Timeless Leadership is not rocket surgery.

I’m a military veteran. USAF. 13 years, 8 months, 13 days. If I was counting.

As such, I frequently read old military books, discourses, and papers to compare corporate leadership today with historical military leadership. The similarities are astounding. A 1941 book published by the Military Service Publishing Company is one such work.

Edited by the staff, it has no specific author, but is a compilation of thoughts, ideas, suggestions and directives from a stream of notable military leaders. Some–just as an example–include the likes of General J.G. Harbord, who began as a private in the Spanish-American war, achieved prominence as General Pershing’s Chief of Staff, and later commanding the USMC’s 2nd Division before assuming the Chairmanship of the RCA Corporation.

Just an example of the caliber of input for this book…

In this book, Chapter II discusses “Orientation.” Of course, it is meant to apply mostly to new officers at a new post or assignment.

Truth is, the advice given there — some 75-odd years ago to junior officers — is as appropriate today for first-time (and/or recently promoted) managers as it is senior-most leadership.

Sections and brief summaries include (apologies in advance for the dated, ubiquitous male gender references – these are quotes, not 2024 sound bites):

Your Brother Officers: “The commissioned officers of the U.S. military are a cross-section of the American Public… as a group, they are subject to the same ambitions, variations in viewpoint, and human frailties as the people they serve.”

This, of course, matches up with our corporate situations today. Managers and leaders have different backgrounds and experiences, bringing different thought processes and judgment. When harnessed for the common good, this is an excellent trait, one we should exploit, not suppress.

Different thinking means more choices. More choices usually mean better decisions. Or, as many would put it–embrace your weirdness.

Performance of Duty: “In the military, the performance of duty to the limit of one’s capacity is a fetish. Striving for perfection is more than a figure of speech… as you demonstrate your capacity for additional responsibility, it will come to you… be not impatient… there is much to learn.”

Wow, is this apropos or what!? The fetish analogy may be a bit much, but… Work hard, smart, and consistent. Do what you say you’ll do. Make well-thought decisions. Those of you who have achieved significant corporate rank: Did you get there through politics, trickery, and slight-of-hand, or was it hard work, diligence, and sacrifice??

This stuff really works.

Get Out or Get in Line (if you don’t read anything else, read this!): “Mind your business. If the concern where you are employed is all wrong, and the Old Man a curmudgeon (I love that word), it may be well for you to go tell the Old Man, confidentially, privately, and quietly, that he is a curmudgeon.

Explain to him that his policy is absurd and preposterous. Then show him how to reform his ways and offer to lead the effort to cleanse the faults.

Do this, or if for any reason you should prefer not, then take your choice of these: Get Out, Or Get In Line.

If you work for a man, in heaven’s name, work for him! Speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and the institution he represents.

If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth more than a pound of cleverness.

If you must vilify, condemn, and eternally disparage, why, resign your position and, when on the outside, damn to your heart’s content.”

This quotation is so appropriate in corporate management today that it needs no explanation, segue, or pithy remarks from me. Simply put–work for whomever you work for. Grammatical errors aside, you get my point. Don’t we all get tired of those who work “for” us part of the time, and “against” us the rest?

Bum Phillips, revered Houston Oilers coach, said it best: “Dance with who brung ya.”

Importance of the Word ‘NO’: “As an officer, many questions will come to you for decisions… the choice you make in the mere act of saying “yes,” or “no,” may constitute the measure of your success.

A weak man can say “yes” to troublesome situations, dissipating the efforts of the whole. An unwise man can say “no,” and by mere obstruction, cause the failure of the unit. It takes a happy combination of courage and wisdom to be able to say “no” at the right time and place.”

Simply put, our most significant, regular responsibility–day to day and strategic–is making decisions.

Anyone can make the easy ones… they seldom take forethought, intellect, or wisdom, since they are usually painfully obvious, and accolades are near. No, they pay us for the hard ones. The lonely decisions. The times when we make the “right” decision in the face of dissent and conflict, and where the easier decision is to abide with consensus.

That’s why they pay us the bucks and give us these fancy business cards.

Adaptability: “Adaptability is required. Leadership is a new and different life. He must be equally quick to detect and avoid those things which are abhorrent to military life… the road to recognition and fame may lie ahead. How well and how quickly the opportunities are embraced depends upon the promptness of adapting himself to the new horizons the career provides.”

You can’t always spell out the details of a leadership role in a nice, convenient job description. Our worlds are dynamic, fluctuating, and ever-changing.

We’ve got to know when to “stay the course,” and when to turn on a dime. All the while keeping those looking to us for leadership engaged in our path.

This is what sets us apart.

I only provided these today for two reasons. First, a reminder: Leadership — its theories, concepts, and approaches, really haven’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Yes, some applications of principles have evolved over time, given our changing workforce, demographics, and societal norms.

The real concepts and basis of leadership, however, remain constant.

And lastly, we can learn a lot from simplicity. Sometimes we make this stuff too hard, when we could get to the same place — maybe even a better place — with approaches that embrace simplicity and ease of thought.

Grace and accountability can coexist.

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