[April 29, 2015] Growing up in rural Louisiana, my grandmother often told me to “put your brain in gear” … and she was one smart woman, as grandmothers are known to be. What she was trying to do was to get me to think and to be engaged in what was happening around me; I call it intellectual engagement. One afternoon while helping her, I got my arm entangled in an electric wringer washing machine – there is no safety shutoff. Needless to say, I got my first visit to a hospital emergency room as a young kid.
What I didn’t know at the time and not for many years later as a leader, was that thinking and being engaged are hard work and tiring. Yet to be among the best at what you do requires a certain level of intellectual engagement that some folks are unable to achieve without some assistance. That in itself is a problematic issue when we work in a structured work environment that directives always come down from the “boss.”
As a senior leader, one of my most difficult challenges was to get colonels to think at the next level; to think beyond the tactical level to the operational/strategic level. That required me to change the way we functioned by removing those things that inhibit us. But the same problem exists at all levels in any organization. All employees need to be thinking and engaged so as to provide a level of excellence in their service to the organization.
This meant that we needed to remove those business practices that inhibited our natural ability to think clearly. It also meant that we had to implement ways that forced ourselves to be intellectually engaged. The current management concept for this is employee engagement and is all about improving competence and efficiency. In particular, this is most important in a complex world that is changing rapidly.1
In the military, the few among us that truly wanted our military personnel to “think and be engaged” were mostly in the combat arms; those fields of professionals that would directly engage the enemy in armed combat. Failure could mean death. We wanted a thinking, fighting force that could adjust to changing circumstances by knowing their job and the intent of the commander. Doing so required new ways of thinking for our military men and women but many understood what we were trying to do.
We used a few modern management techniques, but what worked best was when we forced a method of doing things that required people to think about what they were doing. Leaders shifted the burden of preparation on our subordinates using various techniques. Our people began to think about what they were required to do and separately prepare for it. This significantly increased the level of competence in our folks and made us all more successful.
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