I’ve picked up a few leadership insights here and there.
However, my leadership insights, such as they are, tend to be of a different kind than the typical strategies you might read about in self-help books. For whatever reason, my leadership insights tend to lean towards the darker side of human nature.
1. Use the Push-Up Effect
If you want to get the most from your team, give them the bigger picture. If you want to break people down before building them up again, deprive them of basic information.
For 15 long (and mostly freezing cold) months, I served as a platoon commander in the Swedish armed forces. As a sergeant, I learned something very strange when leading the mandatory physical exercise sessions every morning:
If you tell a group of reasonable well-trained men to do 25 push-ups, they’ll most likely be able to do them. However, if you tell them to do push-ups on your count, without letting them know how many push-ups to aim for, even the toughest recruits will struggle already at 15 push-ups.
Information is power.
2. Ask Subjects to Repeat Your Instructions
When delegating, have the team leader repeat your instructions back to you. Now it’s not just your words — it’s theirs, too.
If you ask someone to do something, then ask them to repeat your instructions back to you. You will quickly find out that your way of giving instructions isn’t exactly as ‘crystal clear’ as you might have imagined them to be.
This often has nothing to do with people being stupid or not paying enough attention; interaction between two complex brains, via vocal cords, eyes, ears, air, and massive amounts of preconceptions and biases from both ends — it’s a huge cognitive ask.
3. Pace Your Leadership
Don’t waste your leadership energy. Save your strength for situations when your team is the most susceptible for a full-on leadership display.
If you never get your hands dirty, your team won’t respect you. If you get your hands dirty all the time, your team will kick back and applaud you (while watching you do the work).
Here’s another military leadership hack:
When the sun was shining, our terrain vehicles were functional, and everyone had had something to eat, then I made sure not to lift a finger. I allowed my team to do their job while I focused on planning, coaching, and listening. But as the freezing cold came upon us, in the dead of night, and our vehicles broke down, and the fire wouldn’t lit, while everyone was hungry and at the brink of exhaustion — I personally felt rested and strong. But my team didn’t think of that.
My team only saw me rising to some extreme conditions, really getting my hands dirty when they needed my leadership the most. Since I hadn’t been sweating through my clothes all day, I was able to switch to leading by example, making decisions with clarity, and fix stuff. Whenever those extreme situations occurred, I really put on a show!
4. Ask Subjects to Write Your Instructions Down
Be strict with note-taking. And the younger the team, the more crucial. Write. It. Down.
Okay, so I’m a digital guy. But digital devices run out of battery. And they make annoying sounds during your briefing. So, I like note-taking to be done the old-fashioned way; I always ask my team to carry a notebook with them at all times. (Moleskine or Field Notes will do just fine.)
I don’t care if anyone has a perfect memory or not. If I give instructions in-person, that person better write it down.
5. Never Give Subjects Plug-and-Play Solutions
When someone comes to you asking for a solution, don’t just give it to them. Your job is to make people think for themselves, not to think on their behalf.
If you’re being too helpful, your team can respond by shutting down their brains. I’ve seen it happen too many times.
Here’s the thing:
If your team comes to you with a problem, asking for a solution, then you shouldn’t give it to them. Even if you easily could.
Here’s what to do instead: You tell them to come back with two possible solutions to their problem. When they return, you ask them which one of the two solutions they themselves would recommend. And in nine times out of ten, that’s the solution you should go with.
This process is so time-consuming, that the subject will try to cut corners by coming up with possible solutions before turning to you. And when they realise that you trust their judgment on which solution to go with, they will get confident enough to start coming to you with results instead of just asking for answers.
6. Use Basic Dog Psychology
If you’re happy with a team member’s specific performance, give him or her lots of praise. When you’re not happy, deprive them of reinforcement.
Dogs respond very badly to negative feedback. They can’t really process it; it puts them in a state of fear. They are so dependent on positive reinforcements from their pack, that the absence of positive feedback scares the living daylights of them.
I’ve found that using positive reinforcement paired with the absence of positive reinforcement works really well when working with humans as well. You shouldn’t avoid confrontation by default, but most people who have done something wrong are already in a state of shame and fear.
7. Always Leave While You’re Ahead
Every once in a while, let the team get crazy drunk together, play spin the bottle, and dance on tables all night long. But you should leave early.
I never actually adhere to this particular advice myself, but still:
Don’t get crazy drunk with the team. Have fun, drink moderately and then, before it gets too late, call it a night, and get the hell out of dodge. Go home and spend some quality time with your family, or something.
It doesn’t matter if you’re “the coolest boss” ever1. Not even twelve shots of vodka will change the fact that you have hiring and firing power. You negotiate people’s salaries and you allow them to put food on their tables. Yes, you might miss a crazy fun night out. Yes, they might think you’re boring. But it doesn’t change what the right thing to do is:
8. Always Take Time-Outs
When a decision is needed, take a quick time-out, then make the decision. In the long run, your team will respect your sound judgment.
Here’s yet another military leadership hack:
You’re navigating your team through the woods. After a while, you realize that you’re lost. Now you could tell the team that you’ve lost your bearings completely (and that they probably won’t get any food today because of it). And that there will be lots of freezing and not much sleeping as a result.
In theory, your team could help you get your bearings back, however, their tired minds will most likely go reptile on you:
- How could this happen?
- Why did this happen?
- What will happen now?
- Who is to blame for this?
- Why is everyone trying to express their frustration instead of listening to me while I express mine?
Instead of just having one problem (‘being unable to pinpoint your location’), you know have dozens of fearful reptile brains to deal with. Instead, take a break, occupy the team with a task — and take the smartest person aside. Together with that person, you scope the lay of the land (‘your existing location’), and you calibrate your tools (‘your map and compass’).
The two of you will figure it out. And your “partner-in-crime” will be an important ally in supporting your next move. Then, you get back to the team and you present the new direction.
No reptile brains — just action.
9. Dare to Be Wrong in Time
Make timely decisions, and deal swiftly with the consequences. You’ll never have sufficient information anyway.
I could never have guessed that leadership was so much about guess-work. Yes, your gut instinct will probably play a major part in most of your day-to-day operations, so you should get used to it. Even if you acquire all the information there is, you’ll still be making most of your decisions based on too little information.
“A good decision made quickly is better than a perfect decision made too late.”
Not knowing if you are about to make the right or the wrong decision is scary. But if there’s no way for you to make a more informed decision, then make the bloody decision and be done with it.
10. Disarm the Trouble-Makers
Strike deals with potential trouble-makers proactively. They might not respect you yet, but you can often rely on their will to act consistently.
In any group, it’s often easy to spot the potential trouble-makers; subjects2 who will try to make you look bad in front of your team. Instead of waiting for them to make their move, take them aside individually and make a deal with them:
“As your team leader, I will be making lots of mistakes. It’s part of being a leader, as I’m sure you’ll get to experience yourself one day. Now, I’ve noticed that you’re very smart, and you’ll probably pick up on my mistakes before the rest of the group. What I would ask of you is that you make me aware of these mistakes face-to-face, and never in front of the whole group. Because that would undermine my authority. Deal?”
Such a conversation will make it much more difficult for the trouble-maker to undermine you. Trouble-makers people often thrive on being right, but breaking your deal would put them in the wrong.
11. Be Tough as Hell at First
Be tough first, nice second. Let the team earn your good graces.
If you are too nice with your subjects, they’ll like you. But as soon as you tell them to do something uncomfortable, they’ll start to act up.And if you then get tough on them, they’ll rebel against your authority. Instead, flip this narrative with this hack:
Start off with being extremely tough on your subjects. Give them uncomfortable assignments right from the start — and accept no excuses:
Quench all complaints and all the whining. Never let anything less than ‘perfect’ slip. Then, after this initial “hell phase,” you can start losing your grip, little by little. And, suddenly, the love for you as a leader will start to grow!
- You’re not.
- Trouble-makers are usually less than 1/10, see The Engagement Pyramid (Based on the 1% Rule.