4 Questions the Best Generals (and Executives) Ask Themselves!

Note: This article is based on a chapter in an upcoming book that will describe how I effectively utilized Marine Corps leadership concepts and techniques while serving as a C-Level executive in a publicly-traded professional services firm.

In my role as an executive leadership coach, I often teach senior business leaders the difference between strategic, operational, and tactical thinking and planning. Unlike their military counterparts, very few senior executives have ever received any type of formal education or training on this topic. Almost inevitably, they lose focus on enterprise-level issues that can only be addressed by them and fellow executives. Instead, they devote an inappropriate amount of time to operational and tactical issues that are typically best addressed by less senior leaders (and their teams) throughout the company’s chain of command.

Executives = Generals and Admirals

At the onset of discussions on strategic thinking and planning, I tell senior executives that they are the “Generals and Admirals” of their companies, a comparison that surprisingly few of them have thought of previously. During our conversations, I provide examples of what types of situations and issues Generals and Admirals rightfully focus on and how much of their precious time they would appropriately spend on them.

A key concept that I continuously emphasize to my clients—senior executives—is that they alone are ultimately responsible for strategic direction of their organizations and the achievement of its Vision and Mission (goals and objectives). A term that I use extensively during all my coaching sessions with these leaders is “enterprise-level.” This term is used to describe concepts, topics, and situations that apply broadly to the entire organization, rather than one or a few operational or tactical departments or business functions.

Naturally, my intention is to cause my clients to reflect upon the issues they have been spending their time on. I want them to decide whether these issues are truly at the enterprise-level or if they would be better addressed or acted upon by subordinate leaders and their teams. The General/Admiral analogy has proven quite effective in helping them reflect upon where they are spending their time and I encourage leaders reading this article to apply it to their specific leadership roles and responsibilities.

4 Questions for Enterprise-Level Leaders

Once my clients acknowledge that they may be focusing on operational and tactical issues at the expense of strategic matters, I provide guidance on how they can prevent this wasteful diversion of thought, time, and effort in the future. I recommend that senior executives should focus on producing high-level answers to four broad questions:

1.  What is the current situation and what challenges or opportunities does it present for the organization?

2.   What is the desired end-state?

3.   What resources are available or could be obtained?

4.   How will I utilize these resources to achieve the desired end-state?

Seemingly easy to answer, these questions often elicit confusion or various levels of distraction for senior leaders. Often, they will remain focused on a situation or environment they would like to be in rather than that which actually exists!

I’m sure that many readers are nodding their heads in approval at this moment, thinking, “I know a leader who does that!” Of course, all readers should do some honest reflection and ask themselves, “Am I guilty of this type of thinking or behavior?”

The “Forbidden H-Word”

In many instances, executives will allow themselves to begin using what I teach my clients to refer to as the “forbidden H-Word.” They start basing their decisions on “Hope” along the lines of, “I hope this will work” or “I hope this doesn’t happen.”

In the military, a common saying among leaders and planners is “Hope is not a battlefield strategy.” I teach this saying to my clients in a modified version—“Hope is not a business strategy.”

You might ask, “Is hope a bad thing?” I don’t think so; we all need to have some level of hope relative to various issues in our personal and professional lives. But it is very evident that in the business world (much like in warfare) things often do not happen as you had hoped they would. In such instances, success is attained by decisive leadership demonstrated by men and women who are agile-minded and able to adapt plans to various contingencies.

Note: this topic, the “forbidden H-Word” will be covered in detail in my book!

Lessons for Leaders

Sound and timely enterprise-level thinking and planning is essential to the success and long-term survival of any organization. As such, it is of the highest importance that senior leaders remain focused on various enterprise-level situations and issues and devote an appropriate amount of time and energy toward them. Seasoned and successful “Business Generals” know when the time is right to include other members of their leadership team in these discussions; and when and to what degree issues may be delegated “for action” to these leaders and their teams.

Senior business leaders would be wise to remember that they are indeed the “Generals and Admirals” of their respective organizations. They should also reflect upon a quote attributed to one of the world’s most famous military leaders:

“There are no bad soldiers, only bad Generals” ~ Napoleon

-Mike Ettore 

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