How Elite Organizations Design Their System of Leadership

Organizational Genetics for Scaling Leadership

No organization in the world takes leadership as seriously as the military. In the chaos of war, good leadership is not the difference of a few pennies of EPS (earnings per share). Good leadership is a matter of life and death. I’m reading General Jim Mattis’ book, Call Sign Chaos.

General Mattis grew up in Richland, Washington, hiking the Cascade Mountains, and exploring the west. He joined the US Marines after graduating from a small college in Washington State, where he was an average student. He would rise to the rank of General, serving as the commander of the United States Central Command and then going on to be the nation’s Secretary of Defense. Stories of his personal leadership, of leading and serving his fellow soldiers, are legendary.
However, in reading his book, I am struck by the subtitle, Learning to Lead. Both the content and the subtitle leads me to two observations:

  1. Personal leadership is a skill that is ever-evolving and growing. There is always room for growth.
  2. Organizationally, there is a code, an organizational DNA, to which the US Marines trains its officers.

Dr. Barbara Kellerman has been researching and writing about leadership for over 25 years. She currently teaches at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In her book, Professionalizing Leadership, she addresses both these observations when she states:

Let me state this as plainly as I can: Learning to lead in the American military is unlike learning to lead anywhere else in America. Learning to lead in the American military is better. Learning to lead in the American military is harder, broader, deeper, and richer. And it is longer. In the American military, learning to lead lasts a lifetime.

What gives the military the ability to train better officers is a kind of genetic code, an organizational DNA to which they teach and develop military leadership. This is what allows the US Marines to scale their principals, core values, intent, and objectives across a workforce of 200,000 active and reserve Marines. The US Army does the same only the scale is ten times larger with a workforce of 2,000,000 active and reservist. Both services begin with a foundation of servant leadership. Their system gives them the ability to scale these core principles across the breadth of their workforce.
For example, some of their training is amazingly simple. In the cafeteria, the highest-ranking officer eats last. It is a rule, and by making it routine, they build servant leadership into institutional muscle memory. Do they do it correctly, of course not. By building simple routines into standard work, they create an organizational DNA that demonstrates that leaders are servants to their subordinates.
It was Christmas, 1998. Location, Marine Corps Combat Development Command headquarters at Quantico. A young Major was assigned to the Duty Station. He is young, married, and with a family. Then Brigadier General Jim Mattis decides he should be with his family on Christmas and takes his place. For us non military types this may not sound like much. Corporately, it might be likened to the COO of a S&P 500 corporation taking security duty so the guard can spend Christmas with his family.
How does the American Military develop these kinds of leaders? They train them to a genetic code, a sort of organizational DNA that begins with the purpose of servant leadership.

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