hadn’t changed the situation at the last minute.”
The after action debrief is a critical element of organizational learning. It is where everyone reflects on their own and others’ actions of others, and discusses the situation openly and honestly solely for the purpose of learning.
Anyone not willing to reflect honestly on his own actions cannot truly learn. The inability to learn constricts the ability to lead, as leadership is all about learning – from yourself, from others, and from situations.
This is a critical element of the new lieutenants program – learning to learn, and should be a critical element of any leadership development program. Counterintuitively, lieutenants who don’t fail during basic officer training are dangerous when they get to their units, because they have not taken sufficient risks in order to fail and learn.
Expecting the unexpected…and learning from it
In civilian life, we often neglect taking the time for this important reflection. We are so busy, we move from project to project, and we pat ourselves on the back when something goes right, even if we have no idea why the project was successful.
Stumbling into success is no better than failing. If you don’t know what caused the outcome, you cannot confidently repeat the success. If you cannot confidently repeat the success, you put the organization at risk. The risk may not be as severe as those faced by a Marine in battle, but they impact the organization nonetheless.
Reflection is important on both process and human behavior. Processes can be documented; human behavior often happens “in the moment.” It is influenced by fear, apprehension or other emotions that overcome intellectual reactions, and reflective debrief facilitates exploration of the process, the human behavior and allows the reflector to explore her own reasons for the actions taken. This provides insightful guidance into future actions. This is learning.
A learning opportunity
What if we shifted our paradigm when obstacles present themselves? Perhaps instead of bemoaning “my plan would have worked if…”, we instead say, “hmmm, that didn’t work; I wonder why?”
Every action, obstacle and situation is a learning opportunity. In organizations we learn as individuals, as teams and as the organization as a whole. Reflection at each level is a means of learning at each level so that individuals, teams and the organizations continue to grow and progress forward, building each new situation based upon the learnings of the prior situations.
The lieutenant will eventually “get it.” He has to, or he risks the lives of those he commands. He will understand that everything that happens is a gift of learning that will make him stronger.
Perhaps we could take a lesson from this, in our civilian world. What we do every day is complicated; we live in a complex world. Can we find the time to reflect and learn? I think we have to, or we risk repeating mistakes, and that is a waste of time, resources and talent that we really cannot afford.